Bruce BarkerChen Ming YuanRhianna UlrichRickey MoggioSuzanne Rose
Current Trends and Issues in Instructional Technology
Fall 2009University of Colorado Denver
When one considers the term “visual learning,” a vast array of ideas and concepts come to mind.
But in reality, what is visual learning? One definition claims that visual learning is a teaching and
learning style in which ideas, concepts, data, and information are associated with images and techniques
(Wikipedia.com, 2009). From a psychological standpoint, it is a type of sensory learning controlled by the cortical
visual areas of the brain. Visual thinking and learning utilize graphical ways of working with ideas and presenting
information. Research in both educational theory and cognitive psychology show that visual learning is among the
very best methods for teaching people of all ages how to think and learn (Inspiration.com, 2009).
To truly understand visual learning, one must see its role in relation to other learning
styles. Traditionally, learning styles have been broken into three categories: visual,
auditory, and kinesthetic. Recent research has even added verbal, logical, social, and solitary to the list
(Advanogy.com, 2007). Each learner favors certain learning styles and techniques to varying
degrees. Identifying and differentiating these styles helps educators and
learners adapt to differences. It also helps learners
increase their preferences so they can adapt to
utilizing and balancing multiple styles. The preferred
techniques for each are in the table to the right.
So how does one identify learning styles? The Kolb
Learning Style Inventory (KLSI) is an excellent resource.
It is designed to align with the principles and standards
of the American Educational Research Association, the
American Psychological Association, and the National
Council on Measurement in Education (1999). It analyzes
criteria and identifies the personal needs and educational
preferences of an individual (Kolb & Kolb, 2005).
According to the KLSI, learning is best conceived as a
process of creating knowledge, not in terms of outcomes
(Kolb & Kolb, 2005).
This process is molded by learning techniques. Educators must balance how they deliver content to utilize it best
and expand learning preferences. Once a learner knows their needs and preferences, they can begin to stretch
beyond them and develop a more balanced approach to learning (MindTools.com, 2009).
Researchers have, however, given significant focus to visual learning. But what sets visual learning apart from the
other styles? It is the most used, the most universal, and in some cases, the most effective. Visual learning
techniques help educators communicate something quickly that people comprehend at a near innate level.
The concept of visual learning is based on the type of visual communication utilized and the visual literacy of an
individual. A typical visual learner has the ability to remember details, including colors and spatial arrangements,
because they can visualize them in their mind (Kelly, 2009). “We are not all visual thinkers (though we all have the
potential). However, we are all visual learners” (Armano, 2009).
The presence of visual elements in today’s teaching and learning is increasing through the integration of images and
visual presentations in textbooks, instructional manuals, classroom presentations, and computer interfaces
(Kleinman & Dwyer, 1999). Visual signals and queues are the most universal to all countries and cultures. Images
and spatial relationships are almost innate to audiences.
Learning Style Effective Techniques
Pictures, images, spatial understanding
Sound and music
Your body, hands, sense of touch
Words, both in speech and writing
Logic, reasoning, systems
In groups or with other people
Alone and use self-study
Robin Williams explains in the example to the right by stating,
“In the list on the right, what do you assume? It appears
that the last four flowers are somehow different from the
others. You understand this instantly” (2003). Visual
learning techniques enable people to communicate messages
clearly and quickly. An audience can glance at a map or chart
and instantly grasp an idea.
Simple techniques such as formatting, spatial relationships,
and the size and location of text show relationships that
people comprehend at a near innate level. Additional
techniques include the use of images, pictures, colors, maps,
and charts to organize information and communicate with
others (Advanogy.com, 2007).
Now imagine combining these benefits with the benefits of
other learning styles. For example, an auditory learner absorbs information by hearing it through lectures, books on
tape, music, etc. By adding a picture, graph, or diagram to this learner’s experience, it enhances and strengthens the
transfer of knowledge. When information is presented in diagrams, sketches, flow charts, and so on, it is
designed to be understood quickly. By developing visual learning skills one can significantly
reduce time spent learning (MindTools.com, 2009).
In fact, this approach remains consistent with the
highly respected Dual-Coding theory developed by
Allan Paivio in 1971. Paivio’s theory propositions that,
“The human mind operates with two distinct classes of
mental representation…verbal representations and
mental images, and that human memory thus comprises
two functionally independent (although interacting)
systems for verbal memory and image memory”
(Thomas, 2008). Basically, when learners receive
information through both verbal and visual stimuli, our
minds process and store them separately. This essentially
creates two separate, but intertwined memories. A memory is
more likely to be retained and retrieved when two memories
work to trigger one another.
