The Concept of Visualization

  • Linda M. PhillipsEmail author
  • Stephen P. Norris
  • John S. Macnab
Part of the Models and Modeling in Science Education book series (MMSE, volume 5)


Perhaps the most defining feature of the current state of empirical research on visualization is the lack of consensus about the most elemental issues that surround it, including


Line Drawing Computer Computer Interactive Interactivity Gestalt Theory Dynamic Symbolic System 
These keywords were added by machine and not by the authors. This process is experimental and the keywords may be updated as the learning algorithm improves.
Perhaps the most defining feature of the current state of empirical research on visualization is the lack of consensus about the most elemental issues that surround it, including
  1. 1.

    settling on a definition for visualization,

  2. 2.

    clarification of the underlying presumptions, and

  3. 3.

    deciding how to document both short-term and long-term effectiveness.


The task of untangling these issues is complex. The status of terms, often used interchangeably, such as “visualization”, “visual representation”, “visual media”, “media literacy”, “visual communication skills”, “visual literacy ”, “illustrations”, and “media illustrations”, is yet to be clarified. Furthermore, the routine confusion between pictures/visual images and reality is a fundamental and persistent problem (Griffin & Schwartz, 2005).

The main objective of this chapter is to answer two questions:
  1. 1.

    How is the term “visualization” defined in the literature?

  2. 2.

    What constitutes a good visualization, and what is necessary for an individual to be able to interpret and critically evaluate visualizations?



We followed a series of five steps in answering the two questions addressed in the chapter and the three additional questions addressed in the subsequent chapters. Step one involved a methodical search of all relevant sources, the identification of vocabulary, and the mapping of the citations on visualization. The data systems used for this review included CBCA Ed , ERIC , SAGE , Education Abstracts , ProQuest , Psych Info , Academic Search Premier , Google Scholar , and Web of Science . Step two required the classification of the types of research into explanatory , exploratory , descriptive studies, and “other”. The third step involved analysis and evaluation of claims made. Step four organized the reviews through repeated comparisons and contrasts of the literature in order to identify areas of difference and similarity in data , methodology , and epistemology . Step five moved to mapping the information collected and analysing it on the basis of several categories: date published, objectives sought, questions and concerns raised, materials and evidence cited, arguments advanced, concepts and forms of analysis applied, and conclusions reached.

We evaluated 247 articles for this review, ranging in publication year from 1936 to 2009 (July). Of those 247 articles, 140 were empirical studies and 107 were discussion articles. We organized the articles by subject area: literacy, mathematics , science, teaching, technology, and a miscellaneous category that contained articles examining learning theories and the value of visualizations, among other things. The subject area with the most articles was science, as can be seen in Fig. 3.1. We also examined articles for characteristics of the studies, including the number of participants (Fig. 3.2) and the educational level and employment of the subjects in the study (Fig. 3.3). We saw a marked increase in the number of studies with university students, with a peak in the 1970s due to a series of studies Francis Dwyer conducted at Pennsylvania State University , and then continuing in a linear fashion starting from the early 1990s and into the new millennium. This pattern is in contrast to the number of studies with primary school students, which reached its peak in the 1970s and has decreased since then (see Fig. 3.4). There were six studies which examined teachers’ use of, or training to use, visualizations in their classrooms. There was no significant difference in the number of studies with male or female students; most studies used an equal or nearly equal number of both genders, although four studies used males only, and four studies used females only.
Fig. 3.1

The number of published articles by subject area

Fig. 3.2

Proportion of studies by the number of participants involved

Fig. 3.3

The number of studies by the educational level/employment of participants in them

Fig. 3.4

Publication trends by educational level/employment of participants

The Definitions of Visualization

In an attempt to define “visualization”, we found that many terms—including visualization, visual aid, image, and visual literacy —are used frequently and interchangeably throughout the literature. We decided to seek clarification from the Merriam-Webster Online Dictionary (2007). See Table 3.1 for a specification of the meanings found.
Table 3.1

