"Bear in mind that the wonderful things you learn in your schools are the work of many generations, produced by enthusiastic effort and infinite labor in every country of the world. All this is put into your hands as your inheritance in order that you may receive it, honor it, add to it, and one day faithfully hand it to your children. Thus do we mortals achieve immortality in the permanent things which we create in common." - Albert Einstein

Friday, August 16, 2013

When Illustrations and Colors Make Textbooks Expensive and Less Effective

Adding colors and drawings to a slide presentation has always been deemed important. No one wants a black and white figure for example. It is boring. People even add some animation to slides. For a show, these may be helpful. It captivates the audience and makes the material perhaps more interesting. For pedagogical purposes, these additional gravy may not only be unnecessary, but also harmful. in addition, these "enhancements" cost more time and money. This hypothesis has been demonstrated to be true by a recent paper published in the Journal of Educational Psychology, "Extraneous Perceptual Information Interferes With Children's Acquisition of Mathematical Knowledge":

Extraneous perceptual information interferes with children's acquisition of mathematical knowledge.
By Kaminski, Jennifer A.; Sloutsky, Vladimir M.
Journal of Educational Psychology, Vol 105(2), May 2013, 351-363.
The above paper basically examines the effects of adding extraneous items on learning materials in elementary textbooks. Examples provided by the paper are presented in the following figures:

Kaminski, Jennifer A.; Sloutsky, Vladimir M.
Journal of Educational Psychology, Vol 105(2), May 2013, 351-363. doi: 10.1037/a0031040

Graph A illustrates a bar graph where students may either count the shoes drawn inside each bar or read the bar height from the vertical axis of the graph. Graph B does not have shoes drawn, thus, students need to read the number for each week from the bar height. Graph C illustrates a case in which counting the flowers drawn inside each bar does not help in reading the graph. This graph is used to test how students are actually reading the graph, whether these students are simply counting or reading the bar height. The results of the testing are summarized in the figure below:

Kaminski, Jennifer A.; Sloutsky, Vladimir M.
Journal of Educational Psychology, Vol 105(2), May 2013, 351-363. doi: 10.1037/a0031040
The results are pretty convincing. Extraneous information is detrimental especially to younger pupils. These results echo a previous paper presented by the same authors during the 34th Annual Meeting of the Cognitive Science Society, "Children’s acquisition of fraction knowledge from concrete versus generic instantiations". In this older work, the effectiveness of learning materials in helping young children learn fractions is evaluated. The primary question is whether colors and additional illustrations enhance learning. The following provides an example for each learning case "generic" and "concrete":

Aren't those flowers pretty? The test results, however, are not as pretty. Three tests are provided:
  • Learning: "Participants were given an eight question test of learning which presented novel proportions in the same format as the training (i.e. circles for the Generic condition and flowers for the Concrete condition)."
  • Immediate Transfer: "Participants were given 24 multiple-choice questions involving novel objects."
  • Delayed Transfer: Similar questions as "Immediate Transfer" but given two weeks after training.
The results are summarized in the following figure:

The students who participated in this study are in first grade. The authors conclude, "Although concrete instantiations are often colorful and visually appealing, bland, generic instantiations are learnable by children and can offer an advantage for learning and subsequent transfer of mathematical knowledge." Colorful illustrations also come with additional costs. Thus, in the case of elementary mathematics education, simple is better. It is more effective, and of course, cheaper too.

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