· learning · 7 min read

Learning with Visual Representations (Part I)

This is a post on how to evaluate different representational competencies. Specifically, this post reviews Rau, M. (2016). Conditions for the Effectiveness of Multiple Visual Representations in Enhancing STEM Learning.

This is a post on how to evaluate different representational competencies. Specifically, this post reviews Rau, M. (2016). Conditions for the Effectiveness of Multiple Visual Representations in Enhancing STEM Learning.

I’d like to invite you, dear reader, to indulge in a quick thought experiment: Imagine you wake up in a strange city.

As you walk outside, you realize every sign, billboard, restaurant menu, or flyer you encounter is written in an alphabet you have never seen before.

How would you start to navigate the world around you?

How might you identify where you could even find help?

Perhaps you might look for a familiar shape or icon, such as a sign with a question mark inside of it (representing, perhaps, an information kiosk)? Or maybe you would avoid areas labeled with a yellow triangle with an exclamation point (perhaps a caution sign?)

Each sign, diagram, and arguably even the words you’re reading right now, is an example of a visual representation. Our world is littered with these visual representations which we use not only to orient to our surroundings, but also to learn about and reflect on abstract concepts (like, say, visual representations).

Background on the article

As I mentioned on the home page, part of my goal in writing these blog posts is to identify and summarize literature that helps us develop better educational tools for surgeons and other medical professionals. It seems fitting to start with the journal article Conditions for the Effectiveness of Multiple Visual Representations in Enhancing STEM Learning by Dr. Martina Rau (2017). This comprehensive article synthesizes an impressive breadth of literature, bridging different perspectives (theoretical frameworks) that aren’t always in conversation with each other. The result is an article that provides a fresh perspective informing targeted strategies and interventions for learning.

To achieve this goal, the article first presents a comprehensive literature review and then presents hypotheses and results based on the theoretical framework that was laid out. Given the length of the article, I’ve chosen to focus first on the literature review and define the core concepts that inform the work we’re setting out to accomplish at Edurrhaphy.

TL;DR (the one sentence summary)

The Plain English Version: This article presents a clear vision for why using visual represenations plays a vital role in education. This blog post proposes actionable suggestions to aid learners with visual representations.

The Academic Version: In this article, the author claims that when students learn from visual representations, they exercise both sense-making and perceptual competencies in order to effectively use the visual representation as a learning aid.

The Nitty Gritty Details

In this article, the author discusses the role of visual representations in learning. The author defines a visual representation as a diagram, simulations, physical models, or another icon external to the learner which represents some concrete object or abstract concept.

When learning from visual representations, students often contend with a representation dilemma: on the one hand, they are presented with visual representations as a aid to learn new material, but at the same time they must also learn how to make sense of the visual representation itself. Trying to read the book entitled “How To Read A Book” is a humorous example of a representation dilemma^[At least, this is a humorous example in theory. I wholly endorse readers interested in a different approach to reading to try reading using the system laid out in “How To Read A Book”.] — on the one hand, the reader is meant to use “How To Read A Book” as a learning aid, though presumably the reader needs to have read this particular book to read…books.

Another relevant example can be found among surgical residents learning a laparoscopic surgerical procedure. The surgeons might be expected to know which tissues displayed by the laparoscopic camera feed can and should be cut, yet these surgeons-in-training must also be able to make sense of the images (and, consequently, anatomical structures) shown by that video feed.

Thus, to learn from these representations requires students to acquire representational competencies, or “the knowledge and skills that enable them to use visual representations to reason and solve tasks” (Rau, 2017).

The author divides these representational competencies into two distinct classes:

  • sense-making competencies
  • perceptual competencies

Sense-making Representational Competencies

Sense-making competencies relate to how students form an internal representation for a certain topic by either connecting visual features with conceptual knowledge or integrating internal representations with prior conceptual knowledge. Put simply, sense-making competencies are what we call the skills that help us make sense of the elements contained in a visual representation.

For example, let’s consider a medical student learning cardiovascular anatomy from a book. The medical student could read a paragraph describing how each substructure works together to circulate re-oxygenated blood through the body. However, when the med student connects the written conceptual knowledge to an illustration of a heart identifying substructures like ventricles and valves, they are exercising sense-making processes.

Learning sense-making competencies requires the student to engage in active reasoning through activities like explaining the concept aloud in collaborative problem-solving tasks/discussions, drawing out a model of the process in question, or prompting the student to self-explain.

Perceptual Representational Competencies

In contrast, perceptual competencies “involve the ability to effortlessly and efficiently see meaning in visual representations” (Rau, 2017). Developing fluency in perceptual competencies can enable learners to quickly and effortlessly recognize visual patterns. For example, an orthapedic surgeon exhibits perceptual fluency in reading x-rays if they can look at the x-ray and accurately identify whether the bones are broken in a matter of seconds.

Achieving this fluency requires the learner to extensively practice these nonverbal, perceptual processes by classifying, categorizing, and discriminating the content depicted in visual representation. Practicing across a range of visual representations leads learners to become more efficient and accurate in performing these tasks. In other words, our orthapedic surgeon becomes fast and accurate only by reading many patients’ x-rays depicting that same group of bones.

This finding belies one of the core motivations for Edurrhaphy’s visual flashcard product — as surgeons view laparoscopic images, they need to rapidly identify what anatomical structures are represented in the image. This perceptual fluency acts a prerequisite for a surgeon’s ability to know where and how to make incisions in the patient’s body, arguably even before their ability to mechanically control the surgical instruments (e.g. incisions, knot-tying, suction/irrigation, or cauterization).

Visual versus Connectional Understandings?

So far, we’ve discussed perceptual and sense-making competencies as the two broad categories that explain how we make meaning of visual representations. However, the author describes two additional aspects of both sense-making and perceptual competencies: visual and connectional understanding.

Visual understandings relate to the learner’s ability to both comprehend what is contained in a particular representation and how it illustrates an abstract concept. For example, when a medical student examining a diagram of the heart connects the visual structures to the knowledge they’ve learned about how the heart functions, they are exhibiting visual understandings related to sense-making competencies.

Connectional understandings relate to the ability to draw connections across visual representations. When our medical student is learning to connect structures of heart in a drawn diagram to a photograph of a heart, they are exhibiting connectional understandings related to sense-making competencies.

Connectional Fluency

Perceptual competencies also have both visual and connectional components, as well. Unlike the sense-making competencies, the visual and connenctional understandings related to perceptual fluency focus on how efficient a student is able to a) identify items in a representation, and b) connect across different representations.

So What?

The point of this post is to broadly lay out the complexities that we face when we use different visual representations as learning aids. This summary scrapes the surface of the nuances here, and in a followup post I hope to expand further on some of the findings covered in the article. However, I hope that by covering some of the main categories and subcategories, we can start to imagine how focusing on these nuances can help us create better educational experiences.


Rau, M.A. (2017). Conditions for the Effectiveness of Multiple Visual Representations in Enhancing STEM Learning. Educational Psychology Review, 29, 717-761. https://doi.org/10.1007/s10648-016-9365-3.

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