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Can visual representations facilitate EFL information processing and learning?

Les représentations visuelles : une aide pour traiter l’information et apprendre l’anglais ?
Pascale Manoïlov


Le dessin n'est pas une activité courante dans les milieux universitaires, en particulier dans les départements de langues ou en LANSAD. Cependant, dessiner un cours ou une partie d'un cours peut être un bon moyen pour les étudiants de se souvenir des éléments clés et de structurer – créer du sens de – ce qui a été étudié pendant le semestre. Cette recherche porte sur les représentations visuelles dessinées par des étudiants inscrits à des cours d'EMILE (Enseignement d'une Matière Intégré à une Langue Étrangère) à l'université en France. L'étude des productions graphiques des étudiants ainsi que les formats qu’ils ont adoptés pour résumer un contenu fournit un éclairage sur les concepts qu'ils ont retenus et sur la manière dont ils s’approprient la langue. Leurs représentations visuelles ont été classées selon leur forme et leur contenu. Chaque catégorie est ensuite analysée pour mettre en évidence les forces et les faiblesses des différents types de représentations par rapport aux objectifs des cours.

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1. Introduction

1After J.R.R. Tolkien finished writing The Hobbit, he didn’t know how to start a new story, so he drew a map (the now famous map of Middle Earth). Throughout his books, he kept sketching or drawing the landscapes he had imagined. Did he draw to help his readers picture the scenes or did drawing help him with his writing process of description and narration? This question could easily apply to students learning a foreign language, as drawing or sketching could help them structure their thoughts and reduce their cognitive overload (Sweller et al.). Mapping their knowledge could also be a good way for teachers to check their understanding and their learning of concepts developed in class. Be it for the study of literature, history, sociology, linguistics, or any discipline taught in English as a Foreign Language (EFL), students need to find ways to acquire both content and language structure. This is the gist of most EFL courses at university.

2When it comes to learning what was studied in class, students tend to write linear notes and sometimes use colours to highlight important concepts, definitions or simple words that they want to remember. But these strategies are usually not effective. Although sketches or drawings are largely used in some disciplines (e.g., biology, chemistry, geography or technology), language classes tend to mainly use images (e.g., paintings, photos or political cartoons) that are provided, usually by the teacher, to be studied in class. And even in this case, Viallon notes that, among teachers, images suffer from a lack of legitimacy, much like oral practice, as they are often considered, at best, a tool, and more rarely a structuring element of language and culture.

3Usually, teachers organise the delivery of knowledge according to what they consider the most relevant pedagogical logic. We all know the expression “a picture is worth a thousand words”, but how could this help university students to learn the English language and the culture associated with the different domains they study?

4The hypothesis developed here is that transferring the responsibility of re-organising knowledge through visual representations could help learners organise information, create connections, highlight relations between concepts or sources, and essentialise key information. In other words, graphic representations of mental mapping could support learning.

5After a literature review on the effects of drawing or sketching, and a few definitions, this article will report on three different EFL courses in which students were asked to design visual representations of what they needed to understand and learn, prior to undertaking spoken or written tasks. The types of visuals as well as the purpose of each activity were different, and the students’ productions will be presented and discussed to highlight the potentiality of this pedagogical approach. The experiments presented here should be considered preliminary studies of how students’ creation of visual representations could enhance the development of their knowledge, which should eventually support their production skills.

2. Visual representations and cognition

6Sketches and drawings are often thought of as psychoanalytical instruments, but visual representations can do more than serve psychoanalytic theories. Over the past twenty years or so, many popular books have been published to present complex information in graphical form to make it more explicit (Brown; Mills; Ritchhart and Church; Rohde). This is called data visualisation (Tufte; Wilke) and their popularity seems to support the idea that visual representations facilitate information processing. In his theory of multiple intelligences, Gardner associates drawing with graphic intelligence i.e., the ability to address and resolve problems through the coordination of eye, mind and hand, which are some of the instruments of perception, thinking and representation. Along with speaking or writing, this ability is unique to the human species and yet, unlike language, after the teen years have been reached, it is usually considered “normal for people not to learn to draw” (Cohn 168).

7Graphic representations are somehow considered a form of language by some researchers (Cohn; Nelson; Toomela) as they use a ‘lexicon’ of schematic models stored in memory. Language is a symbolic system that uses systematic sounds or signs to express concepts. Similarly, drawing is a means of graphically expressing concepts. The signs combine to reveal innumerable novel images, much like spoken languages, and they lead to the creation of a conceptual structure of meaning. These schematic models are not accurate representations of reality, but they refer to iconic or symbolic meaning (such as symbolic arrows which indicate direction, light bulbs to denote new ideas, mathematical signs, etc.). Sketches are composed of signs, for example circles or lines, that can combine to form an endless number of iconic images and they are quite simple in terms of drawing skills. They can rely on basic shapes such as dots, lines, arrows, circles or squares. With lines and circles, it is possible to draw a person or a lollipop. However, it is interesting to note that these iconic meanings are also culturally situated: a lollipop is represented by a vertical line with a circle on top of it in Great Britain but in France, the lollipop is more likely to look like a pointed oval form.

