Using visuals to aid learning

Rachel Burnham explains how to use relevant visuals effectively, so they help – rather than hinder – learning

Using visuals to aid learning is a double-edge sword. Use them well and they aid understanding, help with recall and enable deeper thinking – all things which support effective learning and behaviour change. Use visuals badly, however, and you simply add to cognitive overload.   

Cognitive load theory recognises that our working memory has a limited capacity. So, when you’re designing experiences and materials for learning and support, ensure that you use that limited working memory effectively. When introducing new and complex material, for example, ensure that you don’t unintentionally add to cognitive load.  

One way of tackling limited working memory is to use relevant visuals. A relevant visual used alongside words can improve learning. This makes use of what is known as dual coding. Words and pictures are each ‘encoded’ in different parts of the brain, but these memories are linked together. When you recall them, you can draw upon both memories. Hence the benefit of using both verbal and visual memory cues together. 

A relevant visual can also make it easier to understand new material, particularly if you’re explaining concepts, anything complex, or the relationship between different steps in a process. This is pretty much everything that learning practitioners are asking people to learn and make use of at work!  

Allan Paivio argues that a visual can enable you to take in a lot of information all at the same time. It enables you to get the big picture as well as details and their relationships, all at once . 

A paragraph of text alone delivers the same information bit by bit. This means that it’s subject to what is called the transient information effect. Basically, we can only hold a limited number of pieces of information in our working memories. If you’ve ever found yourself re-reading a paragraph or a sentence over and over to make sense of it you may have been experiencing this effect. 

This transient information effect can also be experienced when listening to someone present. A relevant, succinct visual on a slide can help the audience grasp the main points and absorb details. A lot of text, on the other hand, can distract from what the speaker is saying and lead to brian overload. 


So what makes a visual relevant and helpful for learning? Visuals that are simply decorative, included purely to add interest, are not helpful – this is where visuals can actually detract from learning, by adding to cognitive load. 

Clark and Kwinn, in The New Virtual Classroom, suggest six purposes for visuals that do aid learning, as follows:

1. Representational. This could be a photograph, illustration or screenshot of an object or software to show what it looks like. It can be helpful to include labels to identify key features. 

2. Mnemonic. If learners need to memorise specific factual information then a visual mnemonic can be a helpful aid (see diagram for the example of learning to read music). Although in most situations asking learners to memorise information isn’t necessary if a performance support tool (whether online or physical) can be used effectively instead.

3. Organisational. These are visuals that set out the relationship between items. For example, different topics to be explored within a programme or stages in a process. These often take the form of flowcharts or hierarchical charts.

4. Relational. These visuals present data graphically in charts and diagrams.

5. Transformational. These show how something changes over time. They can be used to illustrate processes, procedures or behavioural changes.   

6. Interpretative. These can be used to illustrate and bring to life a theory or principle.

There are many different types of visuals that can be used, depending on the purpose that you have in mind. Visuals can include photographs, illustrations, cartoons, diagrams, graphs, flowcharts, etc. Various online tools can also help you combine visual elements into infographics and sketchnotes.

Three tips for creating relevant visuals:

1. Use illustrations, diagrams and graphs rather than photographs. This will allow you to focus on the information that you need to convey and strip away unneeded details. Although this may mean that you need to commission or create bespoke visuals to get the impact that you’re seeking.

2. Integrate any visuals with text or audio, so that both can be accessed at the same time. This reduces the need for attention switching – another thing to watch out for that can add to cognitive load. For example, ensure that any information needed to interpret a graph or flowchart is available within the diagram itself, so that learners don’t have to click next, scroll down or turn a page.

3. Ask participants to draw their own visuals. Evidence suggests that getting people to draw out material that they need to learn helps them to create their own mental models and recall information. Drawings can include diagrams, flowcharts, sketchnotes and very simple pictures. It’s the process that is effective, rather than the quality of the drawing as a piece of art.

Why not review the way you’re using visuals in any learning that you’re designing, to ensure that they aid learning rather than deter it?

About Rachel Burnham

Rachel Burnham helps individuals and organisations use visuals, drawing and sketchnoting to think, learn and work better. Her work is grounded in learning and organisational development from more than 30 years working in and with organisations. As well as bespoke work she offers open workshops in sketchnoting as well as Reflect and Sketch sessions. Recent clients include: The King’s Fund, Co-op, Liverpool John Moores University and The City of Edinburgh Council. 

She is a co-author of a paper Using sketchnoting as a revision aid with forensic students. She also illustrated HR for Hybrid Working by Gary Cookson, published by Kogan Page.

She can be contacted on LinkedIn and Twitter and a selection of her sketchnotes and other images can be found on Pinterest.

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