In addition to understanding the role of visual learning in relation to other learning styles, one must
also understand its role in history. This section presents significant events throughout history that
relate and demonstrate aspects of visual learning; it will serve as a timeline to show how we developed through
Cro-Magnons, the earliest known forms of homo-sapiens, painted images on cave or rock walls and ceilings to tell
their stories approximately 40,000 years ago. Most themes of these paintings depicted animals such as bison, horses,
and deer. Man’s image in these paintings were rare but there were tracings of human hands. Due to the relative lack
of material evidence, there would be certain impossibility in attempting to understand the prehistoric mindset with a
modern mind (Citrinitas.com, 2008).
Visual representations of concepts and ideas reinforce and
support all learning styles. These techniques help learners:
• Make abstract ideas visible and concrete
• Connect prior knowledge and new concepts
• Provide structure for thinking, writing, discussing,
analyzing, planning, and reporting
• Focus thoughts and ideas, leading to understanding
and interpretation(Inspiration.com, 2009)
My Flower List My Flower List
Review this example from Robin Williams’ The Non-
Designers Design Book (2003):
Around 9000 BC, ancient cultures all over the world used cuneiforms and hieroglyphs. These were early written
symbols based on pictograms (a symbol representing a concept, object, activity, place, or event by illustration) and
ideograms (a graphical symbol that represents an idea) (2008). Around 5000 BC, pictograms and ideograms began
to develop in a logographic writing system. A valuable component of characters in alphabets began as pictures with
meaning (West, 1997). Many ideograms are still used today in airports and other environments where patrons may
be unfamiliar with the language. In fact, pictograms are still the main medium of written communication in various
non-literate cultures in Africa and the Americas.
In ancient Egypt around 2000 BC, the first true alphabet, one that records consonants and vowels separately, was
created. Most of today’s alphabets descended from, or were greatly influenced and inspired by, its design. The
Phoenicians, descendants of the Bronze Age, created the Phoenician alphabet from the Proto-Canaanite alphabet in
the mid 11th century. It was the first alphabet based on the principal that one sign represents one spoken sound
(2008). The Greek alphabet then modified the Phoenician alphabet and is the source for all modern scripts in
Europe today. Several Phoenician consonants were not present in the Greek adaptation, but were adapted to
represent vowels. This adaptation of vowels justly made it the world’s first true alphabet.
The Romans, several hundreds of years later, used the Greek alphabet for
the uppercase alphabet known today. Depending on its purpose, the
Romans developed several distinctive lettering styles for manuscripts and
important documents. Less formal styles were used for letters and routine
writing, all the while refining the art of handwriting.
Medieval Europe may have been one of the darkest periods known to
mankind, but it held some of the greatest book designers that ever lived
and produced some of the most beautiful books the world has ever
known. These books were written over decades with one scribe
replacing the other after their lifetime. These are now known as the
Illuminated Manuscripts (2008). They are classified by art historians
according to their specific historic periods and types. Although most of
these manuscripts are religious in nature, the artwork used created a new
era in visual communication and learning.
The next significant event occurred in the 15th century when German
inventor Johannes Gutenberg invented a printing press that, with
refinements and increased mechanization, remained the principal means
of printing until the late 20th century. The inventor's method of
printing from movable type, including the use of metal molds and
alloys, a special press, and oil-based inks, allowed mass production of
printed books for the first time (Ideafinder.com).
During the Renaissance, scientists began to illustrate their research and
studies with images. Some examples include herbariums and
medicinal books. The Renaissance brought the spirit of scientific
accuracy and helped scientific illustrations really come into their own
Citrinitas.com, 2008). Leonardo da Vinci recognized the
impossibility of recording volumes of data, and therefore translated
words into drawings from different perspectives. As history repeats
itself, we may find that certain types of information is better
presented visually rather than verbally (Stokes, 2001).
In the late 18th and early 19th centuries, the Industrial Revolution was a major technological, socioeconomic, and
cultural change that spread throughout the world. In this environment, fueled by mass production, lithography was
invented. This technique set type free from the typesetter. Movable type introduced an efficient method to book
production and led to a boom in the production of texts.
In 1826, the invention of photography and in 1884, the development of photographic film, revolutionized visual
imagery and visual communication. During this time, the Arts and Crafts movement was reacting to
industrialization, although it was neither anti-industrial nor anti-modern. It was a reformist movement that greatly
influenced architecture, decorative arts, furniture, and crafts in America and Europe. Art Nouveau and Eclecticism
became leading trends in the movement.
