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The power of imagery: How multimedia learning can help students with dyslexia

26 November 2020

6 mins

In this blog post, Dr David Roberts from the School of Business and Economics shares an insight into his research on multimedia learning and the benefits it offers to students with dyslexia.

In a world where we find ourselves continuously overloaded with information – and where up to 10% of the global population is believed to be dyslexic – Dr Roberts explains how spoken and written words are not enough for us to understand and engage with what we are being taught.

My journey in dyslexic learning processes began with a video. I was giving a TEDx talk here at Loughborough University on the importance of multimedia approaches to teaching and learning – using imagery and text so that what we deliver matches the way the brain receives information. After the presentation, a dyslexic member of the audience intercepted me. She was a student here, and she told me she had never seen anything like the presentation I had just done. It used high quality images combined with limited text.

She elaborated on how the images had impacted her ability to stay tuned to the slides and then recall what I had said around each image. She told me she could remember my spoken words, and the meaning of the images, with clarity and ease. She also said that some of the images had moved her emotionally, saying that an emotional connection was partly responsible for her attention, engagement, interest and recall. Mainly, though, she said in orthodox lectures text made content disengaging, was hard to read and impossible to keep up with. So I started a new research project, aimed at determining scientifically whether imagery and text were better for dyslexic learners than slides loaded with text. Let’s start with what we know about dyslexia.

Dyslexia is ‘a specific learning difficulty that mainly affects the development of literacy and language-related skills… characterised by difficulties with phonological processing, rapid naming, working memory, [and] processing speed’ (British Dyslexia Association).

Because of this – especially regarding working memory – dyslexic students can find teaching in universities a great challenge. They may be overwhelmed by PowerPoint slides laden with words and devoid of alternate, parallel media like static and moving imagery, and all this delivered at speed.

Multimedia learning and cognitive overload

Dyslexic learners are actually not alone: neurotypical students are also affected by what scientists call ‘cognitive overload’. This is a state of mind caused by a failure – a refusal – to teach in ways that reflect how the brain works biologically. We also know it as ‘Death by PowerPoint’.

All human beings process knowledge using imagery and text because the brain is a ‘dual processing’ tool. We know this from 60 years of multimedia learning (MML) research into the cognitive sciences. Our brains have an audio-textual channel, and a visual channel. Using only audio-textual – spoken and written words – is wasting half the brain, according to scientists at MIT.

This is so important for dyslexic learners because using imagery will reduce cognitive overload and enhance working memory capacity – you don’t get overloaded so quickly or easily. Or sometimes at all. This is stuff we know, but universities have largely ignored it.

Text-dominated, large group lectures continue to rule the way universities teach. And it shouldn’t – not with what we know. We know other things about dyslexic learning. We know that some dyslexic people ‘will typically learn much better [when] supported by scene-based examples or depictions’ (Eide and Eide 2011: 127; Coppin 2009). Using images with text is likely to support both neurotypical and neurodiverse engagement, with a greater impact for dyslexic learners. This convergence between the two literatures (dyslexia and MML) should guide new ways of teaching and learning with dyslexic students, as long as they work, so we created a scientific experiment to test the impact of multimedia learning on dyslexic learners.

An experiment

Briefly (since it’s outlined in greater depth elsewhere), we combined longitudinal randomised control group testing with focus groups. In the first instance, using an online research tool we created specifically for this purpose based on dyslexic learner input, two groups were exposed to the same recorded 10-minute lecture content on global warming (an area students across many disciplines are probably conscious of and can relate to).

One lecture was delivered using slides with text, the other using slides with imagery and limited text. Both had the same audio recording of my voice. Students then completed an online questionnaire that asked for their verdicts on the slides (not on the text, not on the images). The questions concerned student engagement with academic content in lectures. They appear across the bottom of the graph below. The yellow bars represent the experiment group exposed to slides with images and text. Blue shows the control group exposed to slides with text only. For most of the experiment, the blue was too low to register.

The data was clear to see: of those exposed to standard slides, no one considered them helpful in understanding and engaging. On the contrary, all the dyslexic students exposed to large high-quality images found them to be valuable in engaging them and helping them understand the subject.

These findings were expanded upon in the focus groups. I’ve divided the commentary into categories, the first of which is impact.

Paula said she could still see images in lectures a year after being exposed to them:

Lewis declared:

He then added:

The students were making powerful connections with the images that sparked their mental engagement and triggered their interest. Synapses were firing.

A second category of dyslexic learner responses to MML methods is effect – what’s happening for and to you when you see slides with images and text? They quickly recognised elements of active learning at work, because they were consciously and unconsciously interrogating the slides for meaning, unlike passive experiences where the slide simply sits and is read.

The image below made dyslexic students ask themselves why there was blood on a diamond, since both elements seem antithetical. They connected this question with existing knowledge and built upon it as I talked about the paradox of capitalism and human rights. The subject could equally have been about how capitalism manipulates millions to spend billions on completely unnecessary diamond wedding rings (since nothing says “I love you” like a superficial and overvalued rock clawed from the guts of the earth by African slave labour!).

This level of engagement prompted Leona to say:

I’ll finish this post with a final quote from an undergraduate student:

Multimedia learning lectures get a round of applause. In others, people clap, but that’s more because they’re finished.”

All images © Dr David Roberts.

From 18 November – 20 December, Loughborough University and Loughborough Students’ Union is supporting Disability History Month. Throughout the month, there will be a range of support, resources and online events for staff and students. More information can be found on the dedicated webpage.

Health and Wellbeing

Wellbeing means being in a positive physical, social and mental state. Wellbeing is important to us as happy, healthy people who achieve harmony in their work / life mix are more creative, productive and help to create a great place to work.

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