I Can See Clearly Now: The Benefits of Visual Aids in Teaching

In my last post, I pondered what should be taught in legal research classes beyond legal research. This month, I thought I’d look at how we present these topics in the classroom. If you surveyed the academic law library community, you would doubtless encounter a variety of teaching techniques (evidenced in the array of contributions to the RIPS-SIS Teach-In Kit over the years). From traditional lecture to problem-based learning to online learning, the legal research classroom can be arranged in many ways. Let’s assume that the majority of legal research classes involve at least some form of lecture; even if it doesn’t take up the entire class time, it is safe to say that the instructor uses some portion of the class session to present the topic of the day. What should that presentation look like?

March - visual aidsAt a minimum, make it visual. You hear people refer to themselves as visual learners all the time – they retain information better when a visual stimulus accompanies a lecture. In a traditional classroom environment, where the materials are presented in lecture format, accompanied by a pre- or post-lecture reading, two types of learning styles are best accommodated: the verbal learner, who learns best by reading the material (such as an assigned reading before class), and the aural learner, who learns best by listening. If you engage your students through the Socratic method or by having them present materials to the class in any fashion, a third learning style may also be satisfied – the oral learner, who learns best by speaking. Different theories of learning styles are out there, but generally, three additional learning styles remain: the visual learner, who learns best by seeing material presented through visual aids; the tactile learner, who learns best by physically examining the materials; and the closely-related kinesthetic learner, who learns best by interacting with the materials in ways that involve using their entire bodies. The optimal class setting should accommodate all of these learning styles.

brainNo matter the type of learner you’re teaching, studies have shown that all learning styles benefit from visual aids. In this environment, both halves of the brain are stimulated. The left half, which analyzes individual pieces of data, thrives in a traditional lecture environment. The right half can build connections between those bits of data (and thus conceptualize relationships between ideas being presented), but is best stimulated through visual aids. When you combine a lecture with a visual aid, you optimize brain function. In addition, it stimulates the memory, causing students to retain information from your lecture better as well.  (I should confess here that, as I am not a cognitive scientist, this is a simplified explanation of the studies I have read!)

Studies have shown that the more pictorial your visual aid is (i.e. more pictures than words), the better, but even words on a screen are better than no screen at all.  Not a fan of PowerPoint? Try KeyNote or Google Slides or Slidebean. Do you prefer apps? Try SlideShark or Haiku Deck. Do you want something that escapes from the linear format of slideshows? Try Prezi or mindmapping. Even if you just don’t like the distraction of having to remember to advance your slides in tandem with the delivery of your presentation, create a simple infographic to have on the screen behind you that covers the topic you’re teaching today.  Each method has its pros and cons, but the point is, use something.

As I said earlier, experts generally agree on six learning styles that an instructor should strive to accommodate. A spoken lecture caters to the aural learner, assigned readings cater to the verbal learner, and visual aids cater to the visual learner, but what about the others? In an ideal classroom, you can accommodate the other learning styles by making your classroom more interactive. Add an in-class exercise to get the students using the resources you’re teaching. This should cater to both the tactile and kinesthetic learners. If you have them work in groups, report their findings to the class, or even assign students to present materials to the class, you cater to the oral learners. Not to mention that this diversity grabs students’ attention by breaking up the monotony of a traditional stand-and-deliver methodology. If you’re fortunate enough to be teaching a class of your own where you have command of the ship, try this multi-modal teaching style. Or go even bolder – flip your classroom or experiment with problem-based learning. When it comes to the variety of ways you can engage your students in the classroom, this post could go on and on! But if you’re most comfortable with the lecture format, or you’re in a teaching setting – such as guest lecturing in another course – where you don’t necessarily have full command to do what you want, I encourage you to work visual aids into your lecture format. It benefits your students, and in the long run, I believe it will benefit you as well.

(I presented on this topic at the CALI Conference last summer. Materials from that presentation, including a bibliography, pros and cons of different presentation software, and examples of each, can be found here.)

About ashleyahlbrand

I am the Assistant Director for Public Services at Indiana University's Maurer School of Law. My research interests include exploring how emerging and existing technologies can be used to enhance library services and legal education as well as how to address knowledge gaps and meet the educational expectations of today's law students.
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