Definitions of terms from Merriam-Webster Online Dictionary (2007)

Visualization (noun)

1. formation of mental images


2. act or process of interpreting in visual terms or of putting into visible form

Visualize (transitive verb)

To make visible: as to see or form a mental image of

Image (noun)

1. a reproduction or imitation of the form of a person or thing;


2. a: the optical counterpart of an object produced by an optical device (as a lens or mirror) or an electronic device; b: a visual representation of something: as (1): a likeness of an object produced on a photographic material,

(2): a picture produced on an electronic display (as a television or computer screen)


3. a: exact likeness: semblance; b: a person strikingly like another person


4. a: a tangible or visible representation: incarnation; b: an illusory form


5. a(1): a mental picture or impression of something;

(2): a mental conception held in common by members of a group and symbolic of a basic attitude and orientation


6. a vivid or graphic representation or description

Image (transitive verb)

1. to call up a mental picture of


2. to describe or portray in language especially in a vivid manner


3. a: to create a representation of; also, to form an image of; b: to represent symbolically

Visual literacy (noun)

The ability to recognize and understand ideas conveyed through visible actions or images (as pictures)

Even though the definitions in Table 3.1 do little to clarify what “visualization” means in the context of education or educational research, they are provided to illustrate the need for explicit clarity in the conduct of research. There are multiple usages for the same term, expressed as verbs and nouns. Bishop (1989) noted the important distinction between the noun and verb forms of “visualization”. The noun “directs our attention to the product, the object, the ‘what’ of visualization, the visual images. The ‘verb’ of visualization on the other hand makes us attend to the process, the activity, the skill, the ‘how’ of visualizing” (p. 7). In our review of approximately 250 articles, books, and chapters, we found 28 explicit definitions of visualization, and those dated from 1974 onwards. The first explicit definition is provided by Allan Paivio in 1974, who stated that imagery is “a dynamic symbolic system capable of organizing and transforming the perceptual information that we receive” (p. 6). The 23 explicit definitions starting with Paivio ’s are shown in Table 3.2. We have included definitions of related terms, such as “imagery” and “visual aid”, in this total. The definitions given make explicit which term is used in the original works.
Table 3.2

Explicit definitions of “visualization” in chronological order provided in research literature



Explicit definition



“…the conception of imagery as a dynamic symbolic system capable of organizing and transforming the perceptual information that we receive” (p. 6)



“visual literacy is the ability to understand and use images and to think and learn in terms of images, i.e., to think visually” (p. 262)



“Visualization is an effective technique for determining just what a problem is asking you to find. If you can picture in your mind’s eye what facts are present and which are missing, it is easier to decide what steps to take to find the missing facts” (p. 54)



“Visualization (mental imagery) serves as a kind of ‘mental blackboard’ on which ideas can be developed and their implications explored” (p. 1)



“…a visual image was defined as a mental scheme depicting visual or spatial information” (p. 297)


Ben-Chaim, Lappan, & Houang

“Visualization is a central component of many processes for making transitions from the concrete to the abstract modes of thinking. It is a tool to represent mathematical ideas and information, and it is used extensively in the middle grades” (p. 50)



“Visual processing ability was defined as follows: ‘This ability involves visualization and the translation of abstract relationships and non-figural information into visual terms. It also includes the manipulation and transformation of visual representations and visual imagery. It is an ability of process and does not relate to the form of the stimulus material presented’ (Bishop, 1983)” (p. 11)


DeFanti, Brown , & McCormick

“Visualization is a form of communication that transcends application and technological boundaries” (p. 12)



“Visualization refers to the cognitive functions in visual perception. In visualization, pictures combine aspects of naturalistic representation with more formal shapes to enhance cognitive understanding” (p. 2)


Lanzing & Stanchev

“Presenting information in visual, non-textual form is what is meant when we speak of visualization. The non-textual symbols, pictures, graphs, images and so on conveying the information will be called visuals”

(p. 69)



