Skip to main content

Extracting information from an animation during complex visual learning


The construction of a high quality mental model from a complex visual display relies the capacity of learners to extract appropriate information from that display. Beginning students of meteorology complied written records of generalisations extracted from animated weather map sequences in order to prepare themselves for a subsequent prediction task. Analysis of these records revealed that much of the information extracted was perceptually salient rather than thematically relevant. This perceptual dominance effect was found for both visuospatial and temporal aspects of the display. The statements produced were deficient with regard to the causal explanations that would be necessary to build a satisfactory mental model of the depicted situation. These deficiencies involved both the proportion of causal material recorded and the attribution of causality on an everyday rather than a domain-appropriate basis. The limitations of the information extracted were interpreted as evidence of subjects’ use of selective attention to control cognitive load in a complex, demanding processing situation and the effects of their lack of domain-specific background knowledge. Contrary to prevailing orthodoxies, the results raise the possibility that in some circumstances, animations may not be instructionally superior to static depictions because the processing demands involved can have negative effects on learning.


La construction d’un modèle mental efficace à partir d’un document visuel complexe s’appuie sur les capacités des apprenants d’extraire les informations pertinentes contenues dans cette présentation. Des débutants en météorologie ont rédigé leur interprétation de cartes du temps animées afin de se préparer à une tâche de prévision météo. L’analyse de ces rapports révèle que la plupart des informations extraites le sont du fait de leur saillance perceptive plus que de leur pertinence thématique. Cet effet de dominance perceptive se retrouve aussi bien à propos de l’aspect temporel que visuo-spatial du document animé. Dans les énoncés produits, c’est l’explication causale nécessaire à l’élaboration d’un modèle mental satisfaisant des situations présentées qui fait surtout défaut. Ces imperfections concernent à la fois la proportion de données causales rapportées et l’attribution de causalité sur une base quotidienne d’expérience plus que par référence au domaine de connaissance. Les insuffisances de l’information extraite furent interprétées comme manifestant un fonctionnement sélectif de l’attention dévolue au contrôle de la charge cognitive dans les situations complexes de traitement et comme résultant d’un manque de connaissances spécifiques dans le domaine. Contrairement à l’opinion dominante, les résultats suggèrent que dans certaines circonstances les documents animés peuvent ne pas être plus efficaces que les présentations statiques car les traitements requis peuvent avoir des effets négatifs sur l’apprentissage.

This is a preview of subscription content, access via your institution.


  1. Chandrasekaran, B. & Narayanan, N.H. (1994). Perceptual representation and reasoning.Papers from the AAAI 1992 Spring Symposium Reasoning with Diagrammatic Representations, 24–29

  2. Hegarty, M. (1992). Mental animation: Inferring motion from static displays of mechanical systems.Journal of Experimental Psychology: Learning, Memory and Cognition, 18, 1084–1102.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  3. Johnson-Laird, P.N. (1983).Mental models. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

    Google Scholar 

  4. Lowe, R.K. (1993). Constructing a mental representation from an abstract technical diagram.Learning and Instruction, 3, 157–179.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  5. Lowe, R.K. (1994a). Selectivity in diagrams: Reading beyond the lines.Educational Psychology, 14, 467–491.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  6. Lowe, R.K. (1994b). Diagram prediction and higher order structures in mental representation.Research in Science Education, 24, 208–216.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  7. Lowe, R.K. (1995a, August).Developing foundations for effective diagram processing. Paper presented at the 6th European Conference for Research on Learning and Instruction, Nijmegen, Netherlands.

  8. Lowe, R.K. (1995b, August).Supporting conceptual change in the interpretation of meteorological diagrams. Paper presented at the 6th European Conference for Research on Learning and Instruction, Nijmegen, Netherlands.

  9. Lowe, R.K. (1996). Background knowledge and the construction of a situational representation from a diagram.European Journal of Psychology of Education, 11, 377–397.

    Google Scholar 

  10. Lowe, R.K. (in press). Domain-specific constraints on conceptual change in knowledge acquisition from diagrams. In S. Vosniadou, P. Carretero & W. Schnotz (Eds.),New perspectives on conceptual changes. Erlbaum.

  11. Mayer, R.E. (1997). Multimedia learning: Are we asking the right questions?Educational Psychologist, 32, 1–19.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  12. Mayer, R.E., & Anderson, R.B. (1992). The instructive animation: Helping students build connections between words and pictures in multimedia learning.Journal of Educational Psychology, 84, 444–452.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  13. Petre, M., & Green, T.R.G. (1993). Learning to read graphics: Some evidence that “seeing” an information display is an acquired skill.Journal of Visual Languages and Computing, 4, 55–70.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  14. Rieber, L.P. (1994).Computers, graphics & Learning. Madison, Wis: Brown & Benchmark.

    Google Scholar 

  15. Scaife, M., & Rogers, Y. (1996). External cognition: How do graphical representations work?International Journal of Human-Computer Studies, 45, 185–213.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  16. Schnotz, W., & Grzondziel, H. (1996, August).Effects of visualisation on the structure, and applications of mental models. Paper presented at the XXVI International Congress of Psychology, Montreal, Canada.

  17. Schwartz, D.L. (1995). Reasoning about the referent of a picture versus reasoning about the picture as the referent: An effect of visual realism.Memory and Cognition, 23, 709–722.

    Google Scholar 

  18. Sweller, J., & Chandler, P. (1994). Why some material is difficult to learn.Cognition and Instruction, 12, 185–233.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  19. Tabachneck, H.J.M., Leonardo, A.M., & Simon, H.A. (1994).How does an expert use a graph? A model of visual and verbal inferencing in economics. In A. Ram & K. Eiselt (Eds.), Proceedings of the 16th Annual Conference of the Cognitive Science Society (pp. 825–847). Hillsdale, NJ: Lawrence Erlbaum.

    Google Scholar 

Download references

Author information



Corresponding author

Correspondence to Richard K. Lowe.

Additional information

This research was supported by a grant from the Australian Research Council.

Rights and permissions

Reprints and Permissions

About this article

Cite this article

Lowe, R.K. Extracting information from an animation during complex visual learning. Eur J Psychol Educ 14, 225–244 (1999).

Download citation

Key words

  • Animation
  • Causality
  • Mental models
  • Perception
  • Visual learning