Academic journal article Educational Technology & Society

Visualisation in Applied Learning Contexts: A Review

Academic journal article Educational Technology & Society

Visualisation in Applied Learning Contexts: A Review

Article excerpt


This paper explores visualisation within the context of learning in design, engineering and technology education. These fields can be defined as 'applied' learning contexts, as they apply knowledge and understanding in ways that require a physical relationship with a practical, material vehicle providing a focus for learning through doing. Visualisation has been noted as supporting creative thinking (Arnheim, 1970), visual thinking in design education (McKim, 1978) and thinking within science and technology education (Mathewson, 1999). It is suggested that visualisation provides a holistic, "synchronous" (Paivio, 1986, p. 60) approach to thinking, the benefits of which are absent from logical-mathematical and verbal thinking styles (McKim, 1978; Mathewson, 1999). Visualisation ability has been found to indicate the possible future success of students in STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering and Maths) careers (Lohman & Lakin, 2006; Webb, Lubinski & Benbow, 2007) and within the context of further education, has been described as an essential aid to learning about relationships between theory and practise (Haight, 2012). In addition, (Gardner, 1993) has revealed strong individual differences in thinking styles, with some employing largely linguistic methods (e.g., Freud) and others visual-spatial and logical-mathematical means (e.g., Einstein), suggesting that individuals adopt an affinity with certain mental mechanisms in their thinking.

An exploration of KS3 (Key Stage Three in England) students' logical-mathematical, verbal and non-verbal MidYIS (Middle Years Information System) test scores, revealed that spatial ability may be one indicator of high ability within technology education, when compared with performance on subject specific outcome measures at secondary school (Twissell, 2011). Personal experiential evidence suggests that students' ability to visualise and use image based systems of representation promotes improved subject specific thinking and learning through an improved ability to make effective inferences from those representations (Larkin & Simon, 1987). The specific mental mechanisms involved in visualisation would therefore appear to warrant further investigation as to the efficacy of learning and teaching in this mode and the potential benefits to students' learning outcomes.

This investigation first defines visualisation, providing examples of activities that utilise visualisation skills within an applied field. Then exploration of the mental mechanisms of visualisation used to engage with those activities is placed within the context of learning in applied fields. The review of literature is used to identify future research opportunities, emerging patterns, uncertainties and gaps in knowledge (Robson, 2011).

Defining visual-spatial thinking

Visual perception represents a main pathway to the world of experience. Visual information received by the eye is transferred to the occipital cortex and interpreted by the visual association area; here meaning is attached to the received visual stimulus (Martini, Nash & Bartholomew, 2012). Visualisation however is conceived in the literature as a mental process. Hoffler (2010) for example defines visualisation as "any kind of non-verbal illustration (both symbolic, such as graphs, and pictorial, such as realistic diagrams, pictures, or animations)" (p. 246). Lohman (1993) defines "the ability to generate, retain, retrieve, and transform well-structured visual images" (p. 3). Kosslyn (2005) makes a useful distinction between visual perception (viewing a stimulus) and visual mental imagery (an internal process of visualisation drawing on memory in the absence of a stimulus). Van Garderen (2006) posits "visual imagery" (object representation: shape and colour) and "spatial imagery" (spatial relationships between parts of objects, their spatial location and movement) (p. 497). Visual-spatial thinking has been linked with memory as a mechanism to combine perceiving and visualisation processes, which are thought to aid the rapid processing of information (Gegenfurtner, Lehtinen & Saljo, 2011; Mathewson, 1999; Smith, Ritzhaupt & Tjoe, 2010). …

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