“Visualization is defined as representations of information consisting of spatial , nonarbitrary (i.e. ‘picture -like’ qualities resembling actual objects or events), and continuous (i.e. an ‘all-in-oneness’ quality) characteristics (see Paivio, 1990). Visualization includes both internal (for example, mental imagery) and external representations (for example, real objects, printed pictures and graphs, video, film, animation ) ” (p. 45)


Zazkis, Dubinsky, & Dautermann

“Visualization is an act in which an individual establishes a strong connection between an internal construct and something to which access is gained through the senses. Such a connection can be made in either of two directions. An act of visualization may consists of any mental construction of objects or processes that an individual associates with objects or events perceived by her or him as external. Alternatively, an act of visualization may consist of the construction, on some external medium such as paper, chalkboard or computer screen, of objects or events that the individual identifies with object(s) or process(es) in her or his mind” (p. 441)



“Imagery is a kind of mental representation which can represent objects, persons, scenes, situations, words, discourses, concepts, argumentations, and so on in a visuospatial format. Mental images can refer to entities that a person: (a) is perceiving at present, (b) has perceived previously, or (c) has never perceived. Mental images can represent either concrete or abstract, either real or imaginary entities and may be either like photographs or motion-pictures or like diagrams, schemas, sketches, symbols. Finally, mental images either may be static or may represent movements and transformations” (p. 413)



“Visualization is the process of using geometry to illustrate mathematical concepts” (p. 3)



“Visualization retains its usual meanings in cognitive science, but also has been arrogated by science and technology to mean computer- generated displays of data or numerical models” (p. 3 footnote)


Liu, Salvendy, & Kuczek

“Visualization is the graphical representation of underlying data . It is also the process of transforming information into a perceptual form so that the resulting display make[s] visible the underlying relation in the data. The definition by McCormick , DeFanti, and Brown (1987) of visualization is ‘the study of mechanisms in computers and humans which allow them in concert to perceive, use and communicate visual information (p. 63)’” (pp. 289–290)


Presmeg & Balderas-Canas

“The use of visual imagery with or without drawing diagrams is called visualization” (p. 2)


Strong & Smith

“…spatial visualization is the ability to manipulate an object in an imaginary 3-D space and create a representation of the object from a new viewpoint” (p. 2)



“Visual displays are considered tools for communication, thinking, and learning that require specific individual prerequisites (especially prior knowledge and cognitive skills) in order to be used effectively” (p. 102). “Representations are objects or events that stand for something else (Peterson , 1996). Texts and visual displays are external representations. These external representations are understood when a reader or observer constructs internal mental representations of the content described in the text or shown in the picture” (p. 102)



“…visual literacy defined as the ability to interpret images as well as to generate images for communicating ideas and concepts” (p. 1)



“Visualization for the purposes of this paper refers to any representation of a scientific phenomena in two dimensions, three dimensions, or with an animation ”. “Visualizations…test ideas and reveal underspecified aspects of the scientific phenomena…display new insights and help investigators compare one conjecture with another…illustrate an idea that words cannot describe” (p. 743)



“…visualization is the process of using geometrical illustrations of mathematical concepts. Visualization is one of the most common techniques used in teaching mathematics” (p. 108)


Piburn et al.

“visualization…(‘the ability to manipulate or transform the image of spatial patterns into other arrangements’)” (p. 514)


Garmendia, Guisasola, & Sierra

“Part visualization is understood to be the skill to study the views of an object and to form a mental image of it, meaning, to visualize its three-dimensional shape (Giesecke et al., 2001)….visualization is mental comprehension of visual information” (p. 315)


Gilbert , Reiner, & Nakhleh

“Visualization is concerned with External Representation, the systematic and focused public display of information in the form of pictures, diagrams, tables, and the like (Tufte , 1983). It is also concerned with Internal Representation, the mental production, storage and use of an image that often (but not always…) is the result of external representation” (p. 4). “A visualization can be thought of as the mental outcome of a visual display that depicts an object or event” (p. 30)


