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College Quarterly
Summer 1995 - Volume 2 Number 4
Realistic Visuals and Instruction
by Chris J. Lantz

Now that high definition visuals are more easily created on personal computers, there are many new ways they can either benefit or interfere with instructional objectives. Much research suggests that realistic imagery distracts instead of directing attention among learners. This research often evaluates visuals used to convey simple visual information or rote memorization of material, and in these cases complexity does often get in the way of comprehension. Realistic visuals can also act as advanced organizers that direct comprehension of more conceptual objectives. Complex visuals can elicit emotional responses from viewers which can assist them in obtaining affective and higher level cognitive objectives. In the sections that follow realistic visuals are considered in their present areas of application, in context to the suitability of visuals for instruction, as an important component of visual literacy and lastly in the development of measures of picture readability.

Use of Visuals in Instruction

The production of instructional materials for training and development has evolved to a point where they are destined for use in a variety of electronic environments such as distance education, interactive and individualized instruction on microcomputer, CD-ROM and laser disk. Colour hard copy from digital imagery is also routinely used in the production of textbooks in college copy shops and presses. Among the most typical uses of imagery in education are instructional transparencies, output of microcomputer presentation slides or handouts, instant digital photos for public relations and documentation of research. These assignments are either produced by agencies that acquired the equipment through instructional enrichment grants or production facilities that are also commonly housed in specialized visual production centres. Imagery is also often the focal point of presentations and distance education delivered in electronic classrooms.

Because of lowering costs, colour output and projection from microcomputers is now a viable option for many more educators at all levels of instruction. Producing colour overheads and display originals at the smaller sizes is faster, much easier to generate, and comparable in quality in most cases with photographic output. Even though many new graphical options are now available to professors and instructors, sometimes free of charge, they are often underutilized. This underutilization is not because the importance of colour illustrations has lessened, but because of a lack of knowledge on how far the cost and quality of the output has improved over the last few years. Other common reasons for underutilization are lack of information about instructional services and resistance to change, although more fundamental reasons are related to formal and personal theories on how students learn. These theories and their relation/impact to the use of visuals in instruction will be explored in the following sections.

Resistance to Instructional Visuals

Many educational researchers consider visual aids inferior to more abstract verbal material. To put it another way, visual aids are often seen as not academically challenging, redundant or even misleading to students. This attitude is sometimes more common among academic circles, although many training consultants also appear to prefer pure verbal as opposed to visual learning. Medium format is a major factor contributing to this perception of instructional visuals as not meaningful or necessary.

Visuals are often so strongly associated with entertainment that they are considered incapable of stimulating or organizing thought toward cognitive objectives. By this definition intelligence is the ability to sustain concentration and thought without the aid of illustrations and the nature of knowledge is defined by the main medium of communication that is adopted by society.

Popular media formats such as books and TV are thought to develop mental structures that we build on the rest of our lives. Thus the new generation of learners gravitate toward instruction which is most like good TV instead of a good book. Critics of visualized instruction such as Postman (1985) contend that realistic images cannot speak to the world of thought because they point away from it to the world of facts and physical matter. The facts that are illustrated in photographs, instructional TV and graphics use are often described by their inability to inspire conjecture, dispute or analysis. Postman holds up education as the last institution that has not totally succumbed against the attack of entertainment style visual media.

Anti-visual opinion and research extends into basic research which compares different media types. Realistic colour visuals are considered closest in format to entertainment visuals and, as a result, they are often judged as the least suitable. A hot medium is high in definition and low in viewer involvement. A cool medium is low in information output and requires more viewer interpretation. In this context characteristics such as realism and colour are seen as causing an image to be too easily understood and restrains new ways of seeing in the viewer. In the popular press this argument is present in criticism against the colourization of classic movies.

Visual literacy is the viewpoint which advocates the use of realistic visuals in instruction. The more realism which is present in an image, the more the viewer is required to process and decipher. This unpacking and analysis of visual grammar is considered just as important and more efficient than reading lines of text. More complex colour images are seen as opening new ways of seeing in viewers.

Media Research

The literature is replete with experimental findings in which realistic colour graphics of photographs were not more effective than simplistic monochrome artistic renderings. Examples of findings conclude that: “a real world scene was not necessarily better than recognition of an unorganized collection of the same objects;” (Mandler & Johnson, 1976, p.530), “the addition of pictorial embellishments will not enhance the learning of information in the text” (Levie & Lentz, 1982, p.454), and “illustrations containing relatively small amounts of realistic detail were most effective” (Dwyer, 1972, p.87). Experimental results indicate that attention getting devices add nothing to learning, unless they introduce additional information (Schramm, 1977).

