Whiteboard Superiority Effect

Visuals are a powerful ally in learning. Of course, how they are used matters. The Redundancy Principle tells us that describing a concept to someone while showing him or her prose about that concept (say, on a slide) is counterproductive to learning. Better to pair the verbal explanation with some instructionally meaningful visual. That keeps you from overloading the language processing centers of the brains of your learners while also letting you leverage the very highly developed visual processing centers in their brains.

And, with highly knowledgeable audiences, you are better off skipping the explanation entirely and letting them study the visual.

There is also evidence that careful attention to aesthetics make a positive difference in instruction (this is one focus of Charles Miller’s work at the University of Minnesota).

Given all that, I was interested to read this article, talking about recent research by Zakary Tormala suggesting that whiteboard-style visuals lead to significantly higher learning than either a slide + clip art approach or a “zen” approach of minimal words complementing beautiful images.

I wish I could get my hands on the original research to read more about the study, but absent that the assertion is provocative. A few years ago I was reviewing a slide deck submitted by an external developer; a number of the slides featured stick figures. The figures served an instructional purpose, but the drawings themselves were awful, something like this:


The developer may have been a gifted tax scholar, but he was not an artist.

I fixed his images so they looked reasonably professional butĀ Tormala’s research suggests I did his learners a disservice. It would be interesting to know whether his results extend to crudely images rendered beforehand, like the one above, or is it the act of drawing the figures in front of the audience that creates the effect? I could definitely see the latter being the case. It could be that the whiteboard superiority effect could be a result not of the image itself, but of the act of witnessing its rendering. Perhaps the drawing act slows the instructor down, promoting deeper processing by learners. Or maybe the act of drawing on the whiteboard creates more of a personable connection with an audience than flipping slides. Maybe the best thing I could have done for that instructor was not to fix his drawings, but to take away his slide deck!

Of course, tantalizing research like this raises more questions than it answers (assuming the effect holds in more studies). The study was teaching a visual metaphor; if the visual is itself not the content, does that matter? Does it hold no matter the level of prior knowledge of the learners? And so on. Interesting possibilities.


One thought on “Whiteboard Superiority Effect

  1. Ellen

    A class I just finished at the U fits right into this, and I think your comments about seeing the graphic created on the whiteboard are on target. The professor rarely used PowerPoint; he most often used it for review before exams, and then he would post it on Moodle for people to look at later. These slides were sort of “these are the high points, the things you should be sure to know.” The rest of the time, he used the whiteboard a lot, sketching graphs, people (not unlike the one you showed in your post). A segment might be something like “So we have this person here…and she is influenced by this person … and then…” and so forth. I really do think that the creation of the graphic on the spot was helpful for following along in the explanations given.


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