Despite the undisputed fact that a picture paints a thousand words, according to today’s learners, many courses are still text heavy, and lack visual appeal.  Although looks are certainly not everything, few learning designers understand how, and why, the images they use may lead to a significantly enhanced learning experience.  To help clarify this, here is exactly how, and why, visuals enhance learning:

Why Visuals are So Powerful

Looking back at how humans evolved, we acquired the ability to see far before we acquired the ability to read or speak.  Although our ability to use, and remember, language, has evolved very rapidly, the brain is still, even today, far better at processing, and remembering images.  Our ‘visual’ brain, in fact, is so powerful that memory experiments have shown that people can often remember thousands of pictures, in very fine detail, in comparison to very few words.  The brain can also process images far more quickly – it can see images that last for just 13 milliseconds, get a sense of scene within a tenth of a second, and process that scene 60,000 times fast than if it were written in text.  The brain achieves this through the use of ‘chunking’ – usually, your brain can only remember a few pieces of information at a time, however, the chunks of information that visual images provide greatly improves the capacity of these chunks. Therefore, humans are literally hardwired to remember images, as opposed to text.  

How Visuals Enhance Learning  

So we now know why visuals are so powerful, but, from a learning perspective, how exactly do they enhance learning?


  • Motivation


Learners are far more motivated to take, and subsequently, learn from, a course that has immediate, practical relevance to their work  – something that is being better enabled these days through mLearning. The use of visuals within a course tap into this motivation through the process of visualisation – learners visualise themselves in situations, and by doing so, the same parts of the brain are engaged as if they were actually doing the activity.  Therefore, the use of relevant and high quality images can be intrinsically motivating to learners.  


  • Comprehension


Perhaps unsurprisingly, the use of visual images improves the learner’s comprehension of the course – up to 400%.  This is achieved both through the visualisation effect discussed above, and that fact that images are the most effective tool to help the brain synthesize, and break down, large amounts of information. Images function as organisers, and simplifiers, of learning content, making it more palatable, relevant, and interesting to the learners.  


  • Emotional Engagement


Out of all the ways in which visuals enhance learning, in no way is the ‘picture paints a thousand words’ more relevant than in the emotional engagement of learners.  If you designing an OHS course, for example, showing the consequences of a poor safety through an actual image of someone’s hand being cut off would be far more powerful and emotive than simply saying ‘if you don’t follow this process, you may injure yourself.’  Images used in this way stimulate strong emotions, which are far more likely to be turned into memories and, in turn, changed behavior.


  • Memory Enhancement


If a learner doesn’t remember the course they have taken, there was basically no point in them taking it, and this, itself, is another great benefit of images.  Images help learners to store information in both their short, and long-term memories.  So effective are images, in fact, that one study showed that after 3 days, a learner retains only 10 percent of written or spoken information, but almost 65% of visual information.

All the evidence points to one simple conclusion – learning designers should focus on images, not text, to greatly enhance their learner’s experience.  

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