It is widely understood that images are powerful. With one blink of an eye, our brain can start processing an image. But what does a picture mean? If you see a painting in an art gallery, you can appreciate its beauty, composition and colors, and you might feel an emotion. But to truly understand the painting, you might turn to the text panel, an audio guide or a docent.

Modern e-learning is more visual than the text-heavy modules of the past. Designers are keen to highlight the visual and interactive aspects of their courses, but what does successful visual training look like?

Learning to Remember

To understand the effectiveness of any training, we need to understand memory. The human brain is able to understand, save and retrieve messages through a three-step process:

  1. Sensory memory: Our senses pick up information.
  2. Short-term memory and working memory: We consciously assign meaning to the stimuli within a short period of time.
  3. Long-term memory: We store information here, where we can understand and retrieve it.

Information must actively alert our senses; otherwise, the message will not make it through step one. The senses trigger emotions, suggesting that effective training is emotive training. Design visionary Don Norman created the three levels of design to demonstrate the importance of emotional decisions:

  1. Visceral (how the observable qualities of the product or service make the user feel)
  2. Behavioral (the user experience)
  3. Reflective (e.g., does it appeal to the user’s self-image?)

We can see Norman’s framework as an emotion filter, where a message accumulates meaning as it goes through the levels. However, external and personal factors also have an influence on learning to remember. For example, Abraham Maslow famously created a hierarchy of needs that suggested the importance of satisfying basic human needs before motivating an individual to learn. If someone is hungry, for example, he or she will not be able to concentrate on the information presented in training.

Images evoke emotions, create context, are efficient and facilitate understanding. According to 3M, the company behind Post-it, humans can process visual information 60,000 times faster than textual information. Using the right images in training will set the scene of the story.

Selecting an Image

Choosing the right images is key. They should enhance the existing training story – they are not module fillers. Learners are professionals who will only benefit from the addition of images when the messaging is clear and when they serve a purpose. The right images can:

  • Set the scene, inviting the learner in
  • Carry text, when keywords are needed to accompany a visual
  • Clarify a complex point
  • Highlight an important point for repetition
  • Immerse the learner in a scene, especially with a series of images, to explore

It’s Not Black and White

However, an image on its own is not always enough. In a 2012 book chapter, researchers write that an image’s ability to be understood depends on all its attributes (i.e., aesthetics, composition and image quality); the viewer’s sociocultural background and mood; and context (e.g., is the setting familiar to the viewer?) In training, therefore, it’s important to supplement pictures with other media.

From Edgar Dale’s cone of experience, we can conclude that sensory learning through experience and more abstract exercises are both important. For example, using high-resolution photographs of real places will engage the senses, unlock emotions and maximize relatability. Other communication channels to consider include:

  • Additional visuals, such as videos and infographics
  • Audio, such as narration, to highlight key points
  • Text to explain concepts in more detail and guide training
  • Interactive components, such as activities and quizzes

Dale believed that effective learning starts with a content creator who has clear objectives and creation tools that are easy to use. This is where technology comes in. For example, to create good photos, the learning professional needs the ability to shoot high-resolution photography. Flexible virtual reality software can help create immersive training as well.

Mix It Up

Even though effective learning depends on variable external and personal factors, instructional designers can optimize content to maximize memory by engaging learners’ senses to trigger an emotional reaction. Training should include all of the following:

  • Imagery and visual scenarios to unlock emotion, maximize relatability and create efficiency
  • Video, infographics, audio, text and interactive activities
  • Layered content, with finer details, explanations and repetition

Before making great training, instructional designers need to understand emotional training and its purpose. Using high-quality and easy-to-use tools will then deliver that training to the learners.

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