Best Practices from Education and Cognitive Science Research

Cognitive science research sheds light on why teaching with visualizations is effective.


Fraser Figure optical illusion found at Wikipedia
  • Visualizations: What did you mean? What did they see? How do you know? (PowerPoint 2MB Mar9 04)
    Michelle Hall Wallace, University of Arizona
    • This presentation describes how visualizations and learning link and includes topics such as:
      • How Do We Learn?
      • Visualizations Improve Learning When They....
      • What Causes Confusion?
  • Learning from Visualizations: Principles from Learning Science (PowerPoint 2.5MB Jan18 05)
    David Rapp, Educational Psychology, University of Minnesota
    • This presentation provides an overview of research on visualizations and mental models. Rapp concludes that visualizations have the potential to influence learning, that the Learning Sciences have assessed some of the effective components of learning situations, and that combining content-driven visualizations with principles of learning leads to effective educational experiences.

How do Cognitive Processes and Visualization Link?

Drawing of the base of the brain by Andrea Vesalius (1543)
  • Cognitive Processes and Visualization (Acrobat (PDF) 108kB Feb19 04)
    Kirsten Butcher, UCAR/NCAR
    • This essay examines the psychological implications of visualization use and discusses empirical research on the effects of visualizations applied to educational purposes. Butcher states that appropriately designed diagrams can successfully promote learning because they successfully guide the learner to engage in cognitive processes essential for comprehension. The interpretation and use of visualizations may be greatly affected by perceptual qualities of the visualization as well as by the expertise of the individual.
  • Visuospatial Reasoning
    Barbara Tversky, Stanford University
    • A cognitive scientist's understanding of the aspects of visualization with a review of relevant literature. (Here is a preprint Word file (Microsoft Word 3.5MB Feb24 04) of this resource, courtesy of the author.)
  • How Diagrams Tell Stories (PowerPoint 12.4MB Nov19 04)
    Barbara Tversky, Stanford University
    • This presentation describes research involving diagrams and learning complex systems, and also discusses maps and animations.
  • Questions and Conjectures Concerning Models, Misconceptions and Spatial Ability
    Dyche et al., 1993
    • An early paper reporting students' misconceptions when learning from physical models.
  • The effects of different learning tasks on model-building in plate tectonics; diagramming versus explaining
    Gobert, Janice D, 2005, Journal of Geoscience Education, vol. 53, no. 4, pp. 444-455.
    • Plate Tectonics is given as an example of one difficult topic in Geology which involves the understanding of visualizations. Based on previous work in students' conceptions in Geology, three studies of students' conceptions and cognition in plate tectonics were designed. These studies highlight the importance of progressive model-building as a good pedagogical approach, as well as examine the efficacy of different learning tasks as strategies to promote model-building on the part of learners.

Role of Animation

Visualizations are most effective if their organization reflects the mental organization that the student is creating. For example, if students create a series of still images in their mind to represent a geologic process, a series of still images will be most effective in conveying information. Similarly, if students create a mental movie, an animation may be more effective.

  • Animation: Can It Facilitate?
    Tversky et al., 2002
    • A review of the literature addressing whether or not animations improve learning. (Here is a preprint pdf file (Acrobat (PDF) 240kB Feb24 04) of this resource provided by the author.)

Spatial Skills

  • Pitfalls and Possibilities in Using Maps to Visualize Earth Data and Understand Earth Processes (PowerPoint 3.7MB Mar9 04)
    Kim Kastens, Columbia University
    • In this presentation, the author describes research involving spatial skills. She outlines potential pitfalls in teaching with maps.
  • 2-D vs. 3-D: The role of Mental Image Processing (PowerPoint 306kB Jan18 05)
    Raymond Lopez, Florida Institute of Technology
    • Concepts that require mental processing of 3-D information (e.g., rotations) will be difficult for students if only 2-D representations are used.
  • Questions and Conjectures Concerning Models, Misconceptions and Spatial Ability
    Dyche et al., 1993
    • An early paper reporting students' misconceptions when learning from physical models.
  • Students' Learning from Model-produced Graphs (PowerPoint 786kB Jan18 05)
    Catherine Gautier, University of California, Santa Barbara
    • In this presentation, the author describes how graphs are used in classes and the skills necessary for students to understand and use graphs effectively.
  • Teaching Geologic Time with Digital Time-Lapse Videos (PowerPoint 24.6MB Jan18 05)
    Doug Clark, Western Washington University
    • This presentation describes how digital cameras can be used to record time-lapse video of landform development. The author describes an artificial stream table delta and a natural landform: the Swift Creek landslide.
  • Spatial abilities at different scales: Individual differences in aptitude-test performance and spatial-layout learning
    Hegarty, Mary, Daniel R. Montello, Anthony E. Richardson, Toru Ishikawa, and Kristin Lovelace, 2006. Intelligence, v. 34, pp. 151-176.
    • In this study, 221 participants were tested on psychometric measures of spatial abilities, spatial updating, verbal abilities and working memory. Participants also learned the layout of large environments from direct experience walking through a real environment, and via two different media: a desktop virtual environment (VE) and a videotape of a walk through an environment. The results indicate that spatial abilities at different scales of space are partially but not totally dissociated. The authors specify the degree of overlap between small-scale and large-scale spatial abilities, inform theories of sex differences in these abilities, and provide new insights about what these abilities have in common and how they differ.

Helping Students Understand Maps

Kazan-Khanate Map from the Great Soviet Encyclopedia found at