Images In Textbooks May Hinder Learning In Children
May 8, 2013

Images In Textbooks May Hinder Learning In Children

Michael Harper for — Your Universe Online

Bar graphs can be an easy way to communicate a data set to a wide array of people. Yet when educators are teaching children how to use these graphs, they may be doing more harm than good if they include any visuals inside of the graph itself. For instance, a graph about butterflies with the corresponding amount of butterflies in the bars could train kids to read the graphs by the numbers of pictures and not the height of the bars.

Researchers from Ohio State University (OSU) have conducted a study which found that when it comes to teaching these graphs to the earliest of students, it´s best to stick with the fundamentals rather than use graphics to capture the child´s attention. The Ohio State researchers say it´s important for teachers to focus on the long term development of their students rather than the short term.

When asked, every kindergarten and elementary teacher said they would use an image-laden graph rather than the simple option. When students don´t properly learn how to read these kinds of charts when they are young, they could be at a disadvantage later in life.

“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,” said Jennifer Kaminski, co-author of the study and research scientist in psychology at OSU in a statement.

“When designing instructional material, we need to consider children´s developing ability to focus their attention and make sure that the material helps them focus on the right things. Any unnecessary visual information may distract children from the very procedures we want them to learn.”

Kaminski and lead author Vladimir Sloutsky have had their research published in an online edition of the Journal of Educational Psychology.

This research involved 122 kindergarten, first grade and second grade students, each of whom were studied individually.

First, the researchers taught these young students how to read a graph. The graph in question displayed how many shoes were in the lost and found box at different times. The students were then tested with three other bar graphs which relayed the same information. Half of these students were taught with basic bar graphs which displayed only color. The other half were trained using bar graphs with pictures of shoes in the corresponding bars.

For instance, if one bar in the graph read that there were three shoes in the lost and found, there would be three shoes in the graph.

Once the researchers taught the students how to read a bar graph, they were then tested on the opposite kind of bar graph which they were trained on. Those students who learned on a solid color graph were given graphs with pictures, and vice versa. There was one significant difference in this round of testing, however. The number of pictures in the bar graphs did not correspond with the value the bar was meant to portray.

Kaminski and Sloutsky observed that those students who had been taught using the picture graphs were simply counting the pictures and not reading the graphs correctly. When given an incorrect number of pictures in a graph, these students answered the questions incorrectly.

“This allowed us to clearly identify which students learned the correct way to read a bar graph from those who simply counted the number of objects in each bar,” said Sloutsky in the statement.

This effect was even observed in bar graphs with patterns instead of pictures.

“To our surprise, some children tried to count all the tiny polka dots or stripes in the bars. They clearly didn´t learn the correct way to read the graphs,” said Kaminski.

All told, 75 percent of the students observed in this study read the second set of bar graphs correctly. Alternatively, 90 percent of kindergartners who learned how to read bar graphs by counting failed the second round of testing. An additional 72 percent of first-graders also read the graphs wrong and 30 percent of the second-graders answered this part of the study incorrectly.

“When teaching children new math concepts, keeping material simple is very important,” Sloutsky said. “Any extraneous information we provide, even with the best of intentions, to make the lesson more interesting may actually hurt learning because it may be misinterpreted.”