Deliyianni, Monoyiou, Elia, Georgiou, & Zannettou

“Particularly, in the context of mathematical problem solving, visualization refers to the understanding of the problem with the construction and/or the use of a diagram or a picture to help obtain a solution (Bishop, 1989)” (p. 97)


Korakakis, Pavlatou, Palyvos, & Spyrellis

“‘Spatial visualization’, the ability to understand accurately three-dimensional (3D ) objects from their two-dimensional (2D ) representation” (p. 391)


Mathai & Ramadas

“Visualisation is defined in terms of understanding transformations on structure and relating these with function” (p. 439)

The definitions and statements in Table 3.2 point to a three-fold distinction between physical objects serving as visualizations (geometrical illustrations, animation , computer -generated displays, picture -like representations); mental objects pictured in the mind (mental scheme, mental imagery, mental construction, mental representation); and cognitive processing in which visualizations, either physical or mental, are interpreted (cognitive functions in visual perception, manipulation and transformation of visual representations (by the mind), concrete to abstract modes of thinking, and picturing facts). The three distinctions follow:
  1. 1.

    Visualization Objects. These are physical objects that are viewed and interpreted by a person for the purpose of understanding something other than the object itself. These objects can be pictures, 3D representations, schematic representations, animations, etc. Other sensory data such as sound can be integral parts of these objects and the objects may appear on many media such as paper, computer screens, and slides.

  2. 2.

    Introspective Visualization.These are mental objects that a person makes that are believed to be similar to visualization object s. Introspective visualization is an imaginative construction of some possible visual experience.

  3. 3.

    Interpretive Visualization.This is an act of making meaning from a visualization object or an introspective visualization by interpreting information from the objects or introspections and by cognitively placing the interpretation within the person’s existing network of beliefs, experiences, and understanding .


We have chosen these terms not because they are common in the literature—they are not—but because they are useful for capturing most of the important distinctions that are represented in Tables 3.1 and 3.2. The distinction between physical visualization object s and mental introspective visualization is an obvious one; most writers at least make this clear through context. The distinction between the visualization itself whether physical or mental and the thinking involved in interpreting that visualization is also important. As was noted in  Chapter 2, it is not fully known how visual imagery is processed in the human brain. It may be the case, for example, that introspective visualizations do not undergo interpretation in the same way as visualization object s. If so, our distinction will need to be changed in the light of future research. For now, we believe it is prudent to assume that the two types of visualization undergo similar need for clarity and processes of interpretation.

What Constitutes a Good Visualization?

Insofar as visualization involves the interpretation of pictures, it seems a suitable theory of picture meaning is required to know whether or not a visualization is a good one. If pictures are to be used to assist or enable certain types of learning, then some idea of how information is encoded in pictures is likely to be useful. It also seems that a workable theory of pictures as abstractions is necessary to pave the way for relating picture making to our desire to find resolution, coherence, and unity in the world around us (Arnheim , 1966; Gregory , 1970; Zettl , 1990). After all, visualization plays a central role in the cognitive processes scientists and mathematicians engage (Arcavi , 1999; Buckley, Gahegan, & Clarke , 2000); Duval , 1999; Gilbert , 2005; Kaput , 1999). Unfortunately, if a comprehensive theory of pictures and picture meaning is not currently available, then research on visualization must proceed based on intuitions about picture usefulness rather than on informed judgement.