8Sketches differ from words that are put on paper with letters ordered in a linear way although they represent combinations that are not necessarily linear. Circular patterns, flowcharts, tree diagrams and many other forms can be used to organise information in a non-linear way. And when combined with words, this structured organisation of signs can acquire more subtle or powerful meanings. Cicalò considers that the relationships between drawing and cognition can be analysed in terms of ability not only to represent, but to communicate. The use of a graphic ‘lexicon’ along with topographical syntactical rules makes it possible to graphically communicate. As such, sketches or drawings are often considered ‘images of the mind’ by cognitive psychologists, and they can be viewed as transpositions of cognitive processes. They require planning and problem solving, and this leads to the creation of a conceptual structure of meaning. And this meaning making is a way to mediate learning.

9Knowledge processing (cognition) is usually divided into four categories: declarative knowledge (“knowing that”), procedural knowledge (“knowing how”), schematic knowledge (“knowing why”) and strategic knowledge (“when, where and how knowledge should be applied”) (Tardif). The mapping of knowledge, applied to education, is reproduced in the following figure designed by Shavelson et al. (2005):

Figure 1: Conceptual framework for characterising science goals and student achievement.

Figure 1: Conceptual framework for characterising science goals and student achievement.

Shavelson et al. 415

10Drawing on Anderson’s premise that “the essence of knowledge is structure” (Anderson 5), the authors (Shavelson et al.) suggest that knowledge, in the domain of science, is organised around central concepts which are linked to form a highly integrated structure. With regard to this, research has long highlighted that successful students are more able to develop elaborate, well-differentiated, and integrated frameworks of related concepts (e.g., Chi et al.; Glaser and Bassok). Structured drawings could therefore enhance the acquisition of knowledge.

11One key element to learning – acquiring knowledge – is memory. A large amount of research has focused on understanding the way memory works and how it might be improved. Among the vast empirical work devoted to this subject, Wammes et al. have noted that “one common theme throughout these proposed tactics is the use of more active forms of learning, as opposed to passive exposure to information” (1). Enactment and drawing are activities that engage multiple cognitive processes or sensory modalities that make learners active. Such practice would therefore enhance memorisation. Their research on drawing reveals that a simple sketching of what one is trying to learn is more likely to be successfully recalled than material which is simply put on paper with words. They demonstrated that drawing improves memory, in both younger and older adults, more than does an elaborative encoding task consisting of listing descriptive characteristics of nouns to be learnt. This was referred to as “the drawing effect” (Wammes, Meade, et al.), as the act of drawing creates a multi-layered memory trace: the first step is cognitive elaboration, when new information is connected with prior learning; then comes pictorial coding, when a mental image is created; and finally motoric coding, when the act of drawing creates a new memory trace. Drawing could substantially enhance long-term retention (Wammes, Jonker, et al.) as it facilitates the creation of connections between old and new knowledge, and therefore supports networks of knowledge. Research in neuroscience also shows that retention depends on the nature of the learning episode. A better outcome is observed when a learner is required to recall the information to be learnt (what is known as retrieval practice) than when simply exposed to the information in question. Rowland in his meta-analytic review of the testing effect presents key results showing that retrieving information from memory can, under many circumstances, strengthen one’s memory of the retrieved information. Retrieval practice (which favours long-term memory), using graphic summaries of the content of a course, is therefore likely to enhance the memorisation of what needs to be remembered.

3. A few definitions of various types of visual representations

12The terms ‘drawing’ or ‘sketching’ should not be limited to the use of pen and paper to visually represent words, concepts, or processes. With the massive integration of digital technology in the world of education, digital tools that allow for graphic design are also considered. These include online drawing applications using a digital pencil, graphic design applications and all types of software that allow the creation of shapes, graphs or images.

13Different forms of representations (Mills) exist for taking notes or reporting on research for example.

14Visual notes can be:

  • Lecture-based: they are taken on site at the time of the lecture.

  • Experience-based: they can be taken from memory after a class or lecture-based notes can be re-organised later.

15These timely parameters will have an impact on:

  • The refinement of the notes.

  • The organisation (space dimension).

  • The presentation (aesthetic dimension).

16They can be taken:

  • On paper/in a notebook: it is inexpensive, shareable and permanent, but it takes up space and is prone to damage.

  • On a whiteboard: it is simple to use, easy to edit but not permanent, and hard to photograph with a limited palette or size.

  • Digitally: there are many tools which are cost-effective, convenient, but sometimes also expensive in the first place.

17Visual representations refer to various types of graphic design that can be used for educational purposes, among which are infographics, mind maps, concept maps and sketchnotes. Their main characteristics are presented here.

18From the descriptions provided, it appears that differences between each type of visual representation may be blurred as each one is a means of representing information. However, some criteria may apply to one type or another, among which are the purpose or the target audience of the visuals. But what they all have in common is that they present information in a non-linear way, unlike what students usually do when they write essays or take notes in their notebooks.

