Don’t Skip the Pictures: Visual Learning is Key to Knowledge Retention

Approximately 65% of the population is visually dominated, meaning they acquire information predominantly through visual triggers. One very popular development based on this data was the creation of PowerPoint to enhance training and presentations in classrooms and businesses around the world. The idea was to support what is spoken during a class or session, typically triggering the auditory sensors of the audience, with the visual depictions on the projected slides.

Sadly, the vast majority of PowerPoint users do not follow this paradigm but instead fill slides with text, occasionally including a graphic, diagram or picture. Though it is helpful for learners to see the text they are hearing, it is by no means as powerful as using visual cues to create associations between what they hear and what they see.  When we learn, we transfer information from our short term memory into our long term memory, mostly by creating associations.

A good example is a photo taken during a vacation. The picture itself captures the moment that we experienced and can be a trigger for the memory. The smells, the noises, the emotions, and any other circumstances recognized by our senses (nose, eyes, skin, taste/tongue, ears) create associations to this picture. When we show the vacation picture to a friend who was not at the location the photo was taken, only the visual triggers are activated and the response might be: “that is a nice picture”, or “it looks like you had fun during your vacation”, or “you look good in that bikini”.

 

When we show that photo to someone who was actually with us during the vacation but not present when the photo was taken, the picture acts as a trigger for the memories this person has about the trip – in other words, the associations that were made while on the trip. Only the individuals in the photo have the full set of associations made exactly in the moment the picture was taken. For them, the photo triggers all the associations related to the picture.

When we want to translate this example into the classroom, a number of aspects need to be considered. First, our PowerPoint slides should provide pictures that allow the listener to associate the spoken words with pictures projected on the screen. This will create a more permanent memory. When the same visual triggers are shown again in the future, this will help recall the content that was presented in the learning session.

 

Using visual cues alone does not always trigger the memory, so it is important to pair visual learning with classroom experiences and activities as well. Overall, the aim should be to involve learners as much as possible in the learning process, utilizing as many triggers and senses as possible to ultimately achieve the deepest form of learning and knowledge retention.

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