Thinking intuitively, what must a student do to use a visualization object ? It seems clear that even a trivial interpretation of visualization object s requires that the student utilize attributional and inferential strategies. This is so because, in the absence of human cognitive engagement, visualization object s are merely sources of optical data . The person viewing the image must have at least some repertoire of experiences, mental skills, and volitions even to begin the process of interpretation. Some cognitive action must be made to move from what is on the page (or screen, etc.) to some internalized conception of what it represents before interpretation, manipulation, or prediction can occur. The failure to recognize the processes of mediation between what is visualized in the mind’s eye and the visualization object itself involves much more than just the confusion of the object and what it stands for (Presmeg , 1999). The use of visualizations in any mode or style involves not only an awareness of the properties of the object itself, but also a familiarity with the forms of symbolization that appear in the object as proxies for reality. Recall  Fig. 2.1, Descartes ’ diagram of human vision. Without some familiarity with the central ideas, it is not obvious which features of Descartes ’ illustration are relevant to the understanding of what. Are the eyes important? Does the gender of the subject matter? What are those lines piercing her eyes? What is she pointing at? Helping students attain a range of interpretive and evaluative skills in order to recognize and understand the manipulations possible with visualization and also how to interpret a representational symbolic system are just a few of the factors to be considered in teaching with visualization object s. Thus, a thorough understanding of the nature of visualization object s, their functions (Ainsworth, 1999), and the interpretive skills essential to assess the plausibility, validity, and value of visual images is critically important.

Much research has focused on which characteristics of visualization object s are significant in making them maximally effective in conveying information to a learner. The earliest known studies on visualization for the purposes of teaching and learning appeared in 1936, and since that time there has been a more or less steady increase in the number of studies. Figure 3.5 shows a timeline of articles focused on visualization. From the 140 empirical studies examined in this review, five characteristics emerged as important features of visualizations: colour , realism , relevance , level of interactivity , and animation . The number of studies focused on each characteristic can be seen in Fig. 3.6.
Fig. 3.5

Number of published articles about visualization by year

Fig. 3.6

Number of published studies about characteristics relating to a good visualization by decade


Studies in the first half of the twentieth century focused primarily on the presence or absence of colour in illustrations for children’s books. Miller ’s (1936) study presented 300 primary school children with photographs copied in five different ways: line drawing, black and white, full colour with three primary colours, colour with red as the predominant colour , and colour with blue as the predominant colour . The majority of children in grades four to six stated a preference for the full colour picture , followed by the picture in which red was predominant, and then in which blue was predominant. Rudisill did a similar study in 1952 with approximately 1,200 children in kindergarten up to grade six. She presented five types of illustrations (all with the same content) that were commonly found in children’s books: an uncoloured photograph , a coloured photograph , a coloured drawing realistic both in form and in colour , an outline drawing realistic in form but with an outline that is coloured without regard for realistic effect, and a coloured drawing that is conventional in form but unrealistic in colour . She concluded that children first look at an illustration for content that is lifelike and real, including colour , which adds to the realism . Given the different sorts of books and visual images that today’s children experience compared to those studied by Miller and Rudisill , it is difficult to say how much validity these results would continue to have.

In 1960, Amsden extended the studies on the impact of colour . She examined the amount, value, and kind of colour 60 children, aged 3–5 years, preferred in illustrations. To determine the amount of colour preferred, she provided a black and white line drawing, one with one colour , one with two colours, one with three colours, and a drawing with four colours, which she said represented the most realistic of them all. To determine the value of colour , she provided drawings with lighter and darker shades. To determine preference, she provided a black and white photograph as well as a line drawing. And lastly, to determine the style of drawing, she provided a realistic drawing and a fanciful drawing. Amsden found that illustrations with more colours were significantly more preferred to those with fewer colours, but when a black and white photograph was compared to a line drawing with one colour there was no significant difference in the children’s preferences. In his studies in the 1960s and 1970s, Dwyer asked, among other things, if colour was an important variable in facilitating university undergraduate student achievement. Based on his studies comparing illustrations of the human heart , he concluded that colour was important in visuals but only with reference to certain instructional objectives, such as those focused on realistic features of objects, those requiring identification of parts of a diagram, and those focused on overall concept understanding (1970, 1971).

In a study of the literate and illiterate population of Olhao in Southern Portugal , Reis , Faísca, Ingvar, and Petersson (2006) compared object recognition in coloured and black and white depictions of physical objects. When 38 participants divided equally into literate and illiterate groups were compared, they found that “color, independent of the presentation mode, does make a difference for the illiterate subjects” (p. 52) on object recognition . Based on this result the authors concluded that “color has a stronger influence on performance than photographic detail for the non-literate subjects” (p. 53), thus suggesting that “it is the presence of color attributes…which facilitates the access to stored structural knowledge about objects” (p. 53).

