We Are All Visual Learners

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How much do you learn from your sight?

Most scientists agree that about 75% of your learning occurs through your vision.

Looking To Learn

Consider infants. They pick up behavior traits by observing people around them. They process and interpret facial expressions and gestures. From a quick glance, they can tell if their parents are happy or mad.

Consider first dates. The daters spend an extraordinary amount of their attention reading each other’s body language. More attention is often placed on interpreting body language than the conversation.

We See With Our Brains, Not Our Eyes

Look out a window near you right now. What do you see?

Buildings? A lawn? Roads? People?

When we look out a window, we think we see the landscape with our eyes. In reality, we actually see with our brains.

Here’s an oversimplified way of how our vision works. The light reflects off an object and passes through the lens of our eyes. It creates an upside down image on our retina. Our retinal rods and cones transform the image into an electrical impulse through a chemical reaction. That impulse is sent to the sight center at the back of the brain. The brain then interprets those signals into images.

And this all happens in a matter of milliseconds.

What’s most interesting is that 50% of our brain’s processing power is devoted to seeing.

PSE: Challenging Learning Styles

One of the challenges I have with some of the learning style theories is that they spout that only some people are visual learners. Today’s scientific research demonstrates that we are all visual learners.

When it comes to learning and memory, researchers have proven that vision trumps all of our other senses. Scientists call it Pictorial Superiority Effect or PSE.

PSE has been tested with other forms of communication including text and lectures. Pictures demolish them both when it comes to learning and memory. If information is presented orally, people may recall about 10%, 72 hours after the presentation. Add visuals and the recall goes up to 65%.

Implications For Conference Organizers

Vision is by far the most dominant sense, taking up half of our brain’s resources. If conference organizers want participants to learn and remember the experience, they must focus some energy on the visual components of the event.

1. Understand why visuals grab attention.

Conference organizers should encourage speakers to use visuals with their presentations. Images, slides, photos and videos are critical. We pay attention to color, size, orientation and design. We pay special attention to an object that is in motion.

2. Educate speakers to create PowerPoint presentations with more visuals and less text.

The typical PPT presentation has 40 words per slide! Arrrgh! It’s time to ditch the text-based hierarchical levels of PowerPoint and create new ones. Train your industry speakers on how to create good PPT presentations.

3. Communicate with pictures more than words.

Remember, we learn and remember best through pictures, not through the written or spoken word.

What are some things meeting professionals can do to help participants engage the brain with visuals? Why do meeting professionals put an emphasis on oral communication and lectures at conference instead of visual communication?

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  1. Hi Jeff, Does the research mention what happens when you add kinesthetic learning to the mix? I’ve always been taught that actually “doing” is the strongest way to learn.

    The research you mention not only has implications for events, but all presentations and channels of communications. This also relates to why blog posts open with images – they grab your attention first and keep you on the page.

    Thanks for giving this marketing concept a name and backup research:Pictoral Superiority Effect.

  2. Midori Connolly says:

    Wouldn’t it be fascinating to examine the brain of the visually impaired learner?

    1. Jeff Hurt says:

      Yes, many of us have heard that kinesthetic learning or doing something is the best way to learn. Well, the answer is a yes and no. Repetition helps tremendously with retention but not necessarily with understanding or comprehension. Have you ever crammed for a test and memorized facts but couldn’t tell anyone what those facts meant? That was shallow or surface learning. Memorization by rote without application.

      For deeper learning, one must think about what he or she is doing. If you are not thinking about what you are doing, it doesn’t manifest as learning. Thinking about something requires you to figure out how it fits within your mental schema and connects to past experiences and knowledge.

      Here’s an example, for years as a child, I could spout my addition and multiplication tables. However, I didn’t have a clue to what they really meant. It wasn’t until my college years that those mathematics tables held meaning to me and I really learned and understood them.

      Doing something just to be doing something does not automatically equate to learning. You got to think, think, think about what you’re doing!

      Yes, I’ve often wondered what happens in the brain of those who are visually challenged! I thought a lot about it as I wrote this piece too.

  3. Arte R says:

    Thanks for sharing the link to the research by Dr.Medina. The more visual the input becomes, the more likely it is to be recognized and recalled. This simple statement is such a great thing for us as educators and presenters to know before shunning visual aids.
    If visuals in presentations or in handouts used effectively, meeting and training time will become more productive. The presenter may need to put in more effort though!

  4. Traci Browne says:

    Jeff, as always great information and something we should all keep in mind if we plan educational/informational events.

    However, I’m going to have to agree to disagree with the wide stroke of we are all visual learners. Midori’s point is important. Maybe we are just reading different books but the studies (scientific) I’ve come across indicate differences in learning styles. Personally I am not a visual person. I still have no idea what color my husband’s eyes are after 13 years. I can however replay word for word conversations we had years ago and I would recognize the sound of his voice in a crowded room.

