visual learning and math

Visual Learning and Math

The age of brute force memorizing equations and formulas is over.

Many students simply cannot rely on rote memorization.

As young learners begin their math journey, we must give them the best chance to succeed.

Visual learning grounds math using objects familiar to kids.

Let’s look at how we can best use visual learning and math to help younger math learners.

Why Visual Leaning and Math?

Equations and abstract concepts do not register well with young learners.

As educators and parents, it is imperative we send kids down the learning path with the best tools to succeed.

When it comes to early elementary learners, they tend to respond best to images. Images do more than just provide concrete objects.

They can be a fun way to engage students.

Visuals to Get to the Brain Quicker

Pictures and images register faster with our brains. This goes double for younger learners who may just be getting comfortable with reading.

Seeing an image triggers an immediate response from our eyes and is transmitted super fast to the brain. This results in a more engaged and attentive student.

Visuals Can Also Involve Emotions

Seeing something happy or exciting will result in an emotional response from the student.

This will help learners increase focus and can also improve retention. Emotional feelings stick in the mind longer and make a bigger impact.

Visuals Convert to Long-Term Memories Better

Text can easily run together in the mind of a young student. Bold visuals with contrasting colors grab attention.

Paring these images with the subject material forms a complete unit that our brains process better into our long-term storage banks.

Visuals Can Create Stories

Creating a narrative with lesson plans is a foolproof way to get students invested.

When lessons become entertainment, learning can become enjoyable. Using images with characters and settings engages students in a way that simple equations and text can never do.

How to Best Utilize Visuals

visual learning and math

While we have established the usefulness of visuals in education, they must not be left to do all the heavy lifting. Visuals can fall flat or become distracting when not used purposefully. Let’s take a look at the most impactful way to incorporate visuals into lessons.

Colorful Images

Kids respond well to colors, particularly when they are in high contrast. This will illicit an immediate visual response from the kids and have a higher chance they will enjoy the lesson. Colors can also be a great device for teaching concepts and differentiating values (blue group+green group).

Characters and Settings

Look at any cartoon, movie, or video game and you will see that children respond to characters and settings. Forming attachments to places and mascots makes students become invested in the lesson. They will be more attentive and be more likely to be successful when it is something they like.

Objects and Items

Particularly in math, it is incredibly helpful to represent numbers with concrete objects. It’s a bonus to use things like fruits or cookies that kids love. Using baskets and containers as a way to represent math concepts like addition and subtraction makes these concepts more accessible.

Real-Life Scenarios

Lessons become easier to understand in contexts people are familiar with. Designing a lesson around a visual scenario, such as the grocery store, gives children a context they know. This makes the numbers less foreign and grounds the concepts in everyday scenes.

Incorporating Sound

Adding an audio element to your visuals will take the entire lesson to the next level. It’s important this audio is not too distracting or overwhelming. Having a small sound design and impactful spoken instructions will make the visual come to life.

Learning Games

Games are the secret sauce of educating young kids. Focused and purposeful learning games might be the most impactful way to get elementary students interested in learning. This combines all the best parts of visuals, physical engagement, sound, and math concepts in a perfectly meshed learning bomb.

Methods that Feature Visual Learning

In the classroom, but particularly online, visual learning should be the focal point of lesson plans. Lecturing and notes are never going to cut it for young kids.

Bonus points for online courses with livestreaming instruction. Here is a dedicated online math course that centers lesson plans on visual learning for young students.

Spark Math

Spark Math is an online math education platform that connects live teachers with young students using interactive courseware and visual learning. The curriculum is aligned with the US Common Core and heavily based on visual learning. This is a great option for students looking to hone their math skills or catch up in school with a new way of learning.

visual learning and math

Singapore Math & Visual Learning

Among many strengths, Singapore has a reputation for stellar math performance and the country’s curriculum is known as Singapore Math. Singapore Math is a research-driven teaching method innovated in Singapore that aligns with the US Common Core. It dates back to the 1980s and was put together by the Singapore Ministry of Education. Singapore Math focuses on doing away with rote memorization as a centerpiece of math learning.

The CPA Method (Concrete, Pictorial, Abstract)

The lynchpin of Singapore Math is the CPA method. Teachers introduce students to concrete concepts using pictures at the beginning. As students become more comfortable, activities get more abstract. This pushes students to grasp the concept and work it into new applications rather than simple replication.

My children ran into this replication problem early on. As soon as the exercise moved beyond the example problem parameters, they couldn’t apply the concept well. By starting with something tangible and familiar, they could easily pick up the concepts. By the end of the progression, they could work out new problems mentally because they understood the original math.

Spark Math takes Singapore Math to the Next Level with Visual Learning

Spark Math focuses on creating critical thinkers rather than reproduction machines. The common pitfall of math is when students can answer equations but can not apply those concepts to concrete scenarios. Spark Math’s technology uses images and scenarios that make it easy for kids to visualize math concepts. With the concepts being grounded in familiar situations, the students absorb the information better and replicate it better in a variety of scenarios.

Concrete: The teacher shows a first grade class a set of 10 apples and asks them to count the apples plus write the number down.

Pictorial: The teacher shows students a picture of 10 apples and asks them to circle the number of apples they see.

Abstract: The teacher writes 10 on the board and asks the students to write an equation where the answer is 10. (10=___). Students will use the provided picture to create their equation.

Based on the example, the students began with a concrete object and progressed until they were completing equations through the use of visual learning.

visual learning and math

Final Thoughts on Visual Learning and Math

Combining visual learning and math is your secret weapon to giving students the tools they need to be successful math learners.

Note, visuals can become a hindrance when they are not applicable or too distracting.

Keep your visuals purposeful and focused on the concept. Mental math and equations are still critical math building blocks. Visual aids can and should include equations. Mental math should be the final step to show mastery. Get visual with your students!

James Williams is a father, a former educator, and an educational writer with a passion for helping others improve their goals. He has taught students in the US and China using visual learning and math and also coaches sports. It is his belief that every student has a unique way of learning and interacting with the world and it is our job as parents and teachers to figure out how to best bring out everyone’s potential. James is also a former math hater turned math lover after seeing the light!

Related article: 6 Tips for Visual Learners to Improve Understanding and Memory