3.1. Infographics

19Infographics refer to data visualisations that present rich and/or expert information in a clear and usually aesthetic way, combining various types of visual representations such as iconic signs, photos, graphics, charts, along with short texts. Daily newspapers started to regularly use them in the 1970s to simplify information and facilitate comprehension of complex issues and news stories (Smiciklas). Their structure can follow several models.

Figure 2: Different types of infographic design.

Figure 2: Different types of infographic design.

Source: rockcontent blog (“Analyzing the Top 30 Infographics on Visually”)

20With the development of social media, infographics have become a popular and convenient way to share data or knowledge using visual graphic representations online. They resort to storytelling techniques and use aesthetically pleasant designs to elicit emotional response. Therefore, their original goal is to communicate information and enhance understanding. In the domain of education, infographics are often used to illustrate complex information in a clear and compact form (Bicen and Beheshti). When used in language classes, they can be a good way for students to explain their understanding of a subject. Students can practice their writing skills and express their creativity with images, symbols and a colourful design.

3.2. Mind maps and concept maps

21The use of diagrams that visually map information has been used for a long time but the term ‘mind map’ was coined by Tony Buzan in the 1970s. Mind maps show relationships from a central point to several items or concepts with lines, and include some hierarchy with sub-points in a non-linear way.

Mindmapping is a strategy for visually displaying large amounts of conceptual, hierarchical information in a concise, organized, and accessible format. Mindmaps arrange information similar to that found on the traditional topic outline into colorful spatial displays that offer the user a view of the “forest” as well as the “trees”. (Cunningham 140)

22In their study on knowledge assessment, Shavelson et al. (2005) posit that drawing “maps” can reflect the structure of students’ knowledge. The authors refer to two types of maps: cognitive maps (also known as mind maps) and concept maps. Cognitive maps (Goldsmith et al.) are based on an associative model of memory which considers that when one concept, represented by a node, is stimulated in the brain, a search is launched from the closest node and gradually moves beyond, in sequential order. The transfer of the representation of knowledge on such a map can highlight the grouping or distance that a student puts between concepts.

23Concept maps (Novak), relying on a semantic model of memory, are drawn around concepts, presented as nodes, which are connected by labelled lines characterising the relationships between these concepts. This cognitive model assumes that when a node is activated, a memory search spreads out along relevant relationships which the student can represent with lines and describe.

Figure 3: Cognitive map based on an associative model of memory.

Figure 3: Cognitive map based on an associative model of memory.

Shavelson et al. 418.

Figure 4: Concept map based a semantic model of memory.

Figure 4: Concept map based a semantic model of memory.

Shavelson et al. 418.

24These two models of maps can be used as templates that the students would have to fill in. The concept map can also be used as a scaffolding device: students are provided with a map which either displays the concepts and they must label the relationships, or the relationships are provided, and the students fill in the nodes with concepts. In the domain of language learning, this type of structure is also used to create argument maps which can help students structure arguments, and develop critical thinking to support writing or speaking skills (van Gelder). An argument map “is a visual diagram that organises a text-based argument into a hierarchical representation, with propositions arranged in coloured boxes and connected by arrows that highlight the relations (i.e. because, but and however) between propositions” (Dwyer et al. 14) as in the example below:

Figure 5: An example of an argument map created through Rationale™.

Figure 5: An example of an argument map created through Rationale™.

Dwyer et al. 15.

25Claudel and Doury use these Rationale-generated maps to teach French as a Foreign Language. Their goal is not necessarily to teach argumentation but to help students learn how to articulate arguments and elaborate relations. They suggest that

[…] by developing a visual representation of the dynamics of a debate or the structure of an argument (when analysing or preparing for a production), learners are led to represent symmetrically different positions on a subject, which momentarily suspends the question of their own position on the issue under discussion as well as the related stakes (Ibid. 45).

26These different types of maps are all likely to be effective learning strategies, as they are opportunities for students to visually organise concepts, arguments, and relationships on a two-dimensional plane.

3.3. Sketchnotes

27‘Sketchnote’ is a term coined by Mike Rohde in 2006. It is a form of visual note-taking with visual elements in addition to text. These include using graphical layouts, icons and drawings, arrows, containers and fancy typefaces.

28Sketchnotes have also become very popular in recent years, especially with the availability of digital pencils that allow drawings on tablets and easy storing or sharing. As illustrated by the patterns below, sketchnotes make it possible to synthesise and organise information.

Figure 6: Different ways to organise sketchnotes.

Figure 6: Different ways to organise sketchnotes.

Source: @Impact Wales,

29The main purpose of sketchnoting for a student is to organise their notes other than in a linear way. With sketchnotes, learners can create more colourful diagrams , and more elaborate forms of mind maps or concept maps. And, as sketchnotes are meant to be hand drawn in the first place, learners often rely on more creative designs and they can include personal drawings or adopt a looser organisation.

4. The use of visual representations by students: a three-case study

  • 1 All undergraduate students enrolled in distance learning follow the same English course. Several ma (...)