Media forms are delivery vehicles and the real significance is in what they deliver. Instead of gross comparisons of one overall delivery system with another, the classification of media attributes, such as colour and tone capability for example, is considered more productive. Media classification systems are used for the selection of media by attribute, rather than its general or global performance, as compared with other media. Instructional media must be matched to the tasks to which they are best suited. If the objective of the illustration matches the media attributes, the illustration will have a better chance in facilitating learning. Realistic colour visuals possibly interfere with verbal learning in some situations and help in the identification of objects in others.

Visual Literacy

Learning to analyze critically complex visual information requires intellectual effort just as learning to read does. Although simple images can facilitate greater learning outcomes for situations where rote information and basic detail are important, they often do not help develop visual literacy in the viewer. This is because noise in instructional images is filtered out for students, denying them opportunities to develop their own skills in interpreting what elements are important to attend to. Students who have had experience deciphering information from realistic noisy detail are better able to transfer such skills. Visually literate people “internalize specific coding systems of a medium and apply them as tools of thought.” (Salomon, 1978, p.38).

Visual literacy research has been helpful in translating psychological principles into techniques for the evaluation and production of visuals. One popular hypothesis on the perception of colour images is that they are rapidly and therefore easily readable. Visual literalists do not dispute the fact that visuals can be processed more rapidly than text information but they do believe that this processing can mislead students. The assumption often is that the inclusion of realistic illustrations and photographs will not hinder, if they do not improve instruction. Illustrations can confuse as well as illuminate.

Visual literalists believe that the solution to these problems requires students to learn a visual grammar which informs visual information processing (Pettersson, 1989). Visual literacy posits that different visuals communicate a different degree of reality. Thus, all images are not equally and easily readable. No single instructional image can contain all the attributes necessary for it to be appropriate for all instructional objectives. There are no universally communicable images. Rather, an illustration with certain attributes, shaped by a well-drafted caption, may be ideal for specific applications. Visual literalists agree with Postman that images can be ineffectual but this is most likely because they were improperly matched to instructional tasks.

Advanced Organizers

Is the viewer's existing knowledge more influential in the selection and retention of visuals or do the visuals have more influence? According to cognitive theory, mind-set has the upper hand because viewers can only learn what they already know, or in terms of the advanced organizing structures they possess. According to Barthes (1972), the emotional and cultural aspects of visuals often have the upper hand over rational interpretation. Most likely a combination of existing knowledge, visual design and cultural influence intermix in the intake of visuals.

At the heart of designing educational messages is the paradox that these efforts may interfere with future learning that has different objectives. One example is that study skills for factual information often interfere with learning conceptual information. Another danger of over-cuing students is that it sometimes discourages study beyond what is required. The medium itself can serve as an advanced organizer. If the students perceive imagery as easy to study, they might not expend as much effort as was intended by the instructional designer.

The use of simple graphics as direct organizers is efficient in drawing up existing knowledge in a very short time. More complex and/or realistic colour arrangements can be used as indirect gradual organizers that encourage creative thinking. Perceived realism and credibility of the colour photograph may unblock a viewer's perceptual filter to new information. Tailoring the mode or objective of a photograph is important. If a thought-provoking, realistic colour photograph is used in an information mode, the excess detail could act as noise loud enough to prevent communication. If a simplistic informational graphic is used to illustrate complex new ideas, students might generate inadequate simplistic stereotypes. Controlling the content of images too closely could also have a negative effect, because image manipulation that is too obvious will destroy the credibility or realism of photographic visuals.

Visual Language

Visual literacy and advanced organizers imply connections to linguistic principles. Learning to read pictures can be analogous to learning to read text. Both the visual and verbal language consist of elements that are made up of cues. Visual literalists assume that students must learn to see and fully appreciate such cues. Present education is thought to be inadequate in this regard.

The visually literate method of reading a picture is a combination of skills developed by seeing and at the same time integrating other sensory, verbal, emotional and learning experiences.

What the language analogy seems to overlook is that different forms of visual media, such as colour versus monochrome photography, also differ in fundamental ways. Differences are not recognized because visual symbols are thought to be arbitrary in the same way linguistic symbols are. Visual literalists sometimes do not recognize that visual symbols are far more contextual than verbal ones. A photograph displayed on television is not perceived in the same way it is perceived in a textbook. Each medium plays a part in calling up cues that influence responses to particular format. Colour photography is a good example because it is different from other forms of visual communication but similar to human perception. Photography has colour elements similar to other media but they are interpreted in different ways because of perceived optical realism. Inconsistencies in visual grammar pose problems to the development of a measure of picture readability.