From our perspective, there is a great difference between studies that focus on interest as the dependent variable and those that focus on understanding , or literacy achievement. Children’s preferences are not necessarily of sufficient educational value to justify the choice of picture style or colour based upon them . If the only effect is increased interest with no concomitant effect on understanding or achievement, then other factors such as time, efficiency, and expense can play a larger role in decisions about the use of colour .


Francis Dwyer carried out numerous studies focusing on realistic detail in illustrations. His 1967 study examined how 108 university undergraduates interpreted information about the human heart when it was presented in various ways: orally with no accompanying illustrations but with text naming parts of the heart projected on a screen; orally and with abstract linear representations of parts of the heart ; orally and with more detailed, shaded drawings representing parts of the heart ; and orally with realistic photographs of the parts of the heart . Dwyer found that a reduction in realism did not necessarily reduce the instructional effectiveness, and sometimes even improved it. He also noted that there were different levels of effectiveness with the different types of instruction for different educational objectives. Dwyer followed his 1967 study with a similar study in 1968, which again examined levels of realistic detail required for educational objectives related to teaching undergraduate students about the human heart . The same presentation sequence was followed in 1968 as in the 1967 study, with five groups of students hearing and viewing information in the same five conditions. After listening to the presentation sequences, the 269 students were given four post-tests with questions on identification of parts of the heart , terminology, and heart functions coupled with the requirement to draw a diagram of the heart . Scores for each of these four tests were combined and a total composite score was determined. Dwyer found that the oral presentation of information complemented by printed text without pictures was the most effective condition for learning the identification of parts of the heart , terminology, and understanding heart function . Students in this control group (oral with printed text only) also had the highest composite scores compared to all of the treatment groups. However, students who had viewed abstract line or shaded diagrams during the oral presentation scored better than the control group on drawing a diagram of the heart . Dwyer concluded that the realistic details in certain illustrations were distracting students from the important information in the text, and that students took too long to study and comprehend the information in the diagram. This suggests that it is very important that the designers and implementers of visualization object s and activities pay close attention to the structure of the objects and be careful not to include unneeded detail. This is reminiscent of the differences between Descartes ’ elaborate and Newton ’s austere diagrams depicting optical phenomena (Figs.  2.1 and  2.2).

Haring and Fry (1979) concurred with the finding that pictures do not need to be detailed or colourful to be effective for increasing recall. Their study with 150 fourth and sixth graders broke a story into sections, and then added two sets of redundant pictures. They found that even unimaginative pen and ink drawings helped with recall of main ideas presented in the text. Readence and Moore (1981) questioned the effect of adjunct pictures on reading comprehension in their review of previous studies. They examined several variables, including realism in illustrations, and they differentiated between line drawings, shaded drawings, and photographs. They found that line drawings alone were able to provide the proper spatial perspective necessary to facilitate reading comprehension.


In 1989 when Norma Presmeg examined previous research that challenged students with mathematical problems and interviews asking about their use of visualizations in solving problems, she found that when the medium of instruction is in a language that is not the home language of the student, having visual elements included in the lesson can help comprehension of the material. Presmeg suggested that comprehension as a result of the inclusion of visual elements in the lesson is particularly increased if the visuals are meaningful to the students’ frame of reference . For example, she suggested that the Rangoli patterns that are commonly used by Hindu and Sikh families to decorate their homes have a geometrical basis that can be referenced by a teacher to discuss shape and space in the classroom, helping some students to solve some mathematical problems.

