Home > Education, Memory > Is a picture worth one thousand MORE words?

Is a picture worth one thousand MORE words?

Ever notice the diagrams in your textbook? Or the visuals in your professor’s slides? Or maybe the pictures in an instruction manual to construct furniture? It seems that professionals have caught onto the idea that pictures are beneficial to learning and understanding content. Whether is comes to providing information in a presentation, deciding how to best visualize data for a report, or giving directions for a task, it obvious that visual content provides some benefit in absorbing information that is not attainable through simple text. I am going to walk your through when visuals are most helpful, when they aren’t, and how to best include visuals in your own work.

Work in cognitive psychology led by Mayer (2009) looked at this phenomenon called the multimedia effect, which is the idea that people tend to learn better when written or verbal information is accompanied by visual content (like pictures). Results from Mayer (2009) and other research have show the multimedia effect is greater (information is learned better) when information is presented with both text and writing as opposed to just a picture or just text.

Great, so pictures are helpful. But what in the brain is happening that makes this true? There are two opposing theories that explain why images are beneficial for information processing. The first of which is the outcome-oriented view, where text and pictures together create a richer internal representation (in psych terms “mental representation”) of the topic. With a richer and more detailed mental representation, when trying to later retrieve that learned material from memory, there are more ways that memory can be activated and remembered. The other theory is the process-oriented view, which says image processing is facilitated because people can better take in and then apply visio-spatial information.

A study by Van Genuchten, Sheiter, and Shüler (2012) explored outcome and process oriented views and the multimedia effect by exploring different types of tasks to gain insight into why pictures are helpful. Experimenters presented 65 study participants with several trials of written, visual, or mixed content that they were supposed to study and were later tested on the material. The content they looked at came in three different forms, and researchers were looking to find if the multimedia effect differed based on the type of task.

cellThe first possible task participants could see in the study is conceptual. A conceptual task depicts a concept, sometimes abstract, and the components and relationships of that objects and relationships between objects. For example, in a textbook you used in an introductory Biology course, you probably saw an image of an animal and plant cell side-by-side, and labels either indicating similarities between the two structures or differences between them (Image left).


mouseThe second task type is causal, which is where the provided content depicts a causal relationship. In visual form, this is often shown by orienting components in a way that is true to the real world and shows relationships between objects, so you can see how one thing can affect another (often aided by arrows which indicate a relationship). If you remember the game Mouse Trap as a kid, the directions inside included a diagram, which showed the cause and effect relationship between all the pieces (Image right).


origamiThe last task type tested is a procedural task. This type of task involves explaining the steps or directions in a process. Ever do origami? The instructions that you follow gives you chronological instructions for how to correctly fold the paper, with several different pictures showing the changes in the paper each step (Image left).

Van Genuchten et al. (2012) found that the multimedia effect was the greatest for procedural tasks, moderate for causal tasks, and the smallest in conceptual tasks. These results reveal that both outcome and process oriented views are playing a role in why multimedia presentation is successful. That means… having multiple different mental representations for the same topic make it more accessible when going to retrieve the learned information in memory (for example, with the mouse trap example you know the big picture ideas and end goal of the game from the text, and the image helps you store the actual mechanics of how the system is going to work). In the case of causal tasks where understanding is highly dependent on visio-spatial understanding, images help facilitate learning when encoding (storing) to memory.

It is important to keep in mind that the extent of the multimedia effect varies based on how the participant was tested on (or asked to retrieve) the information. When they were tested on information that solely existed in the text, pictures were not helpful. And conversely, when tested on information that was in the visual information, text was not helpful. When tested on their ability to integrate information that was included in both the text and pictures, they were most successful in the multimedia condition.

But enough with the technical talk, how does this apply to your reports and your presentations? There several factors to keep in mind to help your readers or viewers get the best out of both your writing and visual information – and ideally the combination between the two! For conceptual tasks (think of the biology example), based on the study there is no real significant difference between how readers learn if there is text, an image, or both. If you are presenting on a topic that falls in this category, choose the media that best makes sense for the context and space. For causal tasks, include the higher level, big picture ideas, and goals in text and the details/elements in the pictures to best facilitate integrative learning. For procedural tasks, the use of space and arrows in visuals that accompany text is helpful for depicting passing time and the separation between steps in the task. Even though it may be inconvenient, successful integration of multimedia material is going to differ based on the type of information you are working with.

As a final note, using text and images together can be very powerful and informative, when used thoughtfully. When will adding a visual help, or hurt? Here are some things to consider when making your content multimedia (so both you and the receiver benefit!):

  • What type of information are you trying to get across? (Conceptual, causal, or procedural?)
  • What will your audience be asked to do with this information? (For example if they are being tested, and the content is procedural, then pictures are best)
  • Utilize arrows and spatial organization to depict organization in real word physical and temporal relationships.
  • To best utilize multimedia, don’t be redundant between text and visuals.
  • Be mindful, don’t include visuals just to have them!


The original article can be found here.

Van Genuchten, E., Scheiter, K., & Schüler, A. (2012). Examining learning from text and pictures for different task types: Does the multimedia effect differ for conceptual, causal, and procedural tasks?. Computers in Human Behavior, 28, 2209-2218.

  1. No comments yet.
You must be logged in to post a comment.