September 18, 2017

Beyond words: “Visual practice” can deepen classroom learning

According to TLC interaction specialist Jason Toal, "visual practice" is not about artistic skills, but about "using visual cues [to] help students process, retain and retrieve concepts better." Above: A participant in one of Toal's Going Visual workshops.

If the proliferation of infographics over the past decade is any indication, information consumers have an insatiable appetite for visual representations of complex information. The reason is simple: images are often easier to parse than words, which require more brain power to decode.

That’s why Jason Toal, an interaction specialist with the Teaching and Learning Centre, encourages instructors to seek visually based alternatives, or supplements, to lecturing and text-heavy PowerPoint slides.

“A growing concern these days is the amount of information we are subjected to. In education this is compounded,” he says. “Incorporating a visual practice in your teaching provides a means to focus your message and thereby your teaching.”

Toal’s specialty is drawing and sketching, and he uses the term visual practice to refer specifically to the use of “hand-drawn visuals to interact, communicate and design”—a practice he views as particularly suited to instructional contexts.

“Whether you’re drawing a cartoon, a diagram, or simply annotating your PowerPoint slides live, using visual cues can help students process, retain and retrieve concepts better,” says Toal.

In fact, he insists, visual practice is already widespread among SFU faculty members, even though many visual practitioners wouldn’t immediately classify themselves as such.

“I am particularly struck by [instructors in] sciences and math who often lecture and draw simultaneously.”

“I am particularly struck by [instructors in] sciences and math who often lecture and draw simultaneously. For those that I have asked, they definitely do not consider themselves visual practitioners, let alone ‘artists,’ but once we begin looking at their content from an educational media perspective, they begin to understand what I mean.”

This fall Toal will lead a pair of workshops linked to visual practice. One takes participants through basic drawing exercises. The other introduces visual tools such as whiteboard animations, video light boards and comics. Both workshops demonstrate how these potentially liberating strategies can be applied to course material to deepen learning.

Toal emphasizes that extraordinary artistic skills are not a prerequisite for incorporating visual practices into teaching and learning activities. In fact, he says, developing a simple library of figures, symbols and icons, and practicing them until they become second nature, can be more than adequate. Instructors who combine these elements with a few additional tips are well on their way to acquiring a visual vocabulary that can help them express concepts in a way their students will understand.

For more information about visual practice, contact Jason Toal at

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