Getting Away From Bulleted Lists – Part 2

Getting Away From Bulleted Lists – Part 2

Visually presenting concepts in online courses

It is not uncommon to receive a PowerPoint file that has a bunch of slides with nothing more than a bunch of bullet points. There are no speaker notes and the instructional designer not only has to build a coherent story out of these bullet points, but also has to figure out a way to breathe some life into the screen. But how do we do it in a meaningful way?

We’ve all seen courses with stock photographs that are seemingly related to the content but are of zero instructional value. For example, you might have a course on manufacturing that is filled with images of factories, workforce wearing hard hats and overalls, and machines. Do these decorative images help learners build mental models? After all, this is the purpose of instructional visuals.

At CommLab, we recently worked on a multi-module program on a simulation application used in manufacturing. The source content was mostly bullet points with a few screenshots thrown in. The goal of the training program was to provide foundational knowledge on the software rather than teach procedures.

As we went through the content, we found that there were several fundamental concepts used across the 9 modules. We wanted to do two things:

  • Give learners a way to identify and remember these concepts (build mental models)
  • Ensure that the program had a unique visual style: No photographs. Just simple line icons representing the concepts.

Some examples of icons we used to represent concepts:

Getting Away From Bulleted Lists - Part 2

How we used these icons

Example 1

Graph with icons

Example 2

Bullet points replaced with icons

Example 3

Timeline with icons

View Webinar On Learning Design Process

  • Michael J. Spangle

    I really like the approach your company is using. Since my background is in process measurement & control, I understand the need to present concepts in ways that connect the ideas together for the learner. I have never used a program like this before but I have found that graphical images break up the “death by PowerPoint” presentations if these images have direct meaning for the learner. for example, if I am reviewing an Operating Experience document with the trainees involving a particular system or piece of equipment in order to drive home the lessons learned, then a picture of that particular piece of equipment that they are familiar with is much more meaningful than a picture of a component taken out of a vendor manual with no context to make it meaningful.

  • Charlie Cox

    I’m in the middle of a project for which it is necessary to make genetics/inheritance content accessible to secondary school learners. It is becoming apparent that a useful mental model has to address conceptual relationships of function/behavior/structure across scales (molecular, cellular, and observable), connecting the itty bitty abstract (which learners are required to imagine) with the concrete (there in the room with you, so to speak). There is likely to be a discrepancy regarding developmental readiness among these learners, just as with a group of business persons or anyone else, in that for some of them formal operations involving abstract concepts are difficult. In that sense, manipulation of decorative symbols (and their likely cultural encumbrances) might be even more of a hindrance to one’s mapping of conceptual relationships than would photographs of a manufacturing process being accomplished. I’m kind of talking through this for myself, by the way, so I totally invite critique through other lenses.

  • Thanks Michael for your comment. This year, we are really making a conscious effort to ensure that e-learning courses are not just “glorified” PowerPoint presentations that contain stock images. We are currently reviewing the book “Graphics for Learning” by Ruth Colvin Clark and Chopeta Lyons in our Learning Design book club and the book gives lots of practical examples of what types of images work best for different types of content.

  • Charlie, thanks for sharing your thought process about your problem at hand. You might also want to check out the book Graphics for Learning that I mentioned in my previous reply. The book contains a lot of examples on when to use what type of image as well as the benefits of static and dynamic visuals

    Research shows that in some cases graphical representations like line diagrams and icons (interpretive images)have a lower cognitive load than actual photographs (representational images).

    So, to show how something works, it is good to have line diagrams. For concrete and abstract concepts, you can have symbols. Learners, once they establish the connection between the symbol and the concept, build mental models using the symbol.

    Photographs are great when you want learners to actually identify a piece of equipment. I hope this is useful.

  • Ali Gisvold

    I really like the way mental models are being used here, thank you. – i am currently working in the area of using simulation in postgraduate medical education. One of the problems with this area, is that postgrad doctors get so caught up in the technology that the learning outside clinical skills is often lost – multi professional working, leadership, communication etc. I think i will try something similar to try to ensure that this learning is fully integrated into the simulation itself, and perhaps as importantly, in the debrief after.

  • Janet Reichel

    I made the following comment on a topic about how to build mental models in learners for a blog at I hope these ideas give the readers a different perspective to consider.

    This is an important question, which I hope generates a lot of discussion.

    Mental models come from concrete experiences and expanded working vocabularies associated with those experiences; with all learning taking place in the least restrictive environment possible.

    For example: Take the students on a field trip to a factory, allowing the students to examine objects associated with the factory workers and their jobs. At the very least show a video so the students see the process and hear and internalize the vocabulary associated with what they are watching.

    Always provide the “whys”; the reasons why things must be a certain way, are done a certain way, result in a certain outcome, etc. As annoying as “why” questions are to adults, the answers we give can provide deeper understanding and meaning of the concept being taught; feeding the students’ natural curiosity and providing an intrinsic motivation to learn other things.

    Emphsize vocabulary, insist the students use the vocabulary they are learning, and discuss their experiences to strengthen the vocabulary and their mental models.

    Most important choose content for the concept being taught that directly relates to the students. As per learning about factories, choose a candy, food, or drink factory; a toy manufacturing plant; or a plant that makes some kind of school supplies for the foundation of the learning. Learning has no meaning, if it has no connection to the students.

  • Kim Green

    Very interesting post and comments. I will have to think on this. I personally love photographs and hate anything that resembles clip art. However, I can see your point and understand the need to have an icon that you can associate with a concept. For certain types of training, this could very important. Using the same icons throughout the training would give it consistency.

    One world of caution here: the icons must make sense to the viewer (or the presenter/narrator should explain and repeat the association a couple of times.) For instance, if I saw the puzzle pieces icon you show above, I would not immediately relate that to a simple project. It is labeled nicely, but I would need repetition to catch on that symbol meant a simple project. (I am still not sure of the meaning of one or two of the symbols on car dashboard. Certainly I am not the only person in the world…)

  • Icons are mental anchors used to trigger recall of concepts or pieces of information. Brain research supports their use. International symbols, restroom symbols for example, are our most common use of icons. Let’s not forget able marketing tools like the “golden arches” for McDonald’s.

    Kim is right. The icons need to make sense to the viewer as it relates the content it represents. The icons need to be taught in conjunction with the content and the icons need to be reviewed. FYI-hand jestures or hand motions can also be excellent mental anchors.