If you find yourself to be drawn to diagrams and explanatory visuals, you aren’t necessarily a “visual learner.” Rather, you are intuitively drawn towards what science has found to be a more efficient learning process.
Research has shown that a combination of words and images is a more efficient way to learn complex material than words alone. The integration of words and images makes the learning process even more efficient.
This research is discussed at length in Efficiency in Learning: Evidence-Based Guidelines to Manage Cognitive Load (Pfeiffer, 2006). The authors are John Sweller, Ruth Colvin Clark, and Frank Nguyen. John Sweller is Professor Emeritus at the University of New South Wales and father of the cognitive load theory of learning. Ruth Colvin Clark is a specialist in instructional design with a doctorate in Educational Psychology and Instructional Technology from the University of Southern California. Frank Nguyen designs instructional materials for major corporations, including Intel and American Express.
According to Efficiency in Learning, “There are solid research and psychological reasons for recommending that you. . . add explanatory diagrams to words when the goal is to help learners build a deep understanding.” (Efficiency at 73).
The research supporting this assertion was conducted by R.E. Mayer in 2001-2002:
Mayer (2001,2002) has conducted a number of experiments using lessons that taught how something worked. For example, he has developed lessons designed to teach how a bicycle pump works, how lightning works, and how hydraulic brakes work. In these studies two lesson versions were tested. One included the same text but added an illustration of the process. . .
After a study period, learners were asked to apply this new knowledge to problems that were not discussed during the lesson. . .
In six different experiments, learners who studied from lessons that added a diagram to the text created a median of 79 percent more solutions to questions like these than those who studied from text alone.”
(Efficiency at 59.)
In addition, Efficiency in Learning says there are “solid research and psychological reasons” for integrating text and graphics. (Id. at 102).
Tindall-Ford, Chandler, and Sweller (1997) compared learning how to conduct electrical tests on appliances from three different print-based versions. In the traditional version, descriptive text steps were displayed under the diagram. . . In the integrated version, steps were placed next to the relevant portion of the diagram. . . A third version used an audiovisual format in which the diagram was described by words presented in audio narration. Trade school apprentices studied the materials and them were tested performing hands-on equipment tests without reference to instructional materials. . . those using either the integrated or audio versions learned about twice as much as those using the traditional format.”
(Efficiency at 86-88.)