30This study reports on sketching activities that students trialled while attending content and language integrated learning (CLIL) courses at university. Three different groups of students, who are required to take EFL courses as part of their university curriculum, were offered the opportunity to trial drawing or sketching to support their learning: (1) a group of students (21) enrolled in a Master’s degree program in foreign language teaching methodology (for French as a foreign language), (2) a group of Master’s students (25) who studied behavioural economics, and (3) a group of undergraduate students (280) who completed their studies online1. For each group, the use of visual representations created by the students were used with specific goals and in different ways that will be described below.

4.1. Group 1

31This group was enrolled in an ESL course which focuses on the development of Interaction Competence through game playing. Students, whose English proficiency levels ranged from A2 to C1 (Council of Europe), completed a learning journal throughout the semester to reflect their learning strategies (cf. Manoïlov & Divoux-Ringuette, 2021 for a complete description of the project) and learning outcomes. These journals were used to assess the students’ perception on the mind map activity.

32The last sessions of the course were dedicated to the playing of three teacher-adapted board games Taboo, Spot the Differences, and a cooperation game that I called Escape. Each group of three or four students was assigned the preparation of one of the three games. The rules and material were provided and, although the general organisation and the playing boards were designed by the teacher, most of the game instructions, language elicitation and strategies were devised by students. The whole gaming activity followed four steps (the EMERGE framework): (a) Elicition, (b) Mediation, (c) Experiment, and (d) peer-Review of the Game-based Experience (Manoilov). In the first eliciting phase, each group studied a written or video corpus and focused on a given lexico-grammatical form, which was different for each game. These forms were assigned by the teacher according to their relevance to the games, but also because they are common fossilised errors or under-used forms. The study of the corpus enabled the students to infer the rules for each lexico-grammatical feature, and a toolbox summarising the main rules was provided to check their hypotheses. They were then required to design a mind map to create a visual representation of the rules inferred from the corpus and the toolbox. The creation of the mind map was meant to help them (re)organise the rules visually and display information showing relationships between the various elements. It also enabled the learners to relate new knowledge to prior knowledge, and to display the lexico-grammatical rules to be used, as a reference, for the other players.

33For example, the Escape game was meant to elicit compound-nouns (such as matchbox, sleeping-bag, flashlight, or chocolate bar) which are usually understood but very rarely used by French learners, even advanced ones. In the mind map below, the students broke down all the possible components of compound nouns and provided examples.

Figure 7: Example of a mind map on "compound nouns"

Figure 7: Example of a mind map on "compound nouns"

34The Spot the Differences game covered countable and non-countable nouns, which are often a source of error for learners. Students often experience difficulties with determination, verb agreements as well as the use of appropriate pronouns: aircraft, police/crew, sunglasses, trousers, hair, luggage, and (pints of) beer were words that the players needed to use. The map designers created a concept map in which both the rules but also the collocations along with examples were provided. This mind map was then used in class by the students to explain the rules to their peers (Mediation phase) and enable them to play the game.

Figure 8: Example of a concept map on "Count and Non-Count Nouns"

Figure 8: Example of a concept map on "Count and Non-Count Nouns"

35Although the final mind maps were not completely accurate, they were considered a great help by the students who had created them. Here is what a B2 student wrote in his journal:

  • 2 The student’s verbatim was not corrected.

The mind map really helped me put each part of the grammar rule into its place. We created a mind map that was divided into categories like, for example, on one side, count nouns that are regular and on the other side count nouns that are irregular, also how do we form the plural of them, etc. Writing it, doodling some sort of scheme, really helped me understand a grammar rule. I think I understood better the rule that way instead of just reading the paper explaining it.2

36All the students acknowledged that creating the mind map was very demanding but also very rewarding since they were able to reorganise their knowledge (prior and new knowledge) and make use of it while playing the games. With these mind maps, the students worked on their declarative knowledge as they had to classify information, define terms, and provide relevant examples they found in the corpus. But they also eventually used some procedural knowledge while they were playing the games and automatically applied some of the rules that had been previously acquired or reactivated.

4.2. Group 2

37This group was composed of 25 Master’s students, majoring in behavioural economics (BA). They enrolled in a project-in-English course which involved taking part in a Collaborative Online International Learning (COIL) programme as well as running BA experiments with their Czech partners. Their proficiency levels in English also ranged from A2 to C1 but they were experts in their discipline and studied in English most of the time. However, their ability to communicate in real-life situations was quite limited and the fluidity of their speech was often poor, except for eight students who had a good command of English for economics (usually referred to as English for specific purposes). Visual representations were helpful, as they were considered a good way for students to prepare for a speech on a given subject. Prior to their first online meeting with their partners, they were asked to create an infographic in which they would present their discipline to non-specialists. The goal of this activity was to prepare them to pitch their project, starting with an introduction on what they were studying. Their discipline being quite complex, they were asked to present expert information in a clear and accessible way, using an online tool, such as Canva3. The challenge was to prepare them to introduce their discipline without using any technical jargon. They were given an example of an infographic and a template to guide them.

