More than that, we want to experience it for ourselves. We want to press all the buttons, test out the apps, and personalize every feature. Which experience teaches you more about the tablet—your conversation with someone who told you about it? Or the time you tried it for yourself? The latter, undoubtedly. Our strongest memories are created in the moments where we are actively participating. Humans are active learners by nature.
This may seem intuitive, but somehow these instincts are all too often abandoned in the classroom. The status quo for many years has been to ask students to read about a topic, then the instructor talks about it during class. This teaching strategy is so prevalent that instructor has become interchangeable with “lecturer,” while class is synonymous with “lecture.” If we know that this is not the most effective way to learn something when it comes to every other aspect of our lives, then why are we doing it in the most important place for learning—the classroom?
Instead of allowing students to be passive learners – as in a traditional lecture environment – in which they are expected to let information flood into their minds and are somehow expected to retain it, we should encourage students to become active learners; and if they can become active visual learners they will learn even more.
Comprehension of complex subjects can be dramatically increased through visual learning. Think of experts in any field of study—they are often visual experts. Botanists must recognize plants, chemists must recognize molecular structures, artists must recognize styles and periods, radiologists must recognize injury and disease…and the list goes on. Experts are able to pick out patterns at a glance, but how can students best learn these skills? The key lies in repetition and in active visual learning. Students must be repeatedly exposed to the information—whether it’s through pictures, videos, maps, or graphs. Visual aids that are used consistently and that include variation enhance learning by allowing students to form a mental image of the topic, a mental image that includes variation in the conceptual category.
By combining visual training with active learning, students can go from novice to expert in far less time than with traditional study methods. Active learning requires students to engage with the material. One of the most effective ways to accomplish this is through retrieval practice. In retrieval practice information is brought out of memory for a specific purpose (Karpicke and Blunt, 2011).
By exposing students to a variety of visuals, then asking them to recall information associated with the images, we can promote the type of expert-level recognition skills described above. Each time the topic is recalled, it reinforces the learning process, making the memory even stronger. It is every teacher’s hope that students will leave their class with the material seared into their memory. For this to happen, the students must actively engage the material. The focus can no longer be on what the teacher can impart, but on what the student can learn.