The Essentials of Visual Literacy Learning Practice

Abstract: Research indicates that the use of visuals in teaching leads to a higher level of learning. Understanding the basic concepts of pedagogy in visual literacy is essential in order to effectively and efficiently design curriculum. Instructional designers need awareness of the following points to allow for good practices.

Effects of Instruction


Thomas, Place, and Hillyard advocate a university curriculum “that facilitates student competency in ‘reading’ visual images, including graphs, photographs, video, maps and visual models” (Thomas, et al., 2008). Grounding pedagogy in multiple literacies provides a solid foundation for students, preparing them with more than skills, but with the ability, knowledge, and/or understanding of literacy’s such as rhetoric, ethics, and technology. (Portewig, et al., 2004).

Educational Objectives

“Visual literacy (both viewing and representing) refers to the ability to comprehend, evaluate, and compose visual messages. Visually literate persons are able to read visual messages, compose visual language statements, and translate from visual to verbal and vice versa. Students learn attitudes, behaviors, and questions to ask which enable them to think abstractly and analytically.

Viewing is an ongoing lifetime activity that extends knowledge and experiences and provides enjoyment and pleasure. Therefore, learners will need to become engaged in a variety of viewing experiences, both in comprehending and composing. The media for visual communication may include: field trips, graphic displays, models, photographs, pictures, transparencies, picture books, newspapers, filmstrips, videotapes, labels, posters, advertisements, cartoons, carvings, paintings, memos, plays, dances, television, charts, maps, and diagrams, graphic aids in oral presentations, signs, logos, creative movement, and computers.

It is an important goal of education for learners to be able to critique and use the dominant media of today. Visual literacy is essential for survival as consumers and citizens in our technologically intensive world” (Oklahoma PASS Skills, Oklahoma English teachers are required to teach visual literacy on all levels. Students must, not only analyze visual messages, but create their own visual messages. The PASS Skills are grade specific, scaffolding higher order thinking skills on one another.

Issues in Visual Design

One of the issues in educational visual design includes authenticity of design and representation of images and events. Capitalism drives the functionality of visual content in photography, video and even educational materials, such as textbooks. Substantivists who rely on modernist conceptions of reality are often disappointed with the misrepresentation produced to create drama. The technical rationality required to provide accurate representation is often lost. Instrumentalism, the past default for technical communication has been more recently dominated by substantivism which attempts to imply that illustrations and most other images help society form a reality of the objects within our world. The postmodern film Walking with Dinosaurs is motivated by the fore mentioned capitalist approach rather than searching and conveying the truth about the dinosaurs’ actual (or best interpreted) makeup and the realities in their world. There are many examples of films in the past century that have grossly misrepresented reality. Unfortunately, the much of what is visualized is taken at face value and considered reality; all for the sake of dramatization, ratings and cash value. Visual literacy provides education for consumers to know the difference between the construction and the truth.


The growth of microworlds and multi-dimensional learning systems has increased the need to understand how and how much interactivity plays a role in learning. Learner observation is matched against the learning efficiencies of interactivity in spatial mental models for math, science, geometry, etc. (Smith and Olkun, 2005). Simulations in two-dimensional space and 3three- dimensional space provide higher levels, respectively, of interactivity, so one would believe that learning would improve and memory would be improved. Smith and Olkun, et al, conducted experiments to test the hypothesis that interactively priming rotating (dragging) virtual shapes primes mental rotation. In other words, they tested to establish whether mental imagery improved with multidimensional virtual object compared to using actual object. The conclusion was that it made no significant difference, except by actually handling the objects the learner was able to devote a greater degree of cognitive resources to learning.


Visual requirements for testing can provide an added challenge to both the student and the instructor. Depending upon the subject matter at question, research has shown that issues with testing on computers, for instance, compared to pen or pencil and paper tests create spatial and psychological problems for learners. Review of publications according to James Washington, 1997 indicate that text based psychological tests given on the computer may show different results than the paper and pencil versions. These publications examined computer anxiety, primacy of user interfaces, computer response time, programming error and test preparer error, including missed or miscommunicated visual cures (Washington, 1997).

Development and Implementation in Curriculum

Primary Taxonomies

Symbolic representation is relatively high on the scale of complexity of learning activity. For example, one taxonomy of educational objectives, symbolism occurs at the third level of complexity and has implications for the remaining upper three levels as well (Bloom 1985). Most of the literature and studies on visual learning identify Bloom’s Taxonomy as the primary taxonomy for development of curriculum and identification of appropriate levels or scaffolding of subject matter for testing, including when symbolic representations are presented.

Bloom’s Taxonomy begins with the competence of Knowledge

Competence: Skills Demonstrated
Knowledge : Observation and recall of information
Comprehension: Understanding information
Application: Use information
Analysis: Seeing patterns
Synthesis: Use old ideas to create new ones
Evaluation: Compare and discriminate between ideas

Other taxonomies include the three primary taxonomies of the psychomotor domain (Dave, 1967). Here the Levels of taxonomy are identified as:

• Imitate
• Manipulate
• Precision
• Articulation
• Naturalization

Finally, Harrow’s Taxonomy of Behavioral Objectives identifies six levels of the psychomotor domain Perception, Set , Guided response, Mechanism, Complex overt response , Adaptation, and Origination which are more skill focused.

