AECT Handbook of Research

Table of Contents

16. Visual Literacy

16.1 Introduction
16.2 Theoretical Foundations of Visual Literacy
16.3 Establishing a Visual Literacy Research Agenda
16.4 Visual Vocabulary
16.5 Visualization
16.6 Visual Learning/Visual Teaching
16.7 Visual Thinking
16.8 Visual Literacy and Verbal Literacy
16.9 The Visual-Verbal Relationship
16.10 Visible Language:Text as Visuals
16.11 Eletronic Visuals
16.12 Conclusions
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The visual literacy movement has been tied to the field of education from the outset. While the research on visualization has demonstrated that visual skills can be taught (Winn, 1982a, and others), there has been no standard approach to teaching visual skills. Although visual skills and visual literacy instruction in the schools is the exception rather than the rule, in several instances visual literacy courses have been introduced. Dake (1982) reviewed 50 visual literacy curricula representing all education levels. He concluded:

Programs that propose to promote visual literacy come in an amazing variety of formats, with significantly different content. Each program seems to have been uniquely formed around existing conditions, the support and facilities available, and the knowledge and dedication of personnel already on hand (p. 2).

As to the significantly different content that he mentioned, Dake went on to list 20 topics that could be found in the various curricula. The list is interesting because of its diversity and because several topics seem only remotely related to communicating visually.

  1. Developing an understanding of visual media
  2. Development of an awareness of communications (mass media) technology and its pervasiveness
  3. Technical information on photography, video, etc.
  4. The psychology and physiology of vision (These are organized with various levels of analysis of specific behaviors as well as holistic subjective content.)
  5. The analysis, evaluation, and interpretation of visual communication
  6. Aesthetics
  7. How visual literacy contributes to the development of general intellectual skills
  8. Developing [visual] learning skills
  9. Developing positive self-concept, I autonomy, and self-esteem
  10. Learning attentiveness to concrete experiences
  11. The blending of vision with other senses
  12. Developing self-knowledge (The selectivity that goes into visual messaging reveals a great deal about the creator.)
  13. Metaphoric thinking and language-development of meaning
  14. The creative process
  15. The nature of consciousness
  16. Imagination
  17. The relationship of visual literacy to concept development
  18. Perception of patterns and classification (such as causation)
  19. Body and object language
  20. Exploring visual/verbal relations (p. 3)

Dake (1982) concluded that "the programs surveyed do not show a consistent relationship between visual literacy theory and research and the structure of the curricula." While he gathered and published information about 19 of the curricula, including evaluation information, no conclusive research conclusions can be drawn. (All of the programs were considered to be "successful," but evaluation evidence was more anecdotal than empirical.)

16.6.1 Realism and the Program of Systematic Evaluation

As noted earlier, Levie (1978) set a research agenda that had its focus on learning and cognition. Prior to that, Dwyer (1972) wrote his Guide for Improving Visualized Instruction, which made widely known that he and his associates had been involved in a series of related experimental studies employing similar instructional materials since 1965. That program of ongoing research came to be known as the Program of Systematic Evaluation (PSE), and the 1972 report covered the results of the first phase of that program. The second phase was reported in Dwyer's 1978 book, Strategies for Improving Visual Learning. In 1987, Dwyer edited a volume of more than 30 research papers selected from the then 150odd PSE experiments (the number has since passed 200). Dwyer himself (1994) characterized the 1987 book as a report on phase 3 of PSE. No other body of research rivals in size or scope the PSE series of experiments. Recently, summaries of the PSE research have been made available (Dwyer, Dwyer & Canelos, 1989; Dwyer, 1994). The findings of PSE have resulted in dozens of principles for visualized instruction and for visual design. For example, here are 3 (of nearly 40) generalizations from Dwyer's latest overview (Dwyer, 1994):

  • Boys and girls in the same grade level (high school) learn equally well from identical types of visual illustrations when they are used to complement oral instruction [a finding from phase I of PSE].
  • The realism continuum for visual illustrations applied to externally paced instruction is not an effective predictor of learning efficiency of all types of educational objectives. An increase in the amount of realistic detail contained in an illustration will not produce a corresponding increase in the amount of information a student will acquire from it [a finding from phase 2 of PSE].
  • Achievement is enhanced when embedded cueing strategies are integrated into computer-based instruction [a finding from phase 3 of PSE]. Realism Studies. Other areas of study associated with visual learning and visual teaching have included realism studies, which are closely related to the PSE program in thrust but not in method. For a sample of this area of inquiry, readers are referred to Knowlton (1966), Levie (1978), Levie and Lentz (1982), Wileman (1980,1993), Beauchamp and Braden (1989), and Braden and Beauchamp (1987).

The two Wileman texts (1980, 1993) have provided (and updated) a typology for the realism continuum that has been adopted by several other authors (e.g., Pettersson, 1993; Braden, 1994). Knowlton (1966) proposed that images be categorized for purposes of study and research. His categorization scheme was based primarily on degrees of realism. Levie and Lentz (1982), while concentrating on the effects of illustration on text, digressed to discuss providing additional pictorial information.

Braden and Beauchamp (1987) proposed a 2 X 2 matrix model for the concurrent study of the visual realism continuum and the audible realism continuum. The extremes of both continua were labeled verbal and nonverbal. Thus, four separate slide-plus-tape instructional presentations were prepared, each representing verbal and nonverbal extremes of visuals and sounds. Acknowledging that there is an aesthetic or affective component to interpretations at the abstract ends of both continua, they suggested an eclectic research approach to include both quantitative and qualitative methods in the investigation of the interactions of the two sets of variables. When the slide-plus-tapes were administered as instruction in a study with college students, significant cognitive and affective differences were found (Beauchamp & Braden, 1989). The following conclusions were drawn:

  1. In a sight-plus-sound presentation, when verbal language is used to appeal to only one sense via either printed or spoken words, cognitive achievement is not significantly diminished.
  2. Pictures used in a sight-plus-sound presentation prompt viewer recall from memory or experience of information not in the presentation.
  3. Cognitive stimuli prompt immediate cognitive recall.
  4. Visuals, especially photographs, prompt immediate positive affective responses to a presentation.
  5. Music from a sight-plus-sound presentation, more so than visuals, prompts long-range, or delayed, positive affective responses.
  6. Students are aware of "when" and "if' they are learning. Changing the delivery-of-instruction mode does not change this apparently innate sense of learning.
  7. A desired change in attitude is prompted through the introduction of new concepts and ideas, not through the presentation itself (p. 38).

16.6.2. Perception and Critical Viewing Skills Perception. Perception, narrowly defined, is awareness. Most of what we perceive is perceived visually-perhaps three-quarters or more (Barry, 1994; Hansen, 1987). Perception is sensing, and visual perception is seeing. Studies of perception at that level are beyond the scope of this chapter. Still, the relevance to visual literacy of perception more broadly defined is obvious. Barry (1994) defines perception as "the process by which we derive meaning from what we see, hear, taste, and smell" (p. 114, emphasis added). Seeing images and deriving meaning from them is both an act of perception and a necessary condition of visual literacy.

In his book on visual information, Pettersson (1993) includes a chapter on perception that assumes the broadest kind of definition of the term. Included in his chapter is a section on the physiological aspects of vision, including reference to studies of his own and of others about eye movements, fixations, and scanning as physical attributes of seeing-to-perceive. There is also a section on picture perception, again supported by reports of his own and others' research. In the smorgasbord of topics that he includes are subliminal reception, illusions, visual imagery, and a cognitive model of perception.

From the mass of research that Pettersson reviews and describes, he reached the following eclectic conclusions (among others):

  • All visual experience is subject to individual interpretation.
  • Perceived image content is different from intended image content.
  • Even simple pictures may cause many different associations.
  • A given set of basic elements can be combined to form completely different images.
  • 'Me design of a picture can be changed a great deal without any major impaction the perception of the image contents.
  • Content is more important than execution or form.
  • Picture readability is positively correlated with both aesthetic ratings and assessed usefulness in teaching.
  • Legends should be written with great care. They heavily influence our interpretation of image content.
  • To a large degree, readers see what they are told to see in an image.
  • There seems to be no major difference between genders in interpretation of image contents.
  • Students display poor pictorial capabilities.
  • We must learn to read image content (p. 86).

Barry (1994) has written an elaborate piece on perceptual aesthetics and visual language. Although most of her chapter is expository and theoretical, she makes some interesting connections. For example, she brings together meaning and feeling and explains how the perceptual process serves as a link. She provides a useful conception of Gestalt psychology as a basis for aesthetic theory. Others who have concerned themselves with visual aesthetics are Arnheim (1979) and Curtiss (1987).

Winn (1993) has written a new two-part chapter on perception for the revised Fleming and Levie (1993) book of principles from the behavioral and cognitive sciences. In the Winn chapter, conclusions from the research are stated as principles, and each principle is then briefly explained. Many of the explanations cite the underlying research. In Part 1, most of the 31 perception principles are generalized, but a few address visual perception directly. For example, these four research-based principles relate directly to visualization and visual literacy:

1.3. Distinguishing between figure and ground is one of the most basic perceptual processes. Early perceptual processes are active in figure-ground organization (p. 59).

1.5b. Whether people see the "big picture" or details first depends primarily, in vision perception, on the size of the visual angle, that is, on the size of the image relative to the whole visual field (p. 64).

1.6. A horizontal-vertical reference system seems to be fundamental to perceptual organization. There is also a natural tendency for people to partition images into left and right fields (p. 65),

2.5. If none of these factors [sequence, organization, or composition] comes into play, there is a tendency for literate viewers to "read" visual messages in the same way they read text-for English speakers, that means from left to right and top to bottom (p. 70).

Part 11 of Winn's chapter on perception principles contains a section on "The Perception of Pictures," with 12 principles, and a section on "The Perception of Diagrams, Charts, and Graphs," with 14 principles. All of these 26 research-based items are germane to visualization and visual literacy, and are commended to our readers. Critical-Viewing Skills. The need for instruction in critical TV-viewing skills has been taken for granted. The Far West Laboratory for Educational Research and Development sponsored a national program of TV Viewing Workshops in support of Ned White's (1980) high school curriculum (and textbook) entitled Inside Television: A Guide to Critical Viewing. Lieberman (n.d.), in the trainer's manual for those workshops, offered a rationale for teaching critical-viewing skills: "Students do require training to develop the ability to analyze and evaluate these [TV] messages, know the capabilities and limitations of the medium, and make conscious decisions about when and what to watch" (p. 3). She did not cite any research to justify the need for or the effectiveness of critical-viewing skill instruction, and her extensive bibliography does not include any references to such research; either none exists or it is fugitive literature.

Minneapolis was the first American city to adopt a citywide program for teaching visual literacy skills across the curriculum, based on the assumption that to do so would develop creative and critical thinkers (Lacy, 1987). An 81page curriculum document written by Lyn Lacy was published and distributed throughout the city (Lacy, 1989). The rationale stated in that document was not documented by research either, but its main points are of interest here. Regarding the teaching of thinking, the Minneapolis guidelines say that visual literacy and thinking:

  1. Should both be taught throughout the curriculum
  2. Should both be taught in relation to content
  3. Should initially both be taught in sequential order but, once learned, neither are always used consciously and in sequence thereafter
  4. Should both be taught as processes in themselves, so that students understand what they are doing and can apply processes elsewhere (Lacy, 1988, p. 34)

Another program for teaching critical-viewing skills is sponsored by the Washington [D.C.] Association for Television and Children (WATCH). This small association published a critical-viewing guide (Banta & Creighton, 1985) and collaborated with a local television station in the production of a regional critical-viewing project (Sutton, 1987). Like the other examples given, the rationale for the WATCH critical-viewing project was based on values rather than on research.

To summarize on this topic, intuition that students will profit from critical viewing may well be sound. However, longitudinal research on the effects of these programs is needed. A number of authors have concentrated on perception and critical-viewing skills (Adams & Hamm, 1987; Baron, 1985; Finn, 1980; Hefzallah, 1986, 1987; Lloyd-Kolkin, 1982; Watkins et al., 1988; White, 1980).

A dedicated group of scholars has investigated visuals and visualizing as functions of learning strategies and learner styles (Ausburn & Ausburn, 1978b; Canelos, 1980, 1983; Dwyer & Moore, 1992; Moore, 1986; Moore & Dwyer, 1991; Moore & Bedient, 1986; Streibel, 1980; Ragan, 1978). Two approaches have been taken to investigating visuals as a function of learning styles. The first has focused on the differential effects when the learning style is based on the visual/haptic scale. According to Jonassen & Grabowski (1993):

Visually oriented individuals acquaint themselves with the environment through their vision.... The individual with haptic tendencies is more concerned with body sensations experienced through a tactile and/or kinesthetic mode.... Visual and haptic learning styles are, theoretically, at opposite ends of a continuum of perceptual organization of the external environment (p. 177).

A much-used indicator of visual/haptic style has been field dependence. In 199 1, Mike Moore reported the results of a program of eight research studies by him and his students at Virginia Tech involving field dependence-independence and a variety of media attributes. That program of research continues.

The other scale commonly used to identify individual differences involving visuals is that of visualizer/verbalizer. The important dimension used to identify the polarized ends of this spectrum is that visualizers are image oriented, whereas verbalizers are word oriented. Richardson (1977) established the link between the visualizer/verbalizer styles and brain hemisphericity and created the Verbal and Visual Learning Styles Questionnaire. The recent study by Kirby, Moore, and Shofield (1988) indicated that verbal ability as measured by Richardson's questionnaire was positively correlated with spatial relations and spatial visualization, but nothing else. Useful significant findings to date are few, the most important being that students whose styles are matched to the styles of teachers tend to do better (Moore, 199 1), and when students' preferred learning mode is matched to the learning task, they also tend to do better (Riding & Burt, 1982).

While many individuals have shown an interest in teaching with visuals, only a few have chosen to explore the effects of both teaching with and testing with visuals. Most of the visual testing research has been done in conjunction with the PSE program (DeMelo, Sazbo & Dwyer, 1981; F. Dwyer & DeMelo, 1983; Szabo, 1981; Szabo, F Dwyer & DeMelo, 198 1; DeMelo & F. Dwyer, 1983; C. Dwyer, 1984, 1985; C. Dwyer & F. Dwyer, 1985). In general the results of that research are that visualized testing provides better assessment and strengthens retention from visualized instruction.

Updated August 3, 2001
Copyright © 2001
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