Drawings and diagrams don’t help pupils learn history

Most modern textbooks are jammed full of glossy pictures and intricate diagrams and, indeed, research has shown that learning from text complemented with such “visualisations” boosts learning performance. That research, however, has been almost exclusively restricted to the teaching of science. Maaike Prangsma and colleagues have now tested the benefits of drawings and diagrams in the teaching of history, finding that they made no difference at all to learning performance, although pupils did say they found the graphics-enhanced materials easier to understand than plain-old text.

Prangsma and colleagues had 104 pupils aged 12 to 13 years read a short passage of text about the fall of the Roman Empire before engaging in one of four versions of a learning task based on the same topic. This task involved inserting missing words into statements about the fall of the Roman Empire, and crucially the task was either presented with text only; within a schematic diagram illustrating causal relations and chronology; with relevant drawings; or with a combination of the diagram and drawings. Learning performance was tested with 28 true-false statements, given before, immediately after, and six weeks after the experiment.

The key finding was that the nature of the learning task made no difference to learning outcomes. The plain text version appeared to be just as effective as the versions involving a diagram, drawings, or combination of the two. The researchers were surprised by this result and offered a number of possible explanations. For example, perhaps the initial text on the fall of the Roman Empire was so effective it undermined any possible differential effects from the learning tasks. Or perhaps graphics aid science learning because there are clear rules about what different signs and symbols mean, whereas history lacks these conventions and the students therefore didn’t know how to use the visual aids.

On a positive note, the students said they found the learning task with drawings easier to understand than the plain text version and they felt that they had learned more from it. “Such positive appreciation of the materials should not be underestimated,” the researchers said. “The goal of educational motivation is not only to make learning more efficient … or effective … but also to make learning more pleasant such that the affective learning experience is more satisfying and learners will want to learn more.”

ResearchBlogging.orgPrangsma, M., van Boxtel, C., Kanselaar, G., & Kirschner, P. (2009). Concrete and abstract visualizations in history learning tasks. British Journal of Educational Psychology, 79 (2), 371-387 DOI: 10.1348/000709908X379341

Post written by Christian Jarrett (@psych_writer) for the BPS Research Digest.

3 thoughts on “Drawings and diagrams don’t help pupils learn history”

  1. I guess these students went in knowing they were studying for a test (and wanted to succeed?).

    That the study showed pictures were more positively received by pupils (even if they don’t necessarily significantly increase understanding) at least shows they have utility in gaining and/or maintaining student interest in textbook material. Positive reception may also help in long term memory recollection, shouldn’t it?


  2. I think there is a probably flaw in the study in the use of “fill in the blank” questions. These are naturally going to refer to the text, and may even have been drawn from the text itself. I believe that diagrams would help in the understanding of more complex topics than simple missing word questions.

    If you asked a question about the order of a set of events, I would hypothesize that a timeline would be more efficient learning tool than a series of paragraphs.


  3. The focal point here, I think, may have been somewhat misconstrued.

    The learning outcomes (as measure by true/false choices) are essentially relative to the text here. The four different learning activities are not being rehearsed, not even merely.

    Visuo-spatial aids are effective when they are incorporated within the structure of the content (the initial text in this instance).

    A more reliable test, in my view, would be to compare learning outcomes (i.e. performance on true/false statements) after having received either plain text, 2-D (or even 3-D) representations, or a motion picture of the same content.

    The key here is to match the modality of encoding, rehearsing, and recalling information in order to test the effects of learning content that is in different modalities. This study yielded such results mainly because the whole group of students encoded, rehearsed and recalled the same information in the same modality. That is to say, there was one group only without a comparison to an other.


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