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How Does Imagination Help Learning?

In this article, we consider the role that imagination plays in mental processing.

Learners’ imagination is a rich resource for trainers to tap into. Images which are conjured up in a learner’s mind can have a powerful impact on their understanding and retention.

Imagined scenes and objects use the same part of working memory as those which are perceived with vision. In our analogy of tunnels entering a ‘mental city’, imagery uses the ‘images’ route. It’s helpful to remember this, as attempting to use this route for on-screen images and imagination at the same time can create overload.

When we concentrate on imagining an object or scene, similar areas of the brain are activated as when we look at an image. Although not everyone is able to imagine vividly, for many people, reading a descriptive passage in a novel can mean they lose awareness of the room they are sitting in. In effect, the ‘images’ part of their working memory is wholly taken up by scenes described by the author.

The ‘Imagination Effect’

The ‘Imagination Effect’ occurs when learners who imagine a procedure or concept perform better on a test than others who studied instead of imagining. For example in a 2014 study, different groups studied the same parts of respiratory anatomy. Learners who were asked to imagine parts from a text description and without a picture outperformed those who had studied the same parts with text accompanied by an image.

We are not suggesting that imagining something is better or worse for learning than seeing an image. But there is some evidence that the effort of creating an image ‘in the mind’s eye’ can create a more lasting effect than simply looking at an image.

Fresh analogies invite imagery

As mentioned in the video, one study found that descriptive speech had created an image as an image seen, even though it existed only in the listeners imagination.

The illustration below relates to an analogy that you may have heard, it relates to the way senior professionals can be autonomous and have different priorities which are challenging for managers. The saying goes, ‘Managing senior healthcare professionals can be like carrying frogs in a wheelbarrow’. The first time someone hears this, they may imagine an image something like that shown below.

However, once we’ve heard an analogy several times, the listener no longer needs to picture it, as the concept is understood. As a result it ceases to have the same impact. For example, an old European expression for someone acting in a clumsy manner is, ‘like a bull in a china shop’ (china as in crockery). Most people don’t visualise a bovine creature knocking over shelves in a hardware store if they hear this.

For trainers, it is worth inventing fresh analogies so that learners do picture them. In 2008 an NHS Trust evaluated a 15 minute lecture on organisational values given as part of a mandatory study morning. In the talk, healthcare staff were described as highly trained and who, for the most part, busily get on with tasks without a need for instructions. Then the trainer said,

‘In fact, we’re rather like ants’.
Two weeks later, a sample of 12 participants were interviewed and asked what they remembered from the session. They could only recall one thing; that health workers had been compared to ants in a positive way. In part this was an indictment of presenting a series of passive lectures one after another. But it highlighted the relative power of a fresh analogy.
There are many trainers who use this technique, for example we know of a clinical teacher who when describing a consequence of atrial fibrillation says,
‘Left untreated, it can cause blood clots to form on the inner wall of the right atrium, like bats hanging from a cave roof’.
The current Covid pandemic has given rise to many analogies as politicians and epidemiologists attempt to communicate with the widest possible number of people. Professor Jonathan Van-Tam is Deputy Chief Medical Officer in England and well-known for his use of analogies. In the example quoted here, he casts the English population and Covid as two opposing sides in a football match:
‘It’s clear in the first half, the away team gave us an absolute battering, and what we’ve done now is, it’s the 70th minute, they got a goal, and in the 70th minute we’ve now got an equaliser.
We’ve got to hold our nerve now, see if we can get another goal and nick it
(‘nick it’ is an English idiom for stealing something).
Even for those who know only the basics of football, it’s memorable and gets his point across efficiently.
Trainers need to be aware that analogies also offer an opportunity for a participant who wishes to disagree. An analogy can often be turned around and adapted to their argument. This can be frustrating, especially if you spent some time developing it! But consolation can be gained that in doing so, they have genuinely engaged with the subject. Disagreement expressed in a training session can mean that the person needs to be convinced before thay adapt an existing mental model. This might sound a little contrived, but experienced trainers anticipate this and consider whether a planned analogy can be altered in this way.

Directed imagery

Trainers often tell stories which invite imagery, but some trainers go beyond that and ask learners to imagine themselves in a particular situation. Some participants will find this easier than others, but most are able to do it to some degree. The trainer asks everyone to close their eyes or look at a blank wall. They then paint a picture based on an experience described by a patient, for example the experience of having a CVA while out shopping.
‘You open your eyes. You’re lying on a pavement. It’s cold and hard. You have no memory of where you are or how you came to be there. Someone asks your name. You try to answer but just a noise comes from your mouth.
With a sudden horror you realise you’ve been incontinent. Helplessly, you feel panic welling up. A hand rests on you. Its owner says, ‘Don’t worry, the ambulance is on its way’.

In a moment like this, a trainer may encourage the group to sit quietly. They say, ‘Just think for a minute, how do you feel now? What are the first things that come to your mind? What are you worried about?’ This then leads into a discussion.

Images and imagery together can cause overload

It is generally best not to show an image at the same time as using descriptive speech (unless you are describing what’s in the picture). When experienced trainers tell a story or ask learners to use their imagination, they switch the projector to ‘No show’ or press ‘B’ on the keyboard (with PowerPoint or Keynote ‘B’ makes the screen black). This is because the simultaneous presentation of images and stimulation of imagination can cause overload as they compete for limited working memory.

The clash represented above may not occur if your displayed image matches the story. But, like the boy who said the ‘pictures were better on radio’, your learners imagination is unlimited compared to available stock photos or the results of a Google image search.

Talking point

  • Can you think of a scene or picture that you imagined during training, sometime in the past? What was it? What made it memorable?
  • Do you stimulate the imagination of learners in your training? If so, share an example.
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