Research on using visual tools

Research at Hertfordshire University shows people remember more after watching whiteboard animations than a ‘talking head’ videos with the same message.


Richard Wiseman, Professor of Public Understanding of Psychology at the University of Hertfordshire, collaborated with We are Cognitive whiteboard animation to test whether whiteboard animations make a difference to how people learn and remember.  Richard Wiseman recorded a talking head video sharing an important piece of information, and Andrew Park, of Cognitive, created a whiteboard animation to the same soundtrack.  1000 people  were randomly assigned to watch either a talking head or the animated version.  Those who watched the whiteboard animation found it more entertaining than the talking head version and were more likely to share it with others. 

But even more importantly, their recall of the information shared was significantly higher.  70% percent of those who watched the talking head video recalled the information.  For those who watched the animation the number went up to 92%.  The improvement in memory after watching the animated version was 15% - a very significant increase in educational terms.


Dr Wiseman believes that the better level of retention of information was because people who watched the whiteboard animation were more engaged in the process. The animation calls on us to look as well as listen – they hold your attention.  The animations are also fun to watch and research also shows that people learn better when they are in a good mood!

Click on the links to listen to a discussion between Andrew Park of Cognitive and the psychologist Richard Wiseman and to see a visual presentation of the study results. Or watch an animation that summarises the findings in 1 minute here!

We are Cognitive also have a great blog page sharing their experience of developing whiteboard animations.  

“A Picture paints a thousand words”: David Roberts shares his experience of using visuals to enhance his teaching at Loughborough University.


Recognising that we have entered a truly visual era (in 2013 a quarter of a trillion images were uploaded to Facebook alone!) and inspired by the work of Cognitive Psychologists like Richard Mayer, on multimedia learning, David Roberts uses this Ted Talk to tell the story of how he radically transformed his teaching style. 


Cognitive psychology shows that if we ‘nourish the eyes, not just the ears’ we enable dual processing (visual and auditory) avoiding overloading of our short-term memory and increasing understanding and retention of the information we receive.  Using these insights David Roberts moved from ‘death by PowerPoint’ presentations (text on screen that is redundant because it repeats what the speaker is telling their audience), to using visual slides that enhance and add depth to his spoken presentation. 


He tested this approach with a range of students and found their level of enjoyment, understanding and retention of information was much higher when he shared ideas using visuals. And the kind of learning going on moved from passive: copying notes, to active: the images hold your attention; make you interrogate the subject and touch your emotions (affective learning).  Often a picture really could paint a thousand words – telling a story in a single image, showing something that was hard to put into words, making the unfamiliar familiar and showing opaque connections. 


An additional important finding was that the visual presentation style was very helpful to dyslexic students, raising their understanding and retention of the information shared to the same level as neurostandard students.


This enjoyable Ted talk ‘walks the talk’ as David Roberts uses great visuals to share his experience.

You can follow David Roberts work here 

Insights from Cognitive Psychology: Multimedia can help us understand, use and remember information better.  But only if we use it properly! – May 2021


Research by Cognitive Psychologists has generated important insights which show why using Multimedia - the combination of images and words, can be so effective.  


According to dual coding theory (first developed by Paivio 1986), learners process information in two ways: through a verbal processing system (the one most commonly used for teaching) and a visual one. If information is presented to us both visually and verbally (for example in an animation or illustrated talk) we are able to build up two mental representations of the information: a verbal model and a visual model, and to make connections between these.  Images literally help us see what people mean!  When we receive information in a way that activates our brain's dual processing ability it reduces the 'cognitive load' on our brain and increases our ability to understand, use and remember the ideas we’ve received.

For example, research by Richard Mayer, at the University of California, found that students who listened to a narration explaining how a bicycle tyre pump works, while viewing an animation illustrating the process, generated twice as many useful solutions to problem solving questions around the technology than those who listened to the narration without viewing the animation.

This effect doesn't just work for young people born in this digital and visual age. Research by the Massachusetts Institute of Technology tells us that, for all humans, about half our brains are used for visual processing.  We are all visual learners!  In fact it is our dominant way of learning before we learn to speak and read.


If multimedia improves understanding, learning and retention, you would think the more media you use to share ideas, the better.  But interestingly, research shows that splitting attention can reduce the learning impact. It is best to use either explanatory words on screen or an audio narration but not both.  If you have an audio narration, you should keep to the very minimum number of words on screen (unless the video is going to be used as a reference which people will return to often).


Some additional useful multimedia design principles emerging from research are:-

The Coherence effectPeople understand and remember more if the message is focused. Avoid images and statements that are not directly relevant to the idea you are trying to share.

The Contiguity effect:  Keep words/narration and images together. Graphics are most effective if they appear at the time they are described in the narration, or next to the relevant words.


The Personalisation effect: People learn better from multimedia when they have a sense of social presence. This can be achieved through using a conversational tone in the script and by using first or second person pronouns: I, we or you.  Research also suggests that people respond better to a polite tone of voice works than to a more directive tone.


The Segmenting effect: For complex subject matter people learn better if the information is broken down into several smaller segments which can be viewed separately.


The Signalling effect: Visual, auditory, or temporal cues (arrows, circles or highlights) enhance learning by drawing attention to the key elements of the message. In animations the ‘drawing hand’ can be used to do this.  Having a ‘pedagogical’ agent: a character that leads you through the subject, also helps.


The Expertise effect: People without prior knowledge of the subject benefit the most from the multimedia approach.  Those who already have some familiarity with the subject are able to conjure up a mental image in their minds and have less need for visuals.


A Cognitive Theory of Multimedia Learning: Implications for Design Principles Richard E. Mayer and Roxana Moreno University of California, Santa Barbara

 David Roberts 2020 An overview of cognition, engagement and multimedia learning and teaching. - very helpful tool to consider the best way to share ideas.


Clark, Ruth C.; Mayer, Richard E. (2011). E-learning and the science of instruction: Proven guidelines for consumers and designers of multimedia learning(3rd ed.). John Wiley & Sons.


Clark, Ruth C.; Mayer, Richard E. (2011). E-learning and the science of instruction: Proven guidelines for consumers and designers of multimedia learning(3rd ed.). John Wiley & Sons.


Personalisation principle: Kartal G ‘Does language matter in multimedia learning? Personalization principle revisited” Journal of Educational Psychology, 102 (3),615, 2010

Easy to read, easy to do!

This interesting piece by Connie Malamed discusses how the font and colours you use to share your message affect the way its received.

Connie's key lessons for sharing ideas effectively: