Someone looking at a colourful business diagram
What does research say?

What does research say?
Labelling and explaining a diagram

What does research say about the best way to label and explain a diagram?

Introduction

Have you ever read a book where the labelling or short explanation for a diagram was located on a different page than where the diagram was?

Have you ever read an online tutorial where the explanation for an image was located far from where the image is?

You found yourself either flipping back and forth between the two pages or scrolling up and down the webpage, trying to link the explanation and the diagram/image.

Were those instances the best uses of your cognitive resources?

How, then, should we learning designers label and explain an image? Images are so often used in training materials, so it is important that we know the answer to this question. It seems like such a small thing to think about, but it can make a difference in helping people learn effectively.

What Do You Think?

In this section, let’s look at two scenarios on learning about the different planets in the solar system. In each scenario, which do you think is the better option?

Scenario 1: Where to put the labels?

Option A: The labels presented separately from the diagram

Diagram with planets numbered

1. Diagram with planets numbered

The labels with corresponding numbers presented separately

2. The labels with corresponding numbers presented separately

Option B: The labels for the planets are integrated with the diagram

Diagram with planets numbered and labelled

Diagram with planets numbered and labelled

Scenario 2: Where to put the explanation?

Option A: The explanation presented separated from the diagram

Diagram with planets numbered and labelled

1. Diagram with planets numbered and labelled

The explanation for the diagram

2. The explanation for the diagram

Option B: The explanation is integrated with the diagram

Diagram with the planets numbered, labelled, and explained

Diagram with the planets numbered, labelled, and explained

What Does Research Say?

Research suggests integrating the explanation for an image/diagram as closely as possible instead of separating them (Chandler & Sweller, 1991). In general, integration is superior to disparate sources of information. Exceptions are mentioned below. Specifically, in practice, we should:

  • Put caption for an image, table, or diagram right below or right next to it. The standard practice is to put the caption below the image.
  • When needed, provide labels and if applicable, accompanied explanation for each part of the diagram right inside the diagram. This way, the labels and explanations will be together in an integrated format instead of a split-source format. With this approach, students don’t have to divide their attention between different sources of mutually referring information.
  • Integration of sources is beneficial when the explanation or label helps to clarify the diagram or image, not when the diagram by itself is already self-explanatory.
  • There are cases when some information used to explain a diagram may be unnecessary, so this information should be removed, instead of being integrated with the diagram. This will help reduce learning and instruction time.
    • When the existing instruction is poorly designed, redundant information can be helpful.
  • Redundant information that does not lead to mental integration can be useful as a reminder functions, e.g. summaries
  • Inspect the instruction to identify any redundant information
  • When it is not possible to put the explanation text within an image, it is better to place the image before the text (Schnotz, 2014). When does this happen? When the text is complex or when the image is not too complex.

Theoretical Explanations or Why is it?

Theoretical explanations for these research results include:

  • Cognitive theory of multimedia learning
    • The coherence principle seeks to minimise extraneous processing by eliminating extraneous material
    • The spatial contiguity principle seeks to minimise extraneous processing by suggesting to place text near corresponding graphics.
  • Cognitive load theory
    • Presenting the instruction in an integrated format will help reduce the extraneous cognitive load as learners will not have to pay attention to multiple sources and therefore, split their attention between multiple sources of mutually referring information.

Share your examples/Implications

So now, when you need to include an image and explain the image, whether of the human anatomy or a process or something else, think about:

  • Whether integration is right for your situation
  • Whether the explanation is necessary
  • And if yes to both of the above, how you can best integrate your explanation with the image

Share an example of how you explain or label an image.

References

Chandler, P., & Sweller, J. (1991). Cognitive Load Theory and the Format of InstructionCognition And Instruction8(4), 293-332.

Cognitive Load Theory: How ‘Cognitive Load’ Affects Memory. (2018).

de Jong, T. (2009). Cognitive load theory, educational research, and instructional design: some food for thoughtInstructional Science38(2), 105-134.

Meyer, R., & Fiorella, L. (2014). 12 Principles for Reducing Extraneous Processing in Multimedia Learning: Coherence, Signaling, Redundancy, Spatial Contiguity, and Temporal Contiguity Principles. In The Cambridge Handbook of Multimedia Learning (2nd ed.). New York: Cambridge University Press.

Schnotz, W. (2014). Integrated Model of Text and Picture Comprehension. In The Cambridge Handbook of Multimedia Learning (2nd ed.). New York: Cambridge University Press.

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2 Comments

  • Reply Kristina March 4, 2019 at 2:58 am

    Hi there! Such a good short article, thank you!

  • Reply 20 ideas & strategies for Student Led Dual Coding – Teaching & Learning Toolbox for Research Informed Education March 12, 2019 at 3:28 am

    […] to the correct parts or with labels in a box next to it labelled with a, b, c etc. There is a nice blog here explaining this with a great example by Follow […]

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