How much are pictures worth?


  • Ric Lowe


There are convincing arguments for using visually-oriented instructional design as a means of making content easier to understand and more memorable. However, it is too simplistic to base instructional actions on the folk-wisdom that 'a picture is worth a thousand words'. One problem with this statement is that it implies all pictures are the same (and equally accessible). Another problem is the implication that pictures in general have some intrinsic value that makes them more effective than other ways of presenting information (such as words). In order to use pictorial materials effectively as instructional resources, we need to do some careful thinking about how learners interact with pictures. There are a number of questions we need to ask such as: ¥ Which pictures are valuable? ¥ What characteristics give pictures their value? ¥ Is a given picture equally valuable to all viewers? Students can encounter many different types of pictures during instruction. They range from highly realistic depictions such as coloured photographs to extremely abstract representations such as flow diagrams. Are these pictorial genres equally accessible to the learner? Is one type of picture better at representing information than another, and if so, why? Which of the types of pictures mentioned above would be most readily understood by humanities students versus science students? Some types of pictures, such as photographs, are relatively ÔfaithfulÕ representations of their subject matter in that they involve little manipulation of the material. Others, like diagrams, bear very little superficial resemblance to their subject matter because of the extensive manipulations that have been done in order to produce the depiction. It can be argued that the more realistic a picture is (that is, the more faithfully it represents its referents), the more valuable it will be as a learning resource. However, a counter argument is that, compared with diagrams, realistic depictions are cluttered with irrelevant detail and show only the superficial natural organisation of their contents rather than any deeper levels of content organisation. These examples show that using pictures effectively as an instructional resource is rather more complex than it first appears. We need to consider carefully not only the type of picture to be used, but also the way in which we use it. Until recently, there was little questioning of the utility of pictures in learning. However, there is now a growing body of very interesting research showing how teachers can help to ensure that pictures realise their potential as learning resources.