Psychologist studies the effects of diagram orientation on comprehension

Psychologist studies the effects of diagram orientation on comprehension
Although images in textbooks generally represent phylogenetic trees with trunks angling up and to the right, research shows that students have better comprehension when the trunks angle down to the right. Credit: UCSB

(—The orientation of a diagram on the page of a textbook may seem inconsequential, but it can have a significant impact on a reader's ability to comprehend the information as presented, according to a team of researchers at UC Santa Barbara, Vanderbilt University, and West Carolina University. Their findings appear in a recent issue of the journal Bioscience.

Focusing on variously formatted cladograms –– also known as phylogenetic –– the researchers found that two diagrams may contain the same information, but they aren't necessarily equivalent in terms of how the information is interpreted. "In , we read from left to right, so we naturally come to a diagram with that behavior," said Andrew T. Stull, a researcher in the Department of Psychological & Brain Sciences at UCSB and an author of the paper. "The important point in this research, however, is that how efficiently a student comprehends the information presented in the phylogenetic tree depends on how the tree is angled."

As it turns out, when a diagonal tree extends from tips on the left to the root on the right, and the trunk angles downward to the right-hand side, the information is more easily accessible. "The way we interrogate the tree is first culturally based –– left to right –– and the strong diagonal line tends to make us flow one way or another," said Stull. "But that combined effect influences the accuracy, or how we're able to use the tree effectively."

However, most textbooks depict the diagonal cladogram in the upward orientation, Stull noted. "Many artists draw the diagram in an inefficient and potentially confusing way," he said. "Artists have a tendency to draw it at the upward angle, not realizing they'd communicate the information better if they angled it downward."

The researchers used a phylogenetic tree for their research because it is very important for a process called tree thinking. "It's the idea that from an evolutionary perspective, there is a distinctive relationship between taxa," said Stull. "It's not just that things line up together on a tree, but you can infer certain biological, physiological, and pharmaceutical commonalities that might be relevant. There are a lot of things you can do in knowing how all of life is organized, and each organism's relation to everything else."

Drawing them in tree form, Stull continued, should help teach students the relationships between organisms, and to anticipate the valuable information those relationships can provide.

The researchers used eye-tracking technology to carry out their research. They showed test subjects one tree, and then another, and asked them to determine whether or not they were the same. "In order to answer the question, they had to interpret the two images," Stull explained. "Then we took all the eye positions. What we found is that when people studied the tree with the upward diagonal trunk, they were less accurate than when the tree followed the downward diagonal."

Why the directional angle makes a difference may have to do with how organisms represented by the individual branches relate to their closest common ancestor and to those with a more distant common ancestor. "With upward angled trunks, it may be because they [students] are thinking of it from the root up," Stull said. "But it's more efficient to think of it from the branches down. So, from an artistic perspective, it makes more sense to build it that way. With that , the user doesn't have to deconstruct it in order to access the information."

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Citation: Psychologist studies the effects of diagram orientation on comprehension (2012, September 18) retrieved 20 September 2019 from
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Sep 18, 2012
but it can have a significant impact on a reader's ability to comprehend the information as presented

While these studies are no doubt worthwhile such statements always seem that by chaninging minute detail X you can get a D student to be an A student.
People need to be able to comprehend a graph whichever way it is presented. If the direction of the graph is something that pushes you from comprehension to incomprehesion then graphs are not for you.

Sep 19, 2012
Probably the reading gravity affects the chunking (grouping of several single elements into a single element of short term memory). It is easier with the one because every change in direction forces another chunk. the total number of chunks required to memorize the graph is significantly different depending on where we start from and assuming chunks can only be linear along the eye flow.
The really neat thing about this experiment is that it confirms chunking is limited to sequentially temporal elements. That is to say a gestalt chunk requires a temporal contiguous observation. When viewed in the difficult direction the optimal chunking number is a higher number of chunks.
It would be interesting to see a graph of the chunking numbers vs time to recognize. You could learn something about the low level biological variables involved in chunking with accurate enough timing data and correlate with other biochemistry state constants.

Sep 19, 2012
I see the point, I am not a snob and don't think that anything that makes comprehension easier is a bad thing. Improving information presentation is win-win even if it enables people to understand more easily who don't deserve to - according to you.
(btw it's changing and not chaninging)

Sep 19, 2012
Improving information presentation is win-win even if it enables people to understand more easily

No doubt, and I'm not knocking the findings which will improve legibility if applied (though I suspect that will have to be adapted for countries where the reading directions differ - be it right to left or top to bottom).

I'm just saying that trying to pass this off as THE breakthrough in making graphs of complex interrelations comprehensible for those who didn't get them up until now is way too optimistic.

I doubt that there is even a single person that will go "Oh, now I get it" when you change the orientation between the two schemes depicted above.

Sep 21, 2012
Tracking information can also be an issue in certain disorders, such as ADHD and Learning Disorders. Those two often go hand in hand with each other anyway. Or, more precisely, the defective neurochemistry giving rise to ADHD will impact on precisely those kinds of neural areas. It's no fun trying to make sense of something that goes against the natural tendency of the way the eye tends to track elements of a composition. This causes one to take longer to unscramble the meaning of what one is looking at. No fun at all, being the 'slow' one, or having to ask someone else to tell you just what the information is supposed to be that you are supposed to 'get'. Regards, DH66

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