Booth and Thomas (1999) studied the relationship between problem solving and spatial ability in 32 mathematics students aged 11–15 years . They used the New Zealand -developed Progressive Achievement Tests , which measure recall ability; accuracy and efficiency at calculating; comprehension of terms, symbols, formulas, concepts, and principles; ability to apply knowledge; and ability to select processes necessary to provide solutions. The information was provided in diagram and picture format, and the researchers found that the diagrams required more time and a higher level of visual skill to interpret and relate to the problem than did the pictures. When a student must relate a visual to a model of reality presented in a mathematical problem, the relationship requires interpretation and spatial skill that some students may not possess. Healy and Hoyles ’ (1999) study examined how 20 students aged 12 and 13 years used visual reasoning in mathematical activities. They used computer -integrated tasks and computer -added tasks to document the influence of computer use on patterns of reasoning and found that computer work needed to be carefully planned so that it would be relevant and transferable to the curriculum. They maintained that improving visual and symbolic reasoning in mathematics through using computers required a strong and precise connection between reasoning and the tasks on computers.

Vekiri (2002) has cautioned against assuming that graphic displays in and of themselves can enhance learning. To be effective, visual representations must first be well designed: for example, she argued that Gestalt principles of perceptual organization such as connectedness and proximity should be employed. In addition, if it is to enhance learning, then a visualization object must effectively communicate information to a viewer. This means that what the learner brings to the task is extremely important. That is, the viewer’s background knowledge and interpretive ability and skills play a major role in determining the teaching effectiveness of any visualization.

Further, Richardson (1994) has advised that for some cognitive tasks “imaginal elements may be either irrelevant or detrimental to performance” (p. 70), explaining that “a vivid image will have no special virtue if a task can be performed equally well without its presence”. Citing research by Reisberg and Leak (1987), Richardson continued, “it may be that vivid imagery is a disadvantage in some situations in which, for example, perceptual judgments are required” (p. 121). In their research, Reisberg and Leak (1987) found that subjects they described as “high vividness imagers” (p. 521) were less accurate than “low vividness imagers” (p. 521) when faced with a task requiring the comparison of imaged faces of famous people.

So, while it appears to be widely accepted that visualization object s can support communication, thinking, and learning, Schnotz (2002) also cautioned that this is true “only if they interact appropriately with the individual’s cognitive system” (p. 113). That is, the strategies a learner has developed for visualizing are essential, as is the individual’s prior content knowledge, cognitive abilities, and learning skills. Furthermore, Schnotz emphasized that effective learning from graphics is also dependent on the instructional design of the visuospatial text, listing many of the same design characteristics and justifications that Vekiri (2002) had.


Researchers of computer animations as visualization object s have noted that the high level of interactivity between object and learner appears to facilitate greater levels of interpretive visualization than do other types of visualization object s. Milheim (1993) discussed previous research on the use and effectiveness of animation in instruction and summarized it into guidelines and suggestions for implementing animation . He stated that animation in computer -based instruction is uniquely beneficial because the learner can control and manipulate parts of the presentation, can test hypotheses, and can witness consequences through programme feedback. Bennett and Dwyer (1994) stressed the same point when they said that “interactive visuals [in this case, drawing lines to emphasize shape and location of critical information of the question] which allow the learner to take an active role in the learning process can influence the learner’s ability to select, acquire, construct and integrate concepts” (p. 23). Their study tested 178 college-level students’ abilities to read text and to refer to visuals to reinforce information. Students participated in the instructional presentation and immediately afterwards had a drawing test that evaluated their ability to construct and reproduce items from the presentation. They also completed an identification test, a terminology test, and a comprehension test. Bennett and Dwyer found that interactive visual strategies were effective in facilitating student achievement, but that students need an explanation of how the interactive strategy is going to help achieve the specific learning objective in order to help them organize the information for acquisition and retrieval.

