Your senses act like intuitive circuits to help you focus your attention and take in information. While you use all your functioning senses to take things in, your two primary input channels are probably auditory and visual. In the past a great deal of teaching and learning was directed toward the auditory channel. This method evolved because it was the easiest to deliver. Before the advent of new media, your options for the delivery of content were limited in many ways that no longer apply. Today you have many options for the delivery of training and learning, and so does everyone else.
When thinking about the ways in which you learn, it is important to recognize that in our culture you—and everyone else—are on cognitive overload; you are bombarded by images all day long, every day. You see images from the time you wake up until the time you go to sleep. Advertisements, labels, logos, the news, packaging and, of course, everything online competes for your attention. “At any given moment, so much sensory data about the external world enters your brain through your sensory channels that the key proficiency of consciousness is not the ability to perceive the external world but rather the ability to shut so much of it out. If you paid attention to everything that your sensory organs were perceiving, you’d be overwhelmed with stimulus (Johnson, 2004, p.90).” All of these competing stimuli make it imperative that you use and choose your visuals for learning wisely. If you want your learners to learn and not just be entertained, then including good visuals for learning in your instructional materials is imperative.
Visuals can help learners absorb information by affecting their attention, perception, visualization and imagination. Your job is to gain their attention, and attention is concentrated or focused consciousness. Experts in the field of training and learning, from Robert Gagne to John Keller, have indicated that attention affects learning. Perception, on the other hand, can be stimulated by visual images, but it is unique to you because it is your judgment on that consciousness. It is your awareness and understanding of what you are taking in, and it can be based on a variety of stimuli including past events, culture, current environment and emotions. Visualization is your own mental picturing of an event or outcome. By creating a mental image of something it is possible to internalize it. Many famous studies have been done supporting the outcomes of visualization on everything from sports performance to acquiring wealth. Finally, imagination is stimulated by visualization. By using your imagination you can construct mental images, pictures, feelings and sensations without the input of your senses. Imagination is important to learning because it plays a significant role in how you determine meaning and make sense of the world. For this reason using your imagination is of paramount importance to the learning process.
Learning is a complex activity, and no one really understands exactly how you learn. There are countless theories that attempt to provide a framework for the process labeled learning. I call my theory of learning “trilogy of the mind” because it involves the mind’s affective, cognitive and conative domains. These domains encompass how you feel, how you think and how you do what you do. Because visuals can stimulate both the affective and cognitive domains, you can use visuals not only to influence thinking but to stimulate emotional connections as well.