38After they had created a first draft, they submitted their infographic and received feedback to improve the content (the type of information provided), language and graphic design.

Figure 9: Example of two infographics to introduce Behavioural Economics

Figure 9: Example of two infographics to introduce Behavioural Economics

39Preparing their infographic gave them the opportunity to reflect on these three aspects:

a) Content

  • They had to make choices about what was important.

  • They had to take the reader into account: they divided their infographics into several parts and introduced them with questions as if readers were asking.

  • They had to adopt an understandable language. If they used specific terms, they explained them with examples, as in the infographic on the left. The students wrote about ‘risk aversion’ and then provided an example to illustrate the meaning of the term.

b) Linguistic competence

  • They had to pay attention to the consistency of their text, especially when it came to reference chains. For instance, one head title read “What is a behavioural economist?” and in a subsequent section, the heading question was “How do they work?”. The short and dense presentation enabled them (with the feedback of the teacher) to notice the numerous inconsistencies that are not usually central to their attention when writing: punctuation, typography, consistency among forms (the verbs for example: stem forms or gerund forms were sometimes in the same list).

  • They had to choose precise vocabulary to be concise. They reflected on the construction of their sentences to make them short and punchy.

c) Presentation

  • They had to make their infographic clear, so they divided their infographic into several parts to identify the various topics and they also highlighted the sections with different colours.

  • They had to combine several types of graphic forms to facilitate the reader’s access to meaning, so they illustrated the sections with iconic or symbolic images as well as photos.

  • They sometimes used bullet points to structure reading or limited their text to short sentences.

40Because they were provided with a template, all the students adopted the same linear sequence of short sections, although nothing was clearly specified. And because it was the first infographic they had ever created, they were not overly creative. However, after a vote by their economics teachers, the best infographics were posted on the site presenting the Master’s degree. When meeting their Czech partners online for the first time, their preparatory work on the infographics proved very useful to present their studies. Their conversations were video recorded, and the students seemed very confident when talking about their studies. Being prepared to adapt their discourse to a non-expert partner greatly facilitated their explanations to their e-tandem partners. With these infographics, they mostly used their procedural knowledge, but the feedback provided by the teacher enabled them to focus on forms and therefore pay attention to specific points they needed to improve.

4.3. Group 3

41In the academic year 2020-2021, this group was composed of 280 undergraduate students enrolled in two online EFL courses. In the first semester, the course was about The origins of Young Adult Fiction. The goals are the development of creative writing, the discovery of classic literary texts as well as the concept of intertextuality. In the second semester, the course dealt with The Images of US History and more precisely with the analyses of images in context. Both courses are attended by the same students who either took a placement test that positioned them at a B2 level or above, or they had successfully completed a B2 course the year before. The target level is therefore C1.

42At the end of the previous academic year (2019-2020), I had submitted a survey to the 247 students enrolled in the course and, out of the 112 students who answered the survey, 74 (66%) stated than they worked on the English course less than on their other online courses. Three quarters of them also acknowledged they did less than 75% of the activities of the course. The main reason for that was that most participants studying the C1 online course had full-time jobs or followed a double degree. Therefore, English was not considered essential for their studies, and they preferred to concentrate on their majors. In addition to the various activities of the courses, the students were given an activity to help them revise. The goal was to facilitate their understanding of the articulation of the content and activities within each chapter and between chapters. The students were therefore asked to draw the course with the purpose of engaging and motivating them. This activity was optional, but the students could get up to 2 points added to their final grade.

43Here are the instructions they received:

Draw a visual representation to summarise either the whole course or one chapter that you particularly enjoyed.
It should help you memorise and link all the key concepts of the course as well as recall vocabulary.
You can either draw it with pens and pencils or use a digital tool (power point, Jam board on Google, Xmind, Canva etc.). Be as creative as possible! But of course, you also need to be accurate and precise.

44As opposed to the other groups of this study, in this group, the students could choose the form of visual representation they preferred. An example of each type was provided to help decide which one would best suit their goal. All the visual representations produced across the two semesters were coded according to their types, whether they were manually or digitally created and whether they represented the whole course or one chapter.

Table 1: Number of visual representations of the course, according to type, submitted by students in 2020-2021


Semester 1

Semester 2

Hand Mindmap



Digital Mindmap



Hand Sketchnote



Digital Sketchnote



Hand Infographic



Digital Infographic



Indefinable form






4.3.1. Using mind maps (34 students)

45In the first semester, mind maps, and particularly digital ones, were the most popular. They enabled students to identify the various concepts that were taught in each chapter. In the following digital mind map, dealing with one chapter of the course, the student divided methodology (on the left), and vocabulary, key concepts and facts (on the right). However, the logic behind this is not always obvious. In the methodology section, the two types of images studied in the chapter are identified (poster and photograph) and elements of description and analysis are provided. But in the sub-section called ‘construction of the image’, the student also made a list of useful phrases to describe and locate elements on an image.

