During a post graduate course in learning design, one of the students attempted to present instruction on the solar system without the use of any visuals. After the professor gave a curt lecture on importance of multi-sensory instruction, she asked the student to at least draw the solar system on the board. Seeing the embarrassed student cringe and apologize for complete lack of artistic ability, I agreed to illustrate the planets.
Astronomy is not one of my strengths, and the college classroom did not have the latest in drawing materials. In fact it was a rather archaic one with real slate blackboard. Grasping a quartet of pastel chalk, I began to illustrate Mercury as dusty yellow, Venus as a swirl of colors, and the earth in pastel blue and green. The red planet, Mars, I rendered in pink and then began working on the gas giants. I realized any drawing of the solar system to scale would be tiny dots on an immense blackboard. But my vastly exaggerated plant sizes and vastly diminished distances still provided relative information to reinforce the instruction.
Hearing words and seeing images simultaneously increases our ability to learn not because people prefer one over the other, but because we learn both ways at the same time. It is not distracting to receive visual and auditory stimulus at the same time, if one reinforces the other. A theory called dual coding attempts to explain this phenomenon as resulting from using both hemispheres of the brain, the left for language and the right for visuals, to store information. Evidently storing new data in multiple area of the brain lessen cognitive overload in over-activated areas.
You are probably familiar with Edgar Dale’s Cone of Learning which illustrates how much we learn based, on reading, hearing, seeing etc.
However this data has not been scientifically tested and may not be accurate. Try watching a TV program without the sound and without the picture. The vast majority of times you will be able to perceive more of what has occurred if you listen to the sound only. Most of the time people actually learn more from what they hear because less visual information is presented.
According to dual encoding theory people will recall a lower percentage of what they have heard due to cognitive overload. They will remember a higher percentage of visual information, because there is less of it to remember. Try to present a rapid string of illustration at the same speed that we move from sentence to sentence and people would soon be shutting their eyes to gain relief from overload.
But let’s return to my experience with illustrating the planets based on verbal input. I was actually able to remember more of the instruction than the other students. If you think about it logically people really do not learn by doing. Without hearing or seeing instruction they have no clue of what to do. However, they remember more by performing actions they have been taught. The act of converting one into another output uses even more areas of the brain, and evidently the more you use, the better you remember.