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In this visual age, it might seem like a truism to assert that visual content is more effective at communicating a concept than text alone.
In fact, the Internet is full of statistics on the superiority of visual content over text. Have you come across any of these assertions lately?
To shed some light on this topic, we surveyed 1,428 American adults and showed them two versions of a news article: one with only text and the other as its graphic counterpart. What we found is surprising—but first, a little background information on this topic.
While studies such as this and this have found that high school students perform “significantly better on reading comprehension assessments when they read the graphic adaptation” of novels, another investigation¹ concluded that the use of visuals such as concept maps and diagrams “did not improve the reading comprehension level of college business students.”
Others assert that elementary school readers with low reading comprehension are aided by illustrations, while skilled readers tend to “pay little attention to the illustrations during their reading.” Meanwhile, a number of studies have found that the presence of graphics had no effect on the reading comprehension of children.
It is evident then that there is no clear consensus on the matter, considering that some researchers have found that graphics have a neutral effect, while some state they have a negative effect, and still others have found a positive effect.
In conclusion, as stated by another study: “previous research has been inconsistent with regard to whether or not the presence of graphics is beneficial to students’ overall comprehension of the text,” regardless of their age.
Given the fact that the Internet is full of disputed statistics on the effectiveness of visual content, the objective of our survey was to determine how the use of graphics, specifically infographics, affects reading comprehension and recall in American adults.
To represent the U.S. population of adults, ages 18 and up, we surveyed a total of 1,428 American adults with at least a 9th-grade education and access to a personal computer or tablet on which they could complete this survey.
In order to eliminate extraneous factors related to the reading level of participants and the difficulty of the material, we sourced all articles from Reader’s Digest, which is written at a 9th-grade reading level.
Each survey participant was randomly shown either a short, 250-word article with no images or its infographic version, with all the information contained in the text-only article but in graphical form.
Participants were then asked up to three comprehension questions corresponding to each article or infographic. In order to test for recall and comprehension, participants were not allowed to look back at the original text or graphic after reading it.
Respondents were shown a total of six articles or infographics. For each article, we used one of six different infographic types, as explained in this article: informational, process, numerical, timeline, comparison and anatomical infographics.
We were surprised to find that the results were inconclusive on the matter, as has occurred with several previous studies.
For the first set of questions, we used the article titled “5 Random Fun Facts” and a poster infographic as its counterpart.
We found that the percentage of participants who correctly responded to the comprehension questions was greater for those who were shown the visual version, but only by a slight margin.
Only the second question had a statistically significant difference, with 67.14% of those who viewed the graphic version responding correctly, compared to 58.51% of those who viewed the text-only version.
For the second set of questions, we found that all differences in percentages were statistically insignificant, except for the first question in the set, which was answered correctly by a greater percentage of those who were shown the text-only version.
Similarly, for the third set of questions, the results were mixed and the differences in percentages were also statistically insignificant.
The first two questions were answered correctly by a greater percentage of those who viewed the text-only versions, while the third question was answered correctly more often by those who viewed the infographic version.
Meanwhile, the fourth set of questions also returned inconclusive results. While the first question was answered correctly more often by those who viewed the infographic version, the second question was answered correctly more often by those who viewed the text-only version. Again, the differences in percentage of correct responses for both questions was statistically insignificant.
The fifth set of questions, which used a text and a comparison infographic, yielded the same results: marginal differences in percentages and statistically insignificant results.
The sixth set of questions compared an anatomical infographic with its textual version and the results were statistically insignificant.
Although our results were inconclusive on the matter of whether infographics really aid reading comprehension and recall, it would be interesting to conduct a future study using time limits.
The average time spent on the entire survey was 7 minutes, but we do not have specific data on how time spent differs in relation to the type of content viewed (infographic or article).
Since respondents were allowed to spend as much time as needed to read and process each article or infographic, a possible question for future research could be: Is visual content in the form of infographics processed faster in comparison to text-only information?
What do you think of our results and the current state of research on how infographics affect reading comprehension? Let us know your thoughts below...
Cook, M. (2014). Examining the Effects of Graphic Novels on the Reading Comprehension of High School Students (Order No. 3623814). Available from ProQuest Dissertations & Theses Global.
Hibbing, A. (2003). The Reading Teacher, Vol. 56, No. 8 (May, 2003), pp. 758-770.
Norman, R. (2011). What is the relationship between graphical reading processes and student comprehension? Reading and Writing - READ WRIT. 25. 10.1007/s11145-011-9298-7.
Rhodes, K. (2014). A Comparison of a Traditional Text and Its Graphic Adaptation on Reading Comprehension in a Secondary Classroom (Order No. 3582796). Available from ProQuest Dissertations & Theses Global.
White, J. (1999). An investigation of the effect of graphic organizers on the reading comprehension of business students (Order No. 9946576). Available from ProQuest Dissertations & Theses Global. (304514065).