Figure 10: Digital mind map to summarise the whole course (semester 2)

Figure 10: Digital mind map to summarise the whole course (semester 2)
  • 4 Conscious cognition applies to conscious experiences such as feelings of effort, ideas, voluntary d (...)

46This type of mind map, produced with online software, seems difficult to apprehend as a whole. As we can see, it is very difficult to read. Although the student created multiple links between concepts, ideas and vocabulary, the mind map lacks the aesthetic qualities and colours to create a clear visual hierarchy that could facilitate retention. The attention the student paid to the creation of the mind map could certainly contribute to recalling the main elements of the course and to reinforce his semantic memory. Therefore, it is not the final product that would help memorising but the creative process which relies on conscious cognition4 (Baars et al.).

47The following mind map was also digitally generated but it displays less information and more visual context. Only one chapter from the first semester course is illustrated, and the main characteristics of Utopia and Dystopia are connected. Different forms and colours are used. Along with key concepts, the student added examples of books to illustrate the concepts. The graphic design reveals that the student has understood an important concept of the course, namely the shift from Utopia to Dystopia.

Figure 11: Digital mind map to summarise one chapter (semester 1)

Figure 11: Digital mind map to summarise one chapter (semester 1)

48Lastly, some students also chose to manually draw their mind map which, as in the example below, was an opportunity for them to demonstrate their artistic creativity as well as their commitment to learning.

Figure 12: Hand-drawn mind map to summarise one chapter (semester 1)

Figure 12: Hand-drawn mind map to summarise one chapter (semester 1)

49In the two previous examples, it is interesting to note how the students used semiotic signs to enhance the creation of meaning. In Figure 11, the background image as well as the colours are there to contextualise the two types of societies described in novels. The forms in which key words are written are also meaningful, with circles for concepts and squares for examples, or illustrations (or even one question raised by the study of the topic). In Figure 12, which summarises the chapter on Gothic literature, the concepts appear at branch junctions and a gothic font is used to write down words. In doing so, the student is immersed in the subject and probably adds an emotional dimension to her memorising process.

4.3.2. Using sketchnotes (17)

50Sketchnotes were mostly used to summarise and highlight the main key points of the course. They associated drawings or images with some text, with no obvious hierarchy between signs and text, both being meaningful.

51The following hand-drawn sketchnote is interesting because the student used the scheme of the narrative arc structure studied in the course (on the right). However, very little information on the content of the course is recalled and one can wonder whether the student spent much time on the EFL activities throughout the semester. But of course, his goal could have been to grasp the bonus points, without spending too much time on the activity.

Figure 13: Hand drawn sketchnote reproducing the narrative structure of the EFL course (semester 1) and narrative arc structure provided to summarise to development of a story

Figure 13: Hand drawn sketchnote reproducing the narrative structure of the EFL course (semester 1) and narrative arc structure provided to summarise to development of a story

52A few students produced digital sketchnotes, but it seems that they were created with a computer rather than with a digital pencil to draw on a tablet. The reason is probably because most students are not yet equipped with these types of tools.

Figure 14: Digital sketchnote describing the methodology of image analysis (semester 2)

Figure 14: Digital sketchnote describing the methodology of image analysis (semester 2)

53In this sketchnote, the student used a circle map format to highlight key concepts which are schematically defined with words and iconic or symbolic images. However, the high number of symbols, which are not associated with any concepts or words, makes it difficult to understand their meaning. Although sketchnotes are not innately intended for other readers, it is not obvious whether the student would be able to decipher these signs long after the creation of the sketchnote.

54These two examples show that the activity probably reached its primary goal, which was to have students revise the course, but the types of sketchnotes they produced seem fundamentally situated and they might not prove useful in other situations.

4.3.3. Using infographics (28 students)

55Lastly, several students created infographics. The following one is an example of a handwritten infographic in which the student identifies all types of images studied in the course, as well as the methodology of image analysis. This infographic associates a structured display of a typology of visuals, their specificities, key questions to guide the analysis as well as examples of images to illustrate each type. The four categories are organised around a central section, which concentrates general questions that apply to all categories of images. In this infographic, only one theme is addressed (the methodology of image analysis associated with the typology of images), which is a choice highlighting the student’s main concern. Unlike some other students, this one did not note down any vocabulary, but examples of images were added to illustrate each type. As a whole, this infographic facilitates the comparison between the various types of images, with the use of colour coding, which demonstrates an efficient structure of the knowledge recalled.

Figure 15: Handwritten infographic representing the whole course (semester 2)

Figure 15: Handwritten infographic representing the whole course (semester 2)

56The following one is a digital infographic dealing with one chapter. We can see the information is displayed in a more linear way, but the sections are clearly identified and structured in a consistent way. Unlike in the previous infographic, the student concentrates on the study of two images, and it is unclear whether he would be able to transfer this knowledge, which is quite factual rather than methodological.

