Visual learning refers to the process of coming to understand information by seeing it – often, represented in graphs or films.
Teachers that utilize visual learning strategies present information in various visual formats such as: flowcharts, diagrams, videos, simulations, graphs, cartoons, coloring books, PPT slide shows, posters, movies, games, and flash cards.
Human beings are very visually-oriented creatures. Our visual system is central to many aspects of our lives. We can see the centrality of visual stimuli in the arts in the form of theatre and film, paintings and sculptures.
It plays a central role in our daily lives as we wear clothes and put on make-up to enhance our visual aesthetic. Fashion and beauty industries exist in every country and tally billions of dollars in sales a year.
However, despite the importance of visual stimuli, in educational contexts visual learning may not be suitable for all students. Because every student is different, visual learning may be effective for some, but not others.
Visual Learning as a Learning Style
Visual learning is the processing of visually presented information. A visual learning style, on the other hand, refers to times when visual learning is an individual’s preferred method of learning.
Whereas some students may be especially capable of visual learning, others may prefer to learn through other means, such as through text or auditory processing.
Others may prefer to have something to touch and manipulate.
This has led scholars to devise the concept of learning styles (see Pritchard, 2017). Each student has a different way of learning. Such scholars argue that teachers should utilize a range of instructional approaches that present information in a range of formats.
Over the years, a plethora of theoretical frameworks regarding learning styles has developed, with visual learning being a common category.
Glossary Term: Visual Literacy
Visual literacy is a slightly different concept. It refers to a skill or the ability to decipher and create visually presented information.
Avgerinou and Pettersson (2011) point out the difficulty scholars have had in agreeing upon a definition of visual literacy. However, the one provided by Heinich et al. (1982) seems sufficient, despite the fact that it was offered last century:
“Visual literacy is the learned ability to interpret visual messages accurately and to create such messages. Thus, interpretation and creation in visual literacy can be said to parallel reading and writing in print literacy” (p. 62).
Visual Learning Examples
- Concept Maps: A concept map is a way to graphically organize information that can enhance a student’s understanding of how different ideas are interconnected. Each concept is displayed as a circle, and students draw lines to other concepts/circles that are related in some way.
- Data Animations: Large amounts of complex data can be presented in animation form. For example, explaining the economic growth and decline of various countries across decades can be demonstrated by animating the placement of each country’s economic rank year-over-year.
- PowerPoint Slides: Creating a PPT presentation that includes various charts and images can help convey meaning that cannot be accomplished through text alone.
- Gamification: Adding game elements to academic concepts generates student engagement and allows students to have a non-academic experience with academic concepts.
- Minecraft Education Edition: The Education Edition of Minecraft is a great way for students to learn programming skills and about academic subjects by creating their own visual stories.
- Dioramas: A diorama gives students a chance to create their own 3-D displays pertaining to academic subjects. For example, students can learn about animals and their habitats by constructing a scene in a shoebox.
- Interactive Smartboards: The interactive smartboard can display interactive charts, demonstrate complex principles in chemistry and physics, and even give preschoolers a chance to get out of their seats and touch the correct phoneme displayed on the board.
- Computer Simulations: It’s one thing to hear a lecture on the synaptic gap and neurotransmission. It’s quite another to see the process depicted in a sophisticated computer simulation.
- Video Production: Students can learn about a key historical event by producing their own micro-play on video. The performance aspect is also visual and the end result is a student-designed video that depicts the crucial moments and characters of an important historical happening.
- Flowcharts: Complicated processes can be explained through a verbal explanation, but having a visual representation will be much more effective. Seeing each step sequentially helps students understand the big picture while at the same time seeing how each step is connected.
Strengths and Weaknesses of Visual Learning
1. Strength: Explaining the Complex
Very complex processes, such as those in physics, chemistry, and medicine, can be more easily understood through a visual format.
Well-done computer animations can show the dynamics of a complex process that simply cannot be discerned so thoroughly if presented through a verbal or text format.
2. Strength: Availability of Resources
Visual learning resources can be found within a few seconds on the internet. An image or video search will generate an incredible number of graphs, images, and videos which a teacher can easily download and incorporate into instruction.
3. Strength: Increases Student Engagement
Students today live in a very visual world. Short videos on social media and sites such as YouTube are viewed by students every day.
When in the classroom, listening or reading about academic concepts can lead to a lack of interest among students. However, presenting the same information in a visual format can pique interest and therefore increase student engagement.
4. Strength: Convenience
Visual learning resources are usually in a digital format. That means students can view the material just about anywhere, as long as they have their phone with them.
This convenience expands the opportunities for students to engage in learning. They no longer have to be seated at a desk to learn.
5. Strength: Efficiency
Visual learning is very efficient. For example, a lot of information can be presented in a short video lasting just a couple of minutes. However, to read and digest the same amount of information presented in text may consume many pages in a book.
