Look! Something Shiny! How Some Textbook Visuals Can Hurt Learning

Researchers found that when learning to read bar graphs, children learned better with plain simple bars. Filling the bars with pictures or patterns distracted them from what was important.

Researchers found that 6- to 8-year-old children best learned how to read simple bar graphs when the graphs were plain and a single color.

Children who were taught using graphs with images (like shoes or flowers) on the bars didn't learn the lesson as well and sometimes tried counting the images rather than relying on the height of the bars.

"Graphs with pictures may be more visually appealing and engaging to children than those without pictures. However, engagement in the task does not guarantee that children are focusing their attention on the information and procedures they need to learn. Instead, they may be focusing on superficial features,"...

... the authors cite real-life examples of colorful, engaging -- and possibly confusing -- bar graphs in educational materials aimed at children, as well as in the popular media.

And when the authors asked 16 kindergarten and elementary school teachers whether they would use the visually appealing graphs featured in this study, all of them said they would. Intuitively, most of these teachers felt that the graphs with the pictures would be more effective for instruction than the graphs without, according to the researchers.

"Any unnecessary visual information may distract children from the very procedures we want them to learn."

"When teaching children new math concepts, keeping material simple is very important," Sloutsky said.

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