Figure 16: Digital infographic representing one chapter of the course (semester 2)

Figure 16: Digital infographic representing one chapter of the course (semester 2)

57This other digital infographic represents the whole course dealing with the images of US History. Here a large part is devoted to vocabulary, which is associated with methodology. The various types of visuals are identified and in the lower part, a summary of the four parts of the course is written, making this infographic a complete structure summary of the course.

Figure 17: Digital infographic representing the whole course (semester 2)

Figure 17: Digital infographic representing the whole course (semester 2)

58Lastly, a sub-form of infographics – a timeline – was also created by a student. Although the design is different from the mind map presented above (Figure 11), it appears that the structure of the composition is similar. It denotes a progression, which was marked by a diptych construction in the mind map, and which appears in a more linear way in the timeline. However, because the line is moving downwards and to the right as well as to the left, the structure facilitates a global visualisation. Below the timeline, a comparison of Utopia and Dystopia is provided as a summary of the characteristics of the two systems.

Figure 18: Digital infographic in the form of a timeline representing one chapter of the course (semester 1)

Figure 18: Digital infographic in the form of a timeline representing one chapter of the course (semester 1)

59Altogether, 86 students created a visual representation of the whole course, or only one chapter of the course, before their final exam. At the end of the first semester, they were asked to write a book project based on a short video, used as a prompt. At the end of the second semester, they had to describe and analyse a painting referring to a key event in the history of the United States. Both assignments were evaluated according to the following criteria: knowledge of codes of the genre (S1)/ methodology of image analysis (S2), relevant knowledge of context, creativity and originality of ideas, grammar accuracy, style, and vocabulary.

60Their final grades were analysed against the production of a visual.

Figure 19: Average grades in final exams for students who submitted a visual representation of the course and those who did not (bonus points are not included in the final grade)

Figure 19: Average grades in final exams for students who submitted a visual representation of the course and those who did not (bonus points are not included in the final grade)

61The grades for final exams (Figure 19) show that students who summarised the course with either a mind map, an infographic, or a sketchnote performed better than those who did not (the bonus points for the optional activity are not included in the final grades, all other factors being equal). The results are statistically significant (p = 0.004 for semester 1 and p = 0.046 for semester 2), which indicates that there is a correlation between this activity and academic achievement in the final exam. However, this does not mean that drawing or sketching the course is the cause of better results (as correlation is not causation). Twenty-two students produced poor quality visual representations and yet achieved a decent final score. On the other hand, the best visuals did lead to the best final scores.

62These results simply suggest that:

  • The students who drew the course probably worked more and paid closer attention to the various elements they had to study.

  • Recalling the course (or maybe simply studying) in an active way, before the exam, probably helped some students better structure their knowledge.

  • The students who included elements of methodology in their visual representations probably acquired transferable knowledge.

  • When items such as vocabulary or examples were added, this was consistent with retrieval practice and probably allowed for long-term memory.

  • 5 Student’s verbatim not modified.

63In the final survey, which was completed by 112 students, 39 of them declared that they did the optional drawing-the-course activity. Thirty-two of the respondents found the activity useful or very useful, six found it not very useful and one found it totally useless. One student wrote5: “At first I was surprised by the bonus activity but eventually I got into it and found that it compelled to a good revision of the course.”

64But students who represented one chapter (rather than the whole course) did not always benefit from this activity when they did not work on the other chapters, and when the final assessment was based on a chapter they had not prepared.

4. Discussion and conclusion

65All types of visual representations could perform at least two functions: the first one is internal and the other one is external. In group 3, the function was internal as the goal was to “memorise and link all the concepts of the course as well as recall vocabulary”. In group 2, the visual representations had an external function as their goal was communicative. And lastly, in group 1, their function was dual. First, it was internal, as students created a mind map to help them organise their knowledge and better understand a lexicogrammar rule. It was also external since the students used their mind map to provide explanations to their peers.

66From the observation of the visual representations produced in the three groups, it is possible to suggest some of the assets and limitations of each type of graphic layout. They are summarised in the table below:

Table 2: Assets and limitations of each type of graphic layout




Mind maps & concept maps

- Help create a hierarchy in concepts

- Help create connections

- Favour the mapping of concepts

- Creation is usually computer-assisted

- Often limited to single words

- Difficult to grasp as a whole

- Aesthetic dimension is less important

- Time consuming


- Help create connections

- Enable the structuration of knowledge

- Enhance creativity

- Require precise phrasing

- Require good spatial skills

- Require practice to draw properly

- Aesthetic dimension is more important so self- confidence is necessary

- Time consuming


- Enable the structuration of knowledge

- Enhance creativity

- Require short, dense, and organised texts

- Favour consistency

- Connections are not obvious

- More linear organisation

- Aesthetic dimension is more important so require confidence

- Time consuming

67The observations gathered around these three experiments tend to support the role of effortful processing through drawing, sketching, or mapping information in memorising the most relevant elements of the course. When students created visual representations of what they studied in class or of knowledge they needed to use in a strategic way, they experienced retrieval practice. They associated recalling with graphic design and this strategy seemed to support the development of their production skills. Devising a mind map, a sketchnote or an infographic requires critical thinking, structuration of knowledge and implication. The rich productions examined in this article demonstrate that the students who produced them probably devoted much time to them, which is another asset to success. When students could choose between different forms of visual representations, mind maps appeared to be the most popular, but the figures of the last group reveal that for their second try, more students created infographics. This suggests that the lack of aesthetic dimension may be detrimental to personal production and that students enjoyed being creative. But, when students had to decipher grammatical rules (group 1), mind maps proved an efficient tool to organise knowledge.