Reading all of those pages may take three or four times longer than the same content presented in a video.
6. Weakness: Requires Equipment
When we think of the classroom, we usually envision a room well-equipped with video projectors and screens and teachers with laptops and laser pointers.
Unfortunately, that is a distorted perception of what exists in most of the world. A vast majority of classrooms around the globe are simply not equipped with the necessary hardware to capitalize on the value of visual learning material.
7. Weakness: Requires Less Thinking
Some visual learning activities, certainly not all, are passive experiences. For example, watching a video is a passive experience. The student simply needs to keep their eyes on the screen and let the information enter their mind.
This is a quite different cognitive process than needing to focus on a lecture and processing the meaning of each word spoken.
One is a passive cognitive process, while the other requires thinking.
8. Weakness: Can Create Edutainment Expectations
Because today’s students are so immersed in videos that are eye-catching and exciting to watch, it can create the expectation that education should be entertaining. This is not only unrealistic, but also may not be in the student’s best interest.
Learning to endure educational experiences that are not always pleasurable can help students develop self-discipline.
Case Study: Visual Learning in Ed. Teach
Applications of technology to improve classroom instruction has steadily increased as software has become more user friendly.
Numerous commercial products are available that can enhance students’ understanding of academic concepts, generate interest in technology, and improve higher-order thinking skills such as logical reasoning and problem-solving.
Many of those products capitalize on visual learning.
For example, Rodger et al. (2009) demonstrated the use of Alice to design lessons in math, language arts, and social studies. The program allows students to create their own interactive games, animations, and videos.
Scratch is a media tool that allows students to program their own interactive stories and games, which helps students build computational thinking and programming skills (Brennan & Resnick, 2012; Wilson et al., 2009).
Kodu Game Lab is a 3-D visual programming platform that can enhance creativity and problem-solving skills (Stolee & Fristoe, 2011).
Hero et al. (2015) used MIT App to spark student interest in programming by enabling students to design their own Android-based apps and games.
These kinds of technology platforms, which utilize visual learning, can produce numerous educational benefits.
Visual learning is learning by seeing. Information is presented in a visual format such as a video, graph, or computer animation.
Although many students can benefit from visually presented information, not all will. Some students are more motivated to learn through auditory or textual channels, so they prefer to listen or read.
Recognizing that students differ in how they prefer to learn has led to the notion of learning styles. This is the idea that each student has a preferred way of learning and that therefore, teachers should design instructional strategies that suit various learning styles in a process called differentiation.
While visual learning has many advantages in terms of explaining complex processes and capturing student attention, there are also some disadvantages.
Most classrooms in the world are not equipped for visual learning. A reliance on visual learning can create the expectation in students that learning is passive and/or should be entertaining.
In other aspects, some visual learning formats can involve less active cognitive processing and fail to exercise a valuable mental skill known as thinking.
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Brennan, K., & Resnick, M. (2012, April). New frameworks for studying and assessing the development of computational thinking. In Proceedings of the 2012 annual meeting of the American educational research association, Vancouver, Canada (Vol. 1, p. 25).
Coffield F., Moseley D., Hall E., Ecclestone K. (2004). Learning styles and pedagogy in post-16 learning. A systematic and critical review. London: Learning and Skills Research Centre.
Fleming, N., & Baume, D. (2006). Learning Styles Again: VARKing up the right tree! Educational Developments, 7(4), 4.
Heinich, R., Molenda, M., & Russell, J. D. (1982). Instructional media and the new technologies of instruction. New York: Macmillan.
Herro, D., McCune-Gardner, C., & Boyer, M. D. (2015). Perceptions of coding with MIT App Inventor: Pathways for their future. Journal for Computing Teachers.
Pritchard, A. (2017). Ways of learning: Learning theories for the classroom. London: Routledge.
Raiyn, J. (2016). The Role of Visual Learning in Improving Students’ High-Order Thinking Skills. Journal of Education and Practice, 7(24), 115-121.
Rodger, S. H., Hayes, J., Lezin, G., Qin, H., Nelson, D., Tucker, R., … & Slater, D. (2009, March). Engaging middle school teachers and students with alice in a diverse set of subjects. In Proceedings of the 40th ACM technical symposium on Computer science education (pp. 271-275).
Stolee, K. T., & Fristoe, T. (2011, March). Expressing computer science concepts through Kodu game lab. In Proceedings of the 42nd ACM technical symposium on Computer science education (pp. 99-104).
Wilson, A., Hainey, T., & Connolly, T. (2012, October). Evaluation of computer games developed by primary school children to gauge understanding of programming concepts. In European Conference on Games Based Learning (p. 549). Academic Conferences International Limited.