The logical linguistic system of symbolic language most often breaks down as a result of emotional reactions. There can be as many aspects of any one symbol as there are different people and circumstances. This dictates that many aspects of a symbol can be significant or replete, and it is especially true with the use of colour in highly subjective or artistic images. Fortunately, educational images are not heavily impacted by these considerations because they usually have a more defined context and objective which is provided by a caption or embedded in surrounding text.

Visual Readability

Levie and Dickie credited visual literacy research and the visual language concept with creating the “possibility of an eventual taxonomy of picture characteristics which are correlated with basic mental operations” (1973, p.858). An example of an effective measure used in media evaluation decisions is text readability. Although readability has been a component of textbook evaluation for 70 years, textbook illustrations have not enjoyed the availability of a comparable instrument. Text readability has developed from a crude means to classify subjective judgement on text characteristics, to a more theoretical position which compares these attributes with learner characteristics. Visual readability may be following a similar, evolutionary path as text readability. Once visual readability research is more developed, it could be able to isolate the effects of individual elements of visual grammar.

Recently, a full-scale system for the study of visual symbols (visual semiotics) has been proposed by Saint-Martin (1990). Saint-Martin described this system of visual semiotics as an empirical form of research. He indicated that semiotics is a way of formalizing analysis through “rules and principles that account for a known pattern” (p. 190). This conjunction of psychology and linguistics defines the basic unit of visual language as the “coloureme”. Colouremes included colour, tonality, boundaries and texture. Saint-Martin conceived of these variables as globally present in every point of the visual field. Organization of the variables within each coloureme is directed by viewer priorities.


Movements to establish measures for the instructional effectiveness of realistic colour visuals are important in defining new markets for manufacturers and new applications for educational consumers. They are also relevant when consideration is given to how abstract theories sometimes underlay the perception of products and their value. Despite lowering costs, electronic colour hardcopy and projection equipment is an expensive investment for education and training institutions. Considering this expense, why is realistic imagery considered an important resource? On a practical level, realistic visuals are what we have grown used to and expect as mass media consumers. Media which do not match up to consumer expectations can be filtered out. Realism provides the necessary production value expected in many visual environments. For sales purposes higher production value is justification enough for the adoption of new technology. In advertising, medium format can take precedence over accuracy and quality of communication, and still be enormously successful in selling products. Production value is not as justifiable and fundable a premise in most educational institutions.

Many educators adhere to the belief that the content of educational messages are more important than the visual appeal of the delivery medium. This position derives from research which does not correlate student preference of delivery medium with student achievement. Unless the higher levels of visual appeal produced by new technology can be linked to student achievement, new purchases and academic programs are difficult to justify. This debate on the importance of content over delivery medium directly influences administrative, legislative and institutional funding policy decisions related to educational technology. New markets can be identified and existing applications expanded if research can demonstrate that specific learning attributes can be correlated to student achievement of educational objectives. Visual literacy research is well underway in providing such evidence through the development and refinement of visual readability measures.


Barthes, R. (1972). Mythologies. New York: Paladien. Dwyer, F.M. (1972). A guide for improving visualized instruction. State College, PA.: Learning Services.

Levie, H.W.& Dickie, K.E. (1973). The analysis and application of media. In M.W. Travers,(Ed). The second handbook of research on teaching, (pp. 858-882) Chicago: Rand McNally College Publishing.

Levie, W.H. & Lentz, R. (1982). Effects of text illustration: A review of research, Educational Communication and Technology Journal, 30(4), 450-464.

Mandler, J.M. & Johnson, N.S. (1976). Some of the thousand words a picture is worth, Journal of Experimental Psychology, 5, 529-540.

Pettersson, R. (1989). Visuals for information: Research and practice. Englewood Cliffs, NJ: Educational Technology Publications.

Postman, N. (1985). Amusing ourselves to death. New York: Viking Penguin.

Saint-Martin, F. (1990). Semiotics of visual language. Bloomington: Indiana University Press.

Salomon, G. (1978). On the future of media research: No more full acceleration in neutral gear, Educational Communication and Technology Journal. 26(1), 37-45.

Schramm, W. (1977). Big media, little media: Tools and technologies for instruction. Beverly Hills: Sage.

Chris J. Lantz is Assistant Professor in the Department of Media and Educational Technology, Western Illinois University, in Macomb, Illinois, U.S.A.