Using Visuals in Course Design

By Rhonda Gregory, Director of Distributed Education


Image of human head, indicating parts of the brain where different types of information are processed.
Image source:

Research shows that using visuals does improve learning over using just words alone. That’s because we process words and images in two different parts of the brain, each with its own cognitive load limits.

By presenting learners with relevant imagery that supports or expands on textual information, course developers can help their students generate deeper meaning and move new information from working (short-term) memory to long-term memory faster.


Finding a Balance

Finding the right balance of visual aids and text or verbal information can be a challenge.  You don’t need a different picture for every bullet point in your content. Select visuals that add provide some value to the information you’re trying to convey.

Finding the Right Visuals

You should strive to provide relevant, helpful visuals – not overwhelming or unrelated ones. Adding overly complex graphics can have a negative effect on learning, so choose wisely. Avoid using visuals that are irrelevant to your instructional goals.

Making Visuals Accessible to All

Making visuals accessible to learners who use assistive technology can certainly seem like a challenge! The key is to provide a descriptive alternative to images so that students who can’t physically see the image get the same or equivalent information from it.

Image of a human eye, drawn in black and white, with the iris colored red, blue, and green.
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Use visuals in introductory courses. Visuals benefit novices in a subject area more than experts.
Ask a friend or colleague from another discipline if the visual aid you’ve chosen to represent a concept is clear and understandable.
Add visuals that are explained by audio narration for the most effective learning experience. This combination optimizes the capacity of our working memory.
Add “alt text” to all images. Imaging describing the image to someone over the phone. The rule of thumb is no more than 120 characters for simple images, or a brief summary of the information presented for graphs, tables, and complex images.

Clark, R. C. & Mayer, R. E. (2012).  Using rich media wisely. In Reiser, R. A. & Dempsey, J. V. (Eds.), Trends and issues in instructional design and technology (3rd ed.) (309-320). Boston, MA: Pearson.