Teaching Tips: Visual Imagery

Although some students, and many instructors, are aware that rote memorization tasks are ineffective learning strategies, few have experience using learning strategies that capitalize on the brain’s strengths in processing certain forms of information. There is a large amount of the brain dedicated to visual processing (Zeki, 1993) and visual imagery is more easily remembered than some other forms of information (Paivio, 1969; Posner, Nissen, & Klein, 1976). Thus, one effective learning strategy is the intentional formation of vivid mental images related to the information one is trying to learn. Importantly, visualization can be used for complex concepts and reasoning, rather than just for remembering facts (Kosslyn, Behrmann & Jeannerod, 1995).

As an instructor, you can identify a complex concept in your class and develop appropriate visual imagery to represent it. This often takes the form of an analogy, but the emphasis should be on the visual features of the analogy so that student can picture it in their minds and return to it easily at a later time. It’s particularly helpful if you can connect this visual imagery to prior information you have taught in the class, as it is well known that learning is more likely to occur with scaffolding to connect prior knowledge and experiences to current knowledge and experiences (e.g., McNamara & Kintsch, 1996).

For example, let’s say you want to teach your students about the multiple perspectives that exist on any given topic, such as freedom of speech. You can use visualization to explain the concept of “multiple perspectives” by asking students to imagine a minor car accident in rich detail; e.g., There are two damaged cars at an intersection. What was the make or model of each car? Who was sitting in each seat of the car? Who was standing on the sidewalk? What kind of weather was there that day? What kind of street and neighborhood was it?

Once students have a vivid mental image of the scene, you can lead them through the different perspectives that the person in each seat of each car and those outside the car have on the same accident as a way to illustrate the abstract concept that multiple perspectives exist on a particular topic of discussion. For example, what is the perspective of Driver A, Driver B, a child in the backseat of car A, a passenger in the seat of car B, a witness from behind car A, an observer on the sidewalk, a police investigator, an insurance adjuster, an EMT, and so on. The different perspectives of these people represent the multiple perspectives that people may might have on any topic. Students are much more likely to remember this concept of multiple perspectives if they have rich visual imagery to represent it. With a bit of reflection and time, instructors can create visual imagery for most complex concepts in their own classes.


Kosslyn, S. M., Behrmann, M., & Jeannerod, M. (1995). The cognitive neuroscience of mental imagery. Neuropsychologia, 33(11), 1335-1344.

McNamara, D. S., & Kintsch, W. (1996). Learning from texts: Effects of prior knowledge and text coherence. Discourse Processes, 22(3), 247-288.

Miller, M.D. (2011). What college teachers should know about memory: A perspective from cognitive psychology. College Teaching, 59, 117-122.

Posner, M. I., Nissen, M. J., & Klein, R. M. (1976). Visual dominance: an information-processing account of its origins and significance. Psychological Review, 83(2), 157.

Paivio, A. (1969). Mental imagery in associative learning and memory. Psychological Review, 76(3), 241.

Zeki, S. (1993). A Vision of the Brain. Blackwell Scientific Publishers.

Submitted by:
Amy Overman & Mary Jo Festle, Associate Directors
Deandra Little, Director
Center for the Advancement of Teaching and Learning
Elon University