    I would be a cop’s worst nightmare if I witnessed a crime as I would never be able to describe the perp from what she was wearing to was he tall or short. My picture would be drawn in voice tones and conversations.

    I am not often distracted by what is going on around me visually. I barely even notice it. But add a sound to the mix and I’m done for. Sounds are my shiny objects.

    I think it’s more important to recognize there are different styles of learning out there, regardless of their majority or minority status, and we should take them all into consideration. I’m sure our visually impaired friends would thank us for that.

    1. Jeff Hurt says:

      Thanks for reading and adding this perspective. You’ve articulated how many people feel and the foundation for their beliefs. Learning Styles Theory has two parts: 1) we each have a preferred way of learning; 2) if we are taught in that preferred way, we learn best.

      I felt this way about learning styles for years. And I was an advocate and presenter of the information.

      Seeing does not automatically translate into learning, nor does vision automatically translate into instant recall and memory. Scientists show that the normal brain is predisposed to visuals. Our vision trumps all other senses.

      Dr. John Medina has an entire chapter in Brain Rules devoted to this. Dr. Daniel Willingham talks about it in his writings. Dr. Ruth Colvin Clark discusses it in book Evidence Based Learning.

      If someone has poor vision or has damaged eyes or brain, obviously this is not true. The brain adapts.

      Here’s more scientific data about learning styles: The Association for Psychological Science (APS) published a 2009 report in Psychological Science in the Public Interest on learning styles (including the VAK/VARK strategies). The APS researchers (neurologists and cognitive scientists) found that the learning styles research was flawed, lacking and in most cases absent. Their conclusion: “At present, there is no adequate evidence base to justify incorporating learning styles assessments into general educational practice.”

      Learning Styles And Pedagogy: A Systematic And Critical Review examines 13 models. It highlights the holes in these learning style theories and their lack of empirical research and evidence.

      Yet, learning styles continue to be the basis for much of today’s education. Why? Your comments illustrate a great point: Scientists call our belief that something is true regardless of the scientific fact confirmation bias. It’s the tendency for people to favor information that confirms their preconceptions or hypotheses regardless of whether the information is true.

      My confirmation bias about learning styles got in the way of my teaching for years. My experience said something different than the research and therefore I discounted the research. After much study and digging deeper on the subject, today I think differently.

  5. Traci Browne says:

    Thanks for adding to my reading list Jeff! I find this stuff fascinating and am always looking to learn more. I wanted to link to that same study but couldn’t dig it up. I always add to my knowledge base when reading your posts.

    Good science or not…I think it’s best to err on the side of entertaining and retainable…and if that means adding a lot of visual learning for a majority of the audience that’s cool with me. I’ll just make sure I have enough audio for the poor folks like me who do not recognize someone five minutes after I’ve met them.

    1. Jeff Hurt says:

      totally agree with you! Thanks for continuing the conversation too.

  6. […] We Are All Visual Learners Most scientists agree that 75% of your learning occurs through vision. Conference organizers need to communicate more with visuals than text. Source: velvetchainsaw.com […]

  7. […] We Are All Visual Learners Most scientists agree that 75% of your learning occurs through vision. Conference organizers need to communicate more with visuals than text. Source: velvetchainsaw.com […]

  8. […] We Are All Visual Learners Most scientists agree that 75% of your learning occurs through vision. Conference organizers need to communicate more with visuals than text. Source: velvetchainsaw.com […]

  9. […] We Are All Visual Learners Most scientists agree that 75% of your learning occurs through vision. Conference organizers need to communicate more with visuals than text. Source: velvetchainsaw.com […]

  10. Krystal says:

    Really great post on visual learning, Jeff! The start-up I’m working for actually produced a white paper on the subject of different learning modalities and styles: http://bit.ly/r4dHUo. Thought you might be interested!

  11. Doug Shaw says:

    Good post Jeff. Amen to your one two three points. I recall organising a conference in April 2010 and feedback afterwards showed us two of the most memorable points centred around two distinct images, not words.

    1. Jeff Hurt says:

      Thanks for reading, commenting and sharing this post. And for giving us a link to your white paper about LMS and adult learning. I’ll take a look at it as well.

      Interesting that your feedback after the conference about the most memorable moments revolved around two distinct images. Illustrates the power of visual images for sure.

      Thanks for sharing that with us and for reading.

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  15. […] both moving and static images, are extremely important to conferences, especially since we are visual processors first. PowerPoint doesn’t kill people. People do. Meeting professionals should help train speakers […]

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