Title: The Role of Decorative Pictures in Learning (2013)
Authors: Alwine Lenzner, Wolfgang Schnotz, & Andreas Muller
Source: Instructional Science
Research Question: Do decorative pictures (as opposed to instructional pictures) included in textbooks have an effect on learning?
Study Design: While abundant existing research indicates that students learn better from a combination of images and text than from just text alone, almost all of the research deals with instructional images rather than decorative images. The authors of the study provide a definitional difference between instructional and decorative images: instructional images are informative in function and correspond directly to the surrounding text and exemplify the lesson, whereas decorative images are non-instructional but aesthetically pleasing, and are used to increase a sense of student comfort. Past research indicates that instructional pictures create a "multimedia effect"; they directly relate textual information in a different format and allow the student to construct a mental model for the text, which increases learning outcomes. Past research assumes but has not adequately proven the theory that decorative images may enhance a motivational atmosphere which may increase the student’s mood during learning.
To study the effect of decorative images on learning, the authors break their study down into three parts. The first study uses eye-tracking methodology to determine whether decorative pictures distract the reader’s attention from the text. The second study uses the Multidimensional Mood Inventory to determine whether decorative pictures affect the learner’s alertness, calmness, and mood. The third study tests motivational factors and learning performance between textbooks with instructional images, textbooks with decorative images, textbooks with both types of images, and textbooks with neither.
Findings: As predicted, the researchers found that decorative pictures attracted less attention than instructional images, and therefore did not distract the students from learning. Also as predicted, they found that although students spent less time viewing the decorative pictures than instructional images, these images did increase student mood, alertness, and calmness. In the third study, the researchers hypothesized that students would consider the text easier if it included decorative images, and their test results show that to be true. However, they found that text with exclusively decorative images did not affect student performance at all. Instructional images, on the other hand, did increase student performance. Unexpectedly, they found that a combination of decorative and instructional images significantly increased performance. Therefore, textbooks that include both decorative and instructional images increase learning performance more than textbooks with instructional images alone.
Moving Forward: Although the results are mixed, the fact that decorative pictures positively affected students’ alertness, calmness, and mood indicates that decorative images improve the learning environment in which students encounter their work. This could have repercussions beyond the specific environment of this study (textbooks) and could extend to considerations in classroom aesthetics. However, the findings show that decorative images alone do not increase student performance, an unexpected outcome given that they do positively affect both the students mood and motivation. It seems probable that decorative images in textbooks provide a more subtle difference in learning environment than these studies were able to determine.Image: Experimental Foafspec Diagram by Dan Brickley via Flickr