Modernism was a part of the popular culture in the 1930s. Modern ideas in art appeared in commercials and logos.
Art Deco became a leading style movement that influenced architecture, design, fashion, and visual arts. In the late
1940’s, graphic design in the modern style gained widespread acceptance and was applied liberally. A booming
post-World War II American economy established a greater need for graphic design, mainly in advertising and
packaging (Citrinitas, 2008).
In 1950, UNIVAC, the first computer designed to handle both numeric and textual information, was designed. This
achievement launched the computer era. With research and technology advancing at exponential rates, the results
propelled the visualization movement in modern computing, thus allowing for more profound insights and
enhanced abilities to communicate ideas, data, and concepts.
History shows that the development of visual communications has been the underlying fire to visual learning. From
man’s early cave drawings to the latest in graphic design, we have seen visual learning evolve from its simplest form
to the technological marvel it is today. Visual communication is the essence to understanding and learning in today’s
society. Remember, we are all visual learners.
Dynamic visual learning covers many genres including video,
animation, simulations, slide programs, and more. It impacts any
visual learning tool that involves the movement of graphics. Recently
there has been great improvement in the areas of documentaries, online videos, animations, and slide programs.
Documentaries and videos solve a great need in our world and in education, “For us to know one another, to know
what’s really going on in the world around us and to feel a commonality of need and purpose with other people”
Using live examples of work, experiments, and speakers are valuable to any course at any level. Although teachers
would opt for the real thing if possible, having famous literary authors, nuclear physics demonstrations, and a
plethora of other exhibits live in a classroom is unrealistic. Documentaries oftentimes solve this dilemma. The
ability to watch experts give their viewpoint, authors present their content, or researchers demonstrate experiments
has proven itself numerous times in the classroom. Traditionally, documentaries have followed a “dry” format.
However, documentaries have begun to change their format and outlook.
New trends in documentary filmmaking can be found in “The Elegant Universe” by Brian Greene, a film on
advanced physics string theory. The film incorporates animated simulations and advanced recreations to explain
quantum theory. It uses easy-to-follow, real-world simulations as examples, while utilizing necessary interviews with
specialists on the subject. “With Greene's book in hand, the NOVA production team…created innovative
visualizations of invisible things, such as extra dimensions, parallel universes, and black holes” (The Making Of
"The Elegant Universe," 2003).
Dynamic Visual Learning:
Beyond the documentary, a new genre of teaching using film has
arisen: the web video. Videos have emerged on trendy sites, such as
YouTube; they include a variety of educational video shorts and clips.
Chris O’Neal researched what YouTube offers teachers, and stated, “I spent several days browsing YouTube, and I
found tons of fun things and lots of potentially beneficial classroom video clips, as well as the usual
eye-opening experience when dealing with the world's population and the things people want to share” (O'Neal,
2006). Teachers benefit from expanding their library of tools to include content on the web, including websites such
as YouTube. For example:
Students can be asked to find video examples of what they are learning. A high school social studies
teacher gives the students a list of the different economic terms in the unit and asks students to find
examples of a term from TV, movies, or YouTube. He explains that he only wants short two to four minute
clips that focus directly on giving an example of the term. A student remembers a clip from the TV show
"Burn Notice" on the law of supply and demand in the negotiation of hostages, goes to Hulu.com to find
the show, and determines the start and ending time within the show. The student writes out the web address,
the exact time in the show when the clip begins, how long the clip is, annotates what this clip shows about
finance term, and posts it to the class wiki. (Tuttle, ND)
The use of online video has expanded to include live webcasts. In one example, students had the opportunity to talk
with astronauts and ask questions in real-time through a live webcast (Rush, 2008). Although the option to upload
video clips to the Internet has existed for years, teachers have recently begun to utilize YouTube, live webcasts, and
exercises asking students to create their own educational videos.
Animations and simulations are becoming increasingly popular
and span educational topics such as architecture, medicine,
aerospace, marketing, history, engineering, biology, and even real
estate courses (Skweres, 2004). These all currently contribute to learning, and are on the leading edge of educational
trends. The advancements in these techniques and how they’re portrayed to students has led to a renaissance in
dynamic visuals in the classroom.
One of the newest animated teaching trends has been student-created work. It is extended learning for the student
who created the animation tool, and is used as a way to teach other students. Line Rider is an example that crosses
between animation and simulation. Line Rider was created by a student in Slovenia in 2006 as a ‘time-killer,’ but
found a use in education.