In their review of previous research, Scaife and Rogers (1996) stated that “virtual reality and visualization, as means of representing and interacting with information, are very much at the forefront of technological development” (p. 3). They found that being immersed in the experience of a visual aid is a major motivating factor for learning and that animated diagrams were more effective at facilitating cognitive tasks than static, non-interactive graphics (p. 3). Taking interaction with visualization further is LaViola Jr.’s (2007) Tablet PC-based application, MathPad2. (Note that the superscript “2” is an exponent, not a reference to a footnote.) LaViola Jr. explains the work already done on MathPad2 as well as recent advances in the use of mathematical sketching. He states that “an important goal of mathematical sketching is to facilitate mathematical problem solving without imposing any interaction burden beyond those of traditional media” (p. 38). In other words, LaViola Jr. has aimed to create a programme that is better than pencil-and-paper drawings but not more cumbersome to use. The potential of MathPad2 was affirmed in a preliminary evaluation when it was reported that “subjects thought the application was a powerful tool that beginning physics and mathematics students could use to help solve problems and better understand scientific concepts” (p. 8).

Lurie and Mason ’s (2007) discussion paper explored the use of interactive visualization tools in consumer marketing. They argue that “by mimicking the act of touching and feeling products, interactive virtual reality visualizations may be better substitutes for haptic experience s than textual information” (p. 163). The authors posit that such virtual reality has the ability to “increase consumers ’ confidence in their choices and lower the proportion of physical search relative to online search” (p. 163). Companies such as those selling houses, cars, telephones, and furniture use these virtual reality visual representations to allow their customers an opportunity to explore products through sound, motion, and other effects.


Since the early 1990s, computer- generated animation has taken an increasing role in the discourse of visualization. Lloyd Rieber (1990a) reviewed the extant literature and claimed that “animation has been used in instruction to fulfill or assist one of three functions: attention-gaining, presentation, and practice” (p. 77). He noted that the “use of animation must be evaluated carefully, however, to avoid inadvertently reinforcing wrong responses” (p. 78). Rieber made three main suggestions for using animations:
  1. 1.

    Use them only when the attributes of the animation are compatible with the learning task (that is, when completing the task successfully involves the need for visualization, motion, and/or trajectory).

  2. 2.

    Make animations simple enough so that the relevant cues provided by the animation are understood (that is, decompose the information into chunks so that each important point is emphasized).

  3. 3.

    Use interactive animation in a way that students can perceive the differences in the feedback from the graphics (that is, allow students to take control of their learning by manipulating the “game”).


It is clear that animated visualization object s are able to show time-domain changes in a way that static diagrams and drawings cannot. Many of the same issues that have been raised for static objects transfer to animations. These points are explored more deeply in  Chapter 7.

Concluding Comments

What we have seen in this chapter is that there is general support for the hypothesis that various sorts of visualization object s are helpful for students to learn in a variety of contexts. There are no clear-cut rules for how to create the most effective visual aid. However, there do seem to be some general guidelines that can be extracted based on our review. First and foremost, visual aids must be relevant to the lesson objectives. If a visual aid is being used simply for sensational or attention-getting purposes, it will distract from the learning and inadvertently cause the students to recall the wrong information. Second, the content of the visual aid is more important that the presence or absence of colour or the simplicity of line drawings versus the depth of realism . Third, visual aids should be used as a supplement to and not a replacement for text. Combining visuals and printed information enables students with different learning styles to receive the information through either the text, the visual, or both. Fourth, animation should be used only when the knowledge to be gained is related to movement or can be better understood if a 3D visual is shown (for example, trajectory of movement, chemical bonds, layers of epidermis on a cadaver). Animations should be short, simple, and obvious in terms of what is being demonstrated. Fifth, interactive /dynamic visuals are beneficial to learning, but only if there is a component of immediate feedback (Levin , Anglin, & Carney , 1987); Mayer, 1997 ; Scaife & Rogers , 1996.


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Copyright information

© Springer Science+Business Media B.V. 2010

Authors and Affiliations

  • Linda M. Phillips
    • 1
    Email author
  • Stephen P. Norris
    • 2
  • John S. Macnab
    • 3
  1. 1.Canadian Centre for Research on LiteracyUniversity of AlbertaEdmontonCanada
  2. 2.Centre for Research in Youth, Science Teaching and LearningUniversity of AlbertaEdmontonCanada
  3. 3.EdmontonCanada

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