There’s more to the multimedia effect than meets the eye: is seeing pictures believing?

Magnus Ögren, Marcus Nyström, Halszka Jarodzka

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Textbooks in applied mathematics often use graphs to explain the meaning of formulae, even though their benefit is still not fully explored. To test processes underlying this assumed multimedia effect we collected performance scores, eye movements, and think-aloud protocols from students solving problems in vector calculus with and without graphs. Results showed no overall multimedia effect, but instead an effect to confirm statements that were accompanied by graphs, irrespective of whether these statements were true or false. Eye movement and verbal data shed light on this surprising finding. Students looked proportionally less at the text and the problem statement when a graph was present. Moreover, they experienced more mental effort with the graph, as indicated by more silent pauses in thinking aloud. Hence, students actively processed the graphs. This, however, was not sufficient. Further analysis revealed that the more students looked at the statement, the better they performed. Thus, in the multimedia condition the graph drew students’ attention and cognitive capacities away from focusing on the statement. A good alternative strategy in the multimedia condition was to frequently look between graph and problem statement, and thus to integrate their information. In conclusion, graphs influence where students look and what they process, and may even mislead them into believing accompanying information. Thus, teachers and textbook designers should be very critical on when to use graphs and carefully consider how the graphs are integrated with other parts of the problem.
Original languageEnglish
JournalInstructional Science
Issue number2
Pages (from-to)263–287
Publication statusPublished - 2016

Bibliographical note

C: The Author(s) 2016. This article is published with open access at


  • Multimedia effect
  • Eye tracking
  • Verbal data
  • Mathematics education
  • Science education

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