Line Rider is an application that allows players to construct their own virtual track filled with as many ramps, hills,
and jumps as they can imagine utilizing a pencil tool. Once the player is done creating their course, they can send
a virtual sledder down the route until he wipes out. The possibilities in Line Rider are only
limited by physics and the player's imagination with an almost endless number
of variations and replay. (Green, 2007) It may be hard to figure out how a
“game” can contribute to learning, but the opportunities in math
Discuss curves, parallel lines, background, foreground, perspective,
even mathematical elements such as parabolas and arcs…Math teachers
could use this toy as an engaging hook for geometry students that are
about to start graphing parabolas. Imagine hitting the “slopes” of Line
Rider, only to lead into talking about actual slopes of lines. Students
could even measure and transfer the lines they’ve created on the computer
screen to graph paper and compare which graphs would rate higher on the
“radical” scale. (Rimes, 2006)
Dynamic Visual Learning:
Animations and Simulations
Dynamic Visual Learning:
Video on the Web
Programs such as this bridge the gap between games and teaching, and between old and new trends. By reaching
beyond traditional education techniques and methods into student-created simulations for teaching, we touch
multiple students in new ways. Incorporating games that students associate with fun, and showing them that they
can use it as a learning tool as well, is invaluable.
The poet, Simonides, said, “Words are the images of things”
(Benson, 1997). Although most people tend to think in words rather
than pictures, learning through words is not the most effective way for
our brains to process information. Thus, visual learning is increasing in popularity. For students who have trouble
understanding a subject or information, visual aids may help them make connections with concepts
that they may not otherwise grasp. Although technology and visualization alone does
not help learning, properly using them does.
The focus in this example is mind maps, which use graphic organizers
or sketches to organize thoughts. In the 1950s, and early 1960s, Allan
M. Collins and M. Ross Quillian developed the theory of mind maps.
People regard Collins as the father of the modern mind maps
(Wikipedia, 2009). A mind map is any type of visualization used to
represent ideas, words, classifications, problems, and more. This allows the
creator of a mind map more creativity because they can use colors, lines,
and spatial relationships to communicate ideas.
Educationalists, engineers, psychologists, and others who use learning,
brainstorming, visual memory, and problem solving techniques have used
mind maps for many years. With visual contents, users can easily see the
whole picture and generate a regular outline. Recently, mind maps have
expanded into a variety of formats. There are many tools for mind maps;
some examples include Mind Manager by Mind Jet Company and XMind by
XMind Company. In fact, there are over a hundred mind map tools on the
Internet. This is due to their functions, abilities, and powerful visuals.
In XMind, it is easy to type and create nodes. There are different charts and
structures to choose from such as mind maps, concept maps, fish board charts,
and more. Furthermore, Xmind allows users to search images or topics from the
web and drag them into any mind map. This function saves users time when they
insert hyperlinks or pictures. Users can also add attachments and insert custom files
in this software. Adding notes and labels to make mind maps more understandable
and the ability to change themes, background, and color greatly enhance the soft-
ware. Recording is also a very special function of this software; for example, anyone
can make a podcast and insert it into the maps. Upon completion of a mind map,
Xmind enables users to share the maps with PDF, Microsoft Word, Microsoft
PowerPoint, RTF, Image, and Text files. This software won SourceForge.net’s 4th Annual (2009) Community Choice
Awards “Best Project for Academia,” so it is highly recommend for use (Xmind.net, 2009).
Another valuable use of visual learning techniques happens in the the math
classroom. Mathematics has traditionally been taught in an abstract manner,
employing a combination of numbers, symbols, and a unique vocabulary. It
has been largely compartmentalized into subsets or ‘strands’: algebra, geometry, trigonometry, statistics, etc. Visuals
Dynamic Visual Learning:
K-12 Visual Learning:
used while math teaching were usually devoid of any real-world context; instead, educators used mostly
equations and graphs the generic variables ‘x’ and ‘y’. Geometry is the more visual, but traditional geometry dealt
only with abstract shapes like points, lines, cubes, etc. devoid of any worldly context. Textbooks included a few
token “word problems” at the end of a section, with maybe a picture or two to go along with them.
With the advent of personal computers and the Internet, there has been an explosion in the amount of visual and
multimedia resources, both the products and the tools to produce them, available for the classroom teacher. These
resources make it possible for teachers to design lessons with a rich, wide range of visuals (pictures, drawings,
videos, simulations, etc.) to both engage their students and help them understand concepts. Of course, just the
availability of these technologies and resources does not ensure that all K-12 classrooms will be transformed
overnight into high-tech multimedia learning environments. There are challenges like the lack of training, the lack of
time and effort required to search for and incorporate these resources, and teacher technophobia. Most schools,
however, have a growing number of progressive, tech-capable teachers; between their influence on their
colleagues, and pressure from the public and online learning, more and more technology-integrated teaching with
engaging visual media will emerge.