Assessing Visual and Verbal Literacy Skills

Image Production Literacy

According to Paul Messaris in “Visual Education, “One cannot assume that the consumption of visual images leads to any notable improvement in a person’s creative abilities in the visual realm.” He argues that unlike competence in written language, visual literacy requires experience in visual-media production. Learning to read and write usually go hand in hand, but even those that have logged hours in front of a movie or television screen require concentrated instruction in producing videos that make full use of visual conventions. “In research on the relationship between film-production experience and cognitive skills, it is editing in particular that appears to lead to the most substantial gains in spacial intelligence” (Messaris, 2001).

Individual Learning Styles

Thinking and feeling are both triggered by visual images, so “students’ cognitive and emotional sensibilities may be engaged and cultivated simultaneously” (Thomas, et. al., 2008). Rusbult, 1995 discusses the impact and effect of verbal –visual language in learning and teaching in reference to how the interaction between visual and verbal information are collaborative (in support of learning) or competitive (inhibiting learning). “First, with difficult tasks where visual and verbal memory-encoding is not sufficiently automated, there can be “interference” due to competition for the limited executive resource needed to control the two types of processing. Second, some information is easier to process in a particular mode, either visual or verbal; if a teacher attempts to force some of this information into less effective mode, it can distract a learner from in-depth processing in the more efficient mode. Depending upon the interpretation of these visual or verbal distractions, often in symbolic form, learners have emotional responses that may either motivate to learn, assist in learning, or further distract from learning. So, proper use of symbols within the context of learning enhances the theory of positive assumptions of dual-coding theory”(Rusbult, 1995).

Visual Thinking

Cognitive processing is outlined by the presentation of information that is presented both visually and verbally. There are postulations that form the framework of mental connections: 1) visual material forms connections between the external visual material and the internal visual representation; 2) verbal materials are used to form a verbal representational connection; and 3) the learner builds referential connections between the visual representation and verbal representation. “Texts and graphics are complementary sources of information insofar as they contribute in different ways to the construction of a mental model” (Schultz, 1991). Visual thinking arises when the meaningful use of space, the juxtaposition of elements in a graphic or a variety of cognitive tasks are completed.

There are, however, those in the field of education who believe that the inclusion of visual literacy within the taxonomy of certain disciplines should not be part of the fundamental knowledge that allows students to understand. Though this study will not delve into this argument, it is important to note ”that visual literacy is essential to effective communication, but it cannot be too closely associated with basic literacy in that it involves quite a different faculty than reading and writing” (Cook, 2002).

Language and Visual and Verbal Education

Several major implications for visual literacy include the ideas that: “visual education should be active, [and that] in the course of learning to communicate through images, students need to move beyond the use of visual media as simple ‘windows of reality’, and learning [spatial intelligence and analogical thinking] can be considered the core objective of an actively oriented visual curriculum” (Messaris, 2001).


The use of visual images in the college classroom should not be considered an extra, but a promotion of “polymeric understanding, or the ability to multiple channels of information” (Thomas, et al., 2008).

Dual-coding theory of cognition was first advanced by Allan Paivio of the University of Washington Ontario. The theory postulates that both visual and verbal information are processed differently and along distinct channels with the human mind creating separate representations for information processed in each channel (Paivio, 1969).
Research with modern medical imaging systems has proven that different areas of the brain are activated when participants process spoken words and images. With each combination of stimuli (i.e., spoken words and images separately and simultaneously), brain activity increases significantly (Anderson and Bower, 1973).

It, therefore, stands to reason that inclusion of visual images with any additional form of communication enhances learning. “Graphics offer various advantages to the process of knowledge acquisition which go far and beyond a mere memory effect.” (Schultz, 1993).

Objectivism vs. Constructivism

“Now that video is playing a greater role in our society, visual literacy is a requirement. By analyzing information in video format, students learn how people can use visual images to communicate biases and make persuasive arguments in advertisements and news stories.”(Roblyer, 2006).

What is constructivist learning? Constructivist learning occurs when learners actively construct meaningful mental representations from presented information. As opposed to Objectivists who see knowledge as a separate, real existence on its own outside the human mind. Learning happens when this knowledge is transmitted to people and they store it in their minds. The constructivist philosophy is more directly suited to visual learning. Mayer and Moreno, 1999 identify how educators maximize constructivism for visual learning.

“Constructivist learning is fostered when the learner is able to hold a visual representation in visual working memory and a corresponding verbal representation in verbal working memory at the same time. The model implicates working memory load (or cognitive load) as a major impediment to constructivist learning. Although all learners received identical animation and narration in our multimedia environment, we used presentation techniques that varied the cognitive load on working memory. By varying cognitive load, we intended to vary learners' opportunities for building the referential connections needed for constructivist learning” (Mayer, 1999).


The effective and efficient design of visual learning curriculum is essential to furthering the pedagogy within the visual literacy arena. Continued awareness and growth of visual literacy skills, the philosophies that drive it, and research advancing our understanding of the subject will help educators maximize its potential. We’ve looked at the objectives, the taxonomies that apply the thinking, and dual-coding of visual learning to conclude that the is much more room for continued in depth research on the subject.

- Johnny Allen
Paige Mayhew
Roxanne Hill

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