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Learning & Development Blog

visual learning style

Why Visual Learning is King

A study was conducted at the University of Bordeaux with the aim of discovering how perceptions influence the way we think. 54 wine experts were asked to rate one red wine and one white wine. The catch was that the experimenters had dropped tasteless red dye into the white wine, so the wine experts were reviewing the same white wine, only believing one was red.

The wine tasters described the red wine (that was actually white) with the same language they use to describe other red wines, commenting on the berries and tannins as if it were actually a red wine.

The point of the experiment isn't to prove that wine reviewers are incompetent, but that our vision shapes our perceptions which make our reality.

While people debate whether or not different learning styles exist, I argue that visual learning trumps all others. Our eyes dominate all other senses. When our perceptions clash, we believe what we see over what we hear or taste, something wine experts have proved.

One of the reasons that text is less capable than pictures is that the brain sees words as lots of tiny pictures. Data clearly show that a word is unreadable unless the brain can separately identify simple features in the letters. Instead of words, we see complex little art-museum masterpieces, with hundreds of features embedded in hundreds of letters."
- John Medina, Brain Rules


Using the power of the visual to enhance memory

About a year ago I read the fascinating book. Moonwalking With Einstein follows a journalist as he sets out on a path to develop a world class memory. One of the methods he describes for enhancing memory is the method of loci. This involves creating a memory palace (usually a childhood home or place you know well) in your mind with a path you can follow. Along the path you have specific places where you can "store" items you want to remember.

Moonwalking with einstein

In the book, many people claimed that anyone can learn how to memorize the order of a randomly shuffled deck of cards. Inspired, I signed up on the website Memrise, which provides a course on the topic of memorizing a deck of cards. The method involves assigning a celebrity to each card and then placing them along the path in your memory palace.

To speed up the process, you can give each celebrity an action, such as Einstein moonwalking, where Einstein would represent the 8 of clubs and moonwalking represents the 3 of hearts. Combining a celebrity with an action is away to form a unique mental image that is easier to remember as well as recall two cards at once.

Does the method of loci work? I used it to memorize the random order of half a deck of cards. If I had continued to practice, I'm confident I could have memorized the full order of a deck of cards.

The more interesting question: Why was the method successful in helping me memorize a half a deck of cards?

Spatial repetition played an important part, but I believe the most helpful aspect is that the method gets you to form a very strong image in your mind. That image is far easier to remember than just a name and order.

Put simply, the more visual the input becomes, the more likely it is to be recognized— and recalled. The phenomenon is so pervasive, it has been given its own name: the pictorial superiority effect, or PSE.”
- John Medina, Brain Rules

Applications for Improving Learning

1. Make the learning visual

Time to burn PowerPoint slides full of bulleted text. If the goal of training is to deliver something people are going to remember and act upon, you should aspire to make learning visual. This doesn't mean that everything has to be a picture or to only work in images, but all good communication, whether written or auditory, involves painting a picture in the minds of the audience.

2. Use animations

People are wired to pay attention to things in motion. For the vast majority of history, our environment has posed a threat to us. The human ability to notice movement developed as a life saving mechanism. Leverage this hardwiring to engage learners with animations that explain concepts and hold our attention.

3. Tell stories

Stories place a visual in the minds of the audience, making the learning process more engaging and also more memorable. In addition to that, stories place information into a context that is meaningful and relevant. The more meaning and usefulness you attach to information, the less likely it is to be forgotten.

While I believe the visual is the most powerful of the senses, this isn't reason to neglect other senses. Learning usually works best when we engage multiple senses, as long as they work to support each other and what we see doesn't contradict what we experience with other senses.

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