Increase understanding by 51%
Cartoons are worth at least 600 words, according to a series of studies by Richard E. Mayer, professor of Psychology at the University of California, Santa Barbara, and his team of researchers.
The researchers found that cartoons not only helped college students remember and understand complex physics lessons more than 600-word passages explaining those concepts. In most cases, the cartoons were more effective than the same cartoons with the 600-word passages.
1. Cartoons more memorable, understandable than text.
For the first study, Mayer’s team gave 56 college students:
- Cartoons with captions showing how lightning forms
- A 600-word passage describing how lightning forms
- Both the cartoons and the 600-word passage
Then the researchers asked the students to answer some questions about lightning. Some of the questions tested recall. Among them:
- What causes lightning?
- What does air temperature have to do with lightning?
- Suppose you see clouds in the sky, but not lightning. Why not?
Other questions tested problem solving, including:
- What could you do to decrease the intensity of a lighting storm?
Students who’d seen only the cartoons remembered 51 percent more than those who’d read the text only or looked at the cartoons and read the text:
- Cartoon alone: 5.6 units recalled
- Passage and cartoon: 3.7 units
- Passage alone: 2.8
- No instruction: .1
Students who’d seen the cartoons only were able to apply the material nearly as well as those who’d looked at the cartoons and read the text:
- Passage and cartoon: 4.9 problems solved
- Cartoon alone: 4.6
- Passage alone: 2.3
- No instruction: .3
2. Adding text to the cartoon made it harder to remember and apply.
For the third test, researchers gave students:
- The cartoon alone
- The cartoon with 50 words of text added to it
- The cartoon with 550 words of text added to it
The more text was added to the cartoon, the less students remembered. They remembered the cartoon alone 126 percent better than the cartoon including 550 words:
- Cartoon: 6.1 units recalled
- Cartoon + 50 words: 5.2
- Cartoon + 550 words: 2.7
The more text was added to the cartoon, the less effective students became at applying the information. They were half again as likely to be able to solve a problem if they saw the cartoon alone than if they saw the cartoon including 550 words:
- Cartoon: 4.5 problems solved
- Cartoon + 50 words: 3.4
- Cartoon + 550 words: 3.0
Bottom line: Adding a cartoon — or telling your story with a cartoon only — can increase recall and understanding significantly. Piling on the words, however, yields a net loss in communications.
Source: Richard E. Mayer, William Bove, Alexandra Bryman, Rebecca Mars, and Lene Tapangco, “When Less is More: Meaningful Learning From Visual and Verbal Summaries of Science Textbook Lessons,” Journal of Educational Psychology, Vol. 88, No. 1, 1996, pp. 64-73.