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Like other professionals who have entered the workforce, nurses and midwives have used a variety of learning mechanisms, including visual learning, to learn, execute and retain the key skills and processes that form the bulk of their work today.

But with CPD (Continuing Professional Development) an ongoing part of a nurse and/or midwife’s professional responsibilities, there is an onus on making sure that the learning is efficient, effective and enjoyable, and visual learning is one of many aids that can help with that process.

To seek out more about visual learning, and how to make it work in your own learning environment, the ANMJ spoke to Nicole Crichton, a learning designer working with the University of Technology’s Faculty of Health.

ANMJ: For the uninitiated, what is visual learning and what strategies and concepts fit within the parameters of visual learning?

Nicole Crichton (NC): “Visual learning” sits under a broader category of multimedia learning theory. This theory argues that people learn best through more than one modality, so a strategic mix of text, images, video, and audio – as opposed to only text.

The idea that people are either visual, auditory, or tactile learners (and not a combination) has long been debunked. Visual learning (learning through looking at images, graphs etc.) is not a stand-alone learning style, it’s a part of learning overall.

ANMJ: Where are these most commonly applied in learning spaces?

NC: Visual learning is most common in blended or completely online learning spaces: images that are typically made using computers are best hosted on computers.

Hosting this information on computers also means it can be more easily updated when needed.

ANMJ: Why do learners seek out visual strategies to cement their ability to remember and access concepts, processes and skills that will extend their knowledge base?

NC: It’s all about how effective the visual learning element is in the first place: if a map or diagram is overly complex this won’t lead to an effective learning experience, but if the map or diagram is clearest in its communication, then learning will be more effective.

If a learner is used to seeing effective visual learning objects, then it’s more likely they will seek out more.

In some situations, visual learning can feel like a short-cut for the brain: an image can remind a learner of a particular piece of information, but it’s important that this information and image are learned in close association in the first place.

Visual learning doesn’t always replace extensive reading or research, it’s just a stepping stone to quicker cognitive retrieval (revision is essential for long-term memory). In other instances, tables and graphs effectively replace large amounts of explanatory text.

ANMJ: How can these strategies be used to inform nurses and midwives who are undertaking learning as part of their professional requirements?

NC: The appropriateness of which type of visual you’re using is key.

For example, a flow chart would be best for remembering something with chronology of actions (the classic Drs ABCD for resuscitation), a map would be good for scenarios with yes/no options, diagrams for parts of the body, a graph or table for increments of value changing over time.

ANMJ: When is the best time in the learning cycle to experiment with new ways of learning?

NC: After prior knowledge has been established to get a footing on the ground is best, from here the learner can progress with more ease.

It’s possible to present the learner with new visual elements to work through as they learn the new information, or even get learners to make the visual element after textual information has been presented. This will depend on the learning environment: synchronous or asynchronous, group or individual, and how much time is available.

ANMJ: If these strategies aren’t right, what other resources are available for people to access so they can continue to improve their ability to learn?

NC: It can be about personal preference: using dictation technology can be useful if a learner would like text read aloud, rather than sitting and reading. This technology is sometimes already embedded on websites and programs like Microsoft Word. Some people find drawing visual elements by hand helps aid memory.

Not all information is best presented visually; it’s about having a strategic mix of visual, text, and auditory modes to best aid memory.

More information on UTS learning design practice can be found here.