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How to Balance Visual and Verbal Information in Educational Settings

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As a psychology educator with a background in cognitive psychology, part of my PhD research explored how people remember visual and verbal information. This included examining the potential interference between these types of information. My findings were quite intriguing, revealing that verbal information can disrupt the recall of visual information. This insight is crucial, especially in educational contexts.

Delivering lectures and workshops to undergraduate students requires creating slides that are both intellectually stimulating and visually engaging. But many educators may not fully grasp how images in lectures can influence a student’s ability to remember information for coursework and exams. My research provides a foundation for understanding how images can impede learning and content processing. Specifically, it highlights that attempting to remember two modes of material, such as visual and verbal, can cause memory disruptions due to shifts in attention.

Images in lectures can sometimes be distracting, particularly if they are not directly related to the content. Students might focus on these visual elements at the expense of the verbal information being conveyed. Additionally, the appropriateness of the images is a key consideration. For instance, irrelevant images, like those of animals in a behavioural psychology lecture, can lead to distractions.

Another critical consideration when using visual elements in lectures is the cognitive load. The cognitive load theory proposes that working memory has limited capacity. Introducing too many multimedia components, such as colourful graphics, images, animations, videos and sounds, may overload students’ working memory. Specifically, unnecessary visual décor that does not support the core instructional goal increases extraneous cognitive load. This can diminish the essential processing and encoding of key information. So while visuals have benefits for learning, incorporating too many decorative elements lacking meaningful connections to the main lecture content can have detrimental impacts.

Emotional images pose another challenge, as their impact on individual students can vary greatly. Accessibility is also a critical factor; all students must be able to fully see and understand the images used.

Despite these concerns, images can also be beneficial for refocusing students’ attention. For example, complex psychological theories can be more easily understood with the aid of diagrams and relevant images. In my lectures on emotion theories, I’ve used images to complement my verbal explanations, ensuring they aid rather than distract from the learning process.

Research indicates that students in lectures engage in dual processing, simultaneously handling verbal and visual information. They have to navigate between looking at lecture slides, listening to the lecturer, and reading the slides. Balancing these tasks is a skill that develops over time.

Determining the optimal quantity and type of images for educational purposes is not straightforward. Preferences vary; some students benefit from visually rich materials, while others might find verbal or written information more helpful. The key is to strike a balance, ensuring images are relevant and do not become a distraction.

Utilising visuals in lectures requires careful consideration from educators. Images and graphics can augment student learning when used purposefully to support key concepts. But the potential for distraction and increased cognitive load exists if visual elements lack clear connections to the core content. As my research underlines, interference between processing verbal and visual information can negatively impact long-term retention.

Finding the right equilibrium between engaging visuals and concise explanations represents an ongoing challenge in effective pedagogy. The most impactful lectures leverage both modes of delivery, encouraging dual coding while avoiding unnecessary embellishments that could ultimately undermine comprehension.

Laura Jenkins, PhD is a teaching associate in the School of Sport, Exercise and Health Sciences at Loughborough University. 


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