As Mayer states in his Multimedia Principle, learning is more effective when people see a presentation containing both text and graphics, rather than text alone. Visuals or graphics, when found together with text, help reinforce an idea or concept since they encourage active learning and processing through the visual channel as well. Visuals also help reinforce verbal knowledge by allowing both the visual and auditory channels to interlink representations and forge stronger connections between new facts and existing knowledge.
To select visuals to include in an e-learning course, we first must understand that not every graphic is created equal. Some pictures or illustrations are added to prove a point, but others are not used for the same logical reasons. As mentioned by Clark and Mayer (2011), here are some functions of graphics added to learning materials both online and in traditional settings:
- Decorative graphics are visuals that are added to simply enhance aesthetic appeal or add wit to a page or concept, but do not add any real meaning to the topic being learned. An example would be a picture of a pilot in a module describing how an airplane works, or a picture of a liquid in an Erlenmeyer flask during a Chemistry lesson.
- Representational graphics are visuals that show or illustrate the appearance of an object. An example would be a picture of a DNA strand in a Biochemistry topic on nucleic acids, or a picture of syringes and nasal inhalers in a lesson about medical devices.
- Organizational graphics are diagrams or illustrations used to show qualitative relationships among elements. Tables that show content of varying degrees, a diagram of an electrocardiogram with its different parts labeled, a table classifying the various types of hypertension, or a concept map are all examples of this type of visual.
- Relational graphics are used to illustrate quantitative relationships among various parameters, like a line graph showing that the risk of hypertension increases as age also increases, or a pie chart showing the percentages of a population of patients having different diseases.
- Interpretive graphics are visuals that illustrate invisible phenomena or processes, like an animation of how blood circulates in the body, or a series of pictures showing the process of phagocytosis.
- Transformational graphics portray changes in an object over time. Examples of transformational graphics would be a patient instructional video on how to self-administer insulin injections and an animation of how blood transfusion works.
Now that we know how various visuals may function in learning materials, the key to designing effective learning materials is knowing when to use these various types of visuals. Decorative graphics that are only for aesthetics should be avoided or sparingly used, and visuals that simply portray a representation of an object should also be used only when it helps the learner understand the topic or concept. Visuals that help the learner grasp the subject matter, such as transformative or interpretive graphics, should be used and integrated whenever needed. Presenting the material using an organizational or relational graphic may also help the learner understand how the contents are related to each other.
Knowing which graphics to use to enhance learning can have an immense impact on instructional materials and ultimately, on the quality of learning.