In recent decades there has been a movement within K-12 math
to integrate the different strands and to center the math
learning around real-world problems. Cooperative student
groups perform experiments to discover the math related to
that problem. For example, a unit in course one of
Contemporary Mathematics in Context involves starting up a
bungee jumping operation (Coxford, 2003). The students
explore the math related to designing the bungee apparatus
and running the business. This new approach benefits from
visual resources such as bungee pictures and videos,
hands-on experiments and simulations of bungee jumps,
and the graphing of the data that students collect. Along
with a large increase in the contextual visuals included in
textbooks, publishers are improving their teaching-support
websites to provide a variety of visual aids, programs, and
Internet links to help teachers incorporate these visual and
Some examples of visual devices and programs found in
the classroom of a progressive, tech-savvy teacher could
include: a presentation program on an interactive
whiteboard and camera, wireless tablet and keyboard
systems, and clicker systems. A daily presentation slide
might include a page from the textbook with a photo
and link to the website of the Biosphere 2 project
where students can take a video tour to see the
various geometric structures used in the complex.
Geometric shapes can be manipulated on the
whiteboard and linked to a downloaded applet which
simulates slicing or transforming them. An online
‘gizmo’ at ExploreLearning.com performs
probability experiments with varying odds.
(Explore Learning, 2009)
Many math teachers use Smartview. Smartview is an interactive graphing calculator simulator where a studentcan
interact at the board while other students can see what they should be doing. Classmates can also offer help to the
operator. Some teachers use a TI Navigator networking system for their calculators, enabling them to project any
student’s calculator onto the board and enables the students to send their data and graphs to the screen (e.g., to
match a rainbow’s shape). A new and powerful drawing program is the free Google Sketchup which allows the
drawing of 2D and 3D objects very quickly, including elaborate buildings with all the windows, doors and furniture.
All of these visual images and programs on the whiteboard are the central focal points for class work,
investigations and discussions. Students and teachers can interact with, write and draw
on the images, and save them for later use and for
Data visualization (communicating information, derived
from data, through graphical means) techniques ar
introduced in math courses, but are used in countless
subjects and disciplines. Graphs can convey information very
quickly and clearly, where words or tables of data cannot have
the same impact. Tools used to produce traditional graphs
such as bar graphs, line plots, scatter plots and pie graphs have
improved greatly since the advent of the computer. Along with
the increasing amount and type of data being generated and
made available via the internet, the number of different ways to
visualize this data is also expanding. Visual-literacy.org catalogs
the different types of data, process, concept, etc. visualizations into a “periodic table of visualization methods”
(Lengler, 2007). Looking around the internet, however, it seems that people will keep coming up with new ways to
take some data and turn it into a new type of graph, or mind map, or the web. One site that has attempted to
collect examples of the wide variety of visualizations out there is visualcomplexity.com. There are a growin
number of sites that provide the tools and database access needed to produce and host sophisticated visualizations,
such as ManyEyes.alphaworks.ibm.com and Google’s Visualization API.
There is a large and rapidly growing population of visual methods, tools and resources available to the K-12
classroom teacher. While there are hurdles to incorporating these effectively into all teachers’ lessons and practices,
there is a growing momentum from parents, business, and local governments to create a more engaging and
participatory classroom. With the leadership of forward-looking and tech-library of visual elements will be a large
part of future classrooms.
Ultimately, visual learning is the most universally acknowledged learning style because its
impression and recollection. Visual representations of thoughts and ideas span from
man’s early cave drawings to walls to modern man creating mind maps on their portable media devices to the
classroom. It has the strength and power to stand the test of time and helps us communicate quickly and effectively
to all ages and cultures [universally] in many environments. In fact, Aristotle stated that, “without image, thinking is
impossible” (Benson, 1997). Images enliven our worlds and our minds.
While it’s difficult to pick just a few representative visualization examples, her
are a few interesting ones:
• A concept map relating overpopulation to its environmental
effects. (Chaves, 2009)
• An interactive graph that shows all the things that make up the
inflation rate (Bloch, 2008).
• A snapshot from a video of a scatter plot comparing family size
to life expectancy (Rosling, 2006), where points show different-sized
countries (point size) from different geographical regions (color).
It is animated to show changes over time, and points are clickable to
show the variation within each country.
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