A Picture Really Is (Usually) Worth a Thousand Words

Written By

Jane Bozarth

September 04, 2018

While my recent exhaustive exploration of the experimental literature showed little evidence that teaching to any learning “style” matters, one thing that came through was the value of pictures to learning and remembering, often said to be worth a thousand words. There’s considerable research about this in itself; here’s some information to help guide your design efforts and support conversations with design-advice-offering stakeholders.

Picture superiority effect

The picture superiority effect, based on experimentation going back into the 1960s, refers to the considerable evidence that images are more likely to be remembered than words. A number of studies I reviewed for the learning styles research report showed this, even though it wasn’t what researchers were looking for. Time and again they found that, regardless of “style,” learners performed better from accessing pictures rather than words alone. For instance, Knoll et al. (2017) said: “Recall was higher for pictures than for words, even among participants who showed preference for verbal information” (p. 558). And Constantinidou and Baker (2002) reported the “visual presentation of objects resulted in better learning, recall, and retrieval of information than the auditory presentation alone” (p. 1). While researchers explicitly studying the picture superiority effect differ on the reasons for it, most agree that pictures do seem to influence learning more than words—written or spoken—alone.

Mayer’s multimedia principle

Where those pursuing interest in the picture superiority effect tend to focus on an either/or choice of images or words, Richard Mayer found that the two together can create a more effective instructional approach. His multimedia principle states: “People learn better from words and pictures than words alone.” This also showed up in my learning styles research. Massa and Mayer (2006) found that visualizers and verbalizers do not benefit from being given different kinds of instruction. For this content, all learners (i.e., both visualizers and verbalizers) benefited more from the addition of pictorial help, results consistent with what Mayer (2001) calls the multimedia effect: People learn better from words and pictures than from words alone (p. 344).

Make sure the images make sense

Decorative art and other visual elements only add extraneous information for the learner to sort through. Unrelated images make the learner pause and try to figure out what an image even means (I am recalling an eLearning program on “workplace harassment” that included a cartoon image of a duck whacking a computer with a mallet). An unlabeled image, particularly in instructional material, often means extra work for the viewer. Adding to cognitive load can decrease learner interest and persistence—and learning—if making sense of an image takes too much effort.

One test: Does the item make sense on its own?

A. Ladder safety, text only (Figure 1).

Contains only text, contains no photo

Figure 1: Ladder safety, text only

  B. Ladder safety, photo only (Figure 2).

Contains photo no text

Figure 2: Image-only information about ladder safety

The elements don’t make sense in isolation.

C. Ladder safety, photo + text (Figure 3).

Photo with explanatory text

Figure 3: Text + image together make for a better instructional item


Note that Massa and Mayer—see above—specify that all learners benefited from the addition of pictorial help for that content. The strategy you choose depends on what you are trying to teach. You wouldn’t, for instance, offer anatomy instruction without illustrations. Similarly, the acquisition of strictly auditory skills may require no images. To wit: a professor at Temple University, in response to students’ failure to retain information about heart sounds, began advocating for medical students to access heart sound tutorials—via audio files delivered on iPods (Carmichael, 2007).


All pictures are not created equal. Images need to be meaningful and related to the content being taught. Not dancing cats. Not decorative, flying, zooming words. Not “infographics” that are just posters with pretty fonts on exciting backgrounds. It’s important to note that researchers who found evidence of the picture superiority effect in their experimentation about teaching to learning styles were using carefully chosen, relevant images tightly aligned to instructional intent.

Just for fun: What NOT to do?

See “the top 10 worst infographics of all time” for examples of bad fonts, bad labels, and bad association of images to concepts.

Want more?

The Wikipedia entry for “picture superiority effect includes a long list of research citations from an array of fields, from cognitive development to neuropsychology to marketing, and would be a good place to start. More recently there is a good deal of interesting research around the usefulness of images with older people and those with cognitive or memory disorders such as Alzheimer’s disease.

Suggested: Richard Mayer’s Multimedia Learning, second edition. The Harvard Initiative for Teaching and Learning has a nice overview of Mayer’s work on multimedia instruction, supported with lecture videos and presentation slides.


Bozarth, Jane. The Truth About Teaching to Learning Styles, and What to Do Instead. The eLearning Guild. 11 July 2018. 

Carmichael, Mary. “iPods Teach Docs to Recognize Heartbeats.” Newsweek. 24 March 2007. 

Constantinidou, Fofi and Susan Baker. “Stimulus modality and verbal learning performance in normal aging.” Brain and Language, Vol. 82. 2002. 296–311.

Knoll, Abby R., Hajime Otani, Reid L. Skeel, and K. Roger Van Horn. “Learning style, judgements of learning, and learning of verbal and visual information.” British Journal of Psychology, Vol. 108, No. 3. August 2017. 544–563.

Massa, Laura J., and Richard E. Mayer. “Testing the ATI hypothesis: Should multimedia instruction accommodate verbalizer-visualizer cognitive style?” Learning and Individual Differences, Vol. 16. 2006. 321– 335.

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