Animations vs. Diagrams

Are animations better than a series of static diagrams or pictures for helping someone understand something such as how some system behaves and functions? Will Thalheimer summarizes some of this work, but more in-depth papers and reviews are listed below. Most studies have shown that there is not much advantage overall of animations over well-designed diagrams, but I’d say when designing real educational software, animations can be very useful. For one thing, the reviews discount studies where the animation provided more information than the diagram. For a designer, however, this is not a confound but rather an advantage, and sometimes the extra information is inevitable. Consider for example an electrical circuit diagram which provides no explicit information about the behavior of current at all vs. an animated simulation. Most studies also do not give the learners control over the pacing of the animation (as in an animated simulation). As Richard Lowe’s work (below) shows, “user-controllable” diagrams/animations can be more effective. And in the quote from the Tversky paper below, I highlight their qualification about user control and interactivity:

  • Animation: Can it facilitate? (pdf) review by Barbara Tversky, Morrison, and Betrancourt. A quote:

    “Animations of events may be ineffective because animations violate the second principle of good graphics, the Apprehension Principle, according to which graphics shouldbe accurately perceived and appropriately conceived. Animations are often too complex or too fast to be accurately perceived. Moreover, many continuous events are conceived of as sequences of discrete steps. Judicious use of interactivity may overcome both these disadvantages.

  • See also the chapters by Betrancourt and Mary Hegarty in the Cambridge Handbook of Multimedia Learning, edited by Richard Mayer.
  • User-Controllable Animated Diagrams: The Solution for Learning Dynamic Content? (full text requires subscription) and Animation and learning: Value for money? – papers on user control and animations by Richard Lowe.
  • Also, it’s not an either/or choice. You can work with animations/simulations and then diagrams. Letting students experience a more open-ended learning environment like a simulation before a lecture or text is more effective. [1][2]
Posted in research, simulations

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