68However, drawing, sketching or mapping information requires planning, problem solving and the ability to create spatial relations (Morra) and as such, needs to be taught before being used as a strategy to enhance learning. Although no students explicitly complained, it seems that creating visual representations is time consuming. Including regular activities based on drawing or sketching is certainly pedagogically worthy but teachers should not overuse this approach if they do not want to overload learners with work. In the future, when all students are equipped with tablets and digital pencils, it might be possible to resort to graphic designs of lessons more often.

69This study of three groups could be used as a preliminary work to set up a more robust protocol to analyse in more detail the potentialities of such practice in terms of learning outcome. It would be interesting to identify specific topics (grammar rules, lexical competence, development of key concepts, structures of texts or use of cultural knowledge, etc.) and assess the achievements of the students after they have created visual representations.

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1 All undergraduate students enrolled in distance learning follow the same English course. Several majors are concerned: French studies, History, Visual Arts, Philosophy, Education Sciences and Spanish studies.

2 The student’s verbatim was not corrected.


4 Conscious cognition applies to conscious experiences such as feelings of effort, ideas, voluntary decisions, memory recalls, etc. (Baars et al. 4)

5 Student’s verbatim not modified.

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Table des illustrations

Titre Figure 1: Conceptual framework for characterising science goals and student achievement.
Crédits Shavelson et al. 415
Fichier image/png, 65k
Titre Figure 2: Different types of infographic design.
Crédits Source: rockcontent blog (“Analyzing the Top 30 Infographics on Visually”)
Fichier image/png, 5,9k
Titre Figure 3: Cognitive map based on an associative model of memory.
Crédits Shavelson et al. 418.
Fichier image/png, 13k
Titre Figure 4: Concept map based a semantic model of memory.
Crédits Shavelson et al. 418.
Fichier image/png, 15k
Titre Figure 5: An example of an argument map created through Rationale™.
Crédits Dwyer et al. 15.
Fichier image/png, 146k
Titre Figure 6: Different ways to organise sketchnotes.
Crédits Source: @Impact Wales,
Fichier image/png, 101k
Titre Figure 7: Example of a mind map on "compound nouns"
Fichier image/png, 99k
Titre Figure 8: Example of a concept map on "Count and Non-Count Nouns"
Fichier image/png, 72k
Titre Figure 9: Example of two infographics to introduce Behavioural Economics
Fichier image/jpeg, 548k
Titre Figure 10: Digital mind map to summarise the whole course (semester 2)
Fichier image/png, 175k
Titre Figure 11: Digital mind map to summarise one chapter (semester 1)
Fichier image/jpeg, 488k
Titre Figure 12: Hand-drawn mind map to summarise one chapter (semester 1)
Fichier image/jpeg, 468k
Titre Figure 13: Hand drawn sketchnote reproducing the narrative structure of the EFL course (semester 1) and narrative arc structure provided to summarise to development of a story
Fichier image/jpeg, 76k
Titre Figure 14: Digital sketchnote describing the methodology of image analysis (semester 2)
Fichier image/jpeg, 268k
Titre Figure 15: Handwritten infographic representing the whole course (semester 2)
Fichier image/jpeg, 152k
Titre Figure 16: Digital infographic representing one chapter of the course (semester 2)
Fichier image/png, 131k
Titre Figure 17: Digital infographic representing the whole course (semester 2)
Fichier image/jpeg, 728k
Titre Figure 18: Digital infographic in the form of a timeline representing one chapter of the course (semester 1)
Fichier image/png, 172k
Titre Figure 19: Average grades in final exams for students who submitted a visual representation of the course and those who did not (bonus points are not included in the final grade)
Fichier image/png, 22k
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Pascale Manoïlov, « Can visual representations facilitate EFL information processing and learning? »Recherche et pratiques pédagogiques en langues [En ligne], Vol. 42 N°1 | 2023, mis en ligne le 04 avril 2023, consulté le 23 avril 2024. URL : ; DOI :

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Pascale Manoïlov

Université Paris Nanterre

Pascale Manoïlov has worked in language education for over 20 years and is an associate professor at University Paris Nanterre, France, where she teaches EFL and language didactics to pre- and in-service teachers. She studies foreign language acquisition, with a special focus on learners’ development of interactional competence, as well as collaborative learning and CLIL settings. She is also interested in language assessment. She is a member of the team in charge of EFL national assessments at the French Ministry of Education and is missioned as an expert for the implementation of the PISA Foreign Language Assessment (OECD). She is the president of the French academic society ARDAA.

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