A UNIVERSAL PEDAGOGY? Interdisciplinary Learning and Teaching Conference, WARWICK, 15TH APRIL 2021

Updated: Jul 14, 2021

DB Roberts

I presented a short paper at the above Conference. The paper was concerned with the idea of a possible universal pedagogy that would apply across all the disciplines. I was naturally cautious since this implies a huge generalization, and academics are taught to view generalizations with a degree of caution. But I also wanted to incite interest in the first place and to make it apparent from the outset that this was not about a social science of pedagogy but about the natural science of cognition. The image is designed to associate the familiar Universal Studios film makers logo with the term 'pedagogy'. The image invokes active learning precepts because it pushes the viewer to build from an existing knowledge (common social consciousness of the Studio logo and 'universality') to create new knowledge regarding the possible universality of a pedagogy. I spoke for a short while about what had prompted my own curiosity and journey of pedagogic and scientific discovery. I showed the picture below.

I explained the effect that seeing this image for the first time had on me. I went on to explain how it had prompted intellectual enquiry as to the image's meaning. I described how my mind had automatically gone into 'problem-solving' mode, unbidden consciously (I had been 'Brain Jacked'). I talked about how this experience had prompted me to investigate the generalisability of such an experience. That inquiry lead me to multimedia learning and Cognitive, Neurological Science - the common architecture of the brain. I'm not a natural scientist; my intellectual background is postconflict peacebuilding. I wrote my PhD whilst working with the United Nations peacekeepers in Cambodia in 1993. But the literature was made accessible by some very good scholarly writing which urged the scientific method in such endeavours. It was summarised thus:

Richard Mayer, and of course many others, are urging only that we use rigour and scientific principles to first determine what works and then test how well it works. It eschews unsubstantiated approaches and lionizes methods that are derived from research, especial in the natural sciences but not to the exclusion of social scientific inquiry. The first element of scientifically-established fact that applies to all sighted humans regards the proportion of our brains dedicated to visual processing. Massachusetts Institute of Technology's Professor Mriganka Sur, in their Department of Brain and Cognitive Sciences, stated that 'half of the human brain is devoted directly or indirectly to vision'.


Our brains, at the biological level, are constructed around dual processing. This means we receive, process and interpret information using audio-textual, and visual, processing channels. We hear and see, digest and react to the world around us in terms of our brains' architecture. This means then if we are processing information at the textual level only, or mainly, we are not using a key mental, cognitive function we possess. If our pedagogy is presented this way, we are missing out on - ignoring - a fundamental element of our evolutionary, biological make-up. Instead, scientifically, cognitively speaking, we should be transmitting academic content so it matches how our brains are designed to receive it. It applies to everyone, everywhere, regardless of identity, with the exception of non-sighted people. We also use written words, of course, but unlike our inherent audio-textual and visual capacities, the written word is a social construct extant for only about 5,000 years of our biological evolution.

Importantly, the biological predisposition of our brains is universal. All brains are made this way, although capacity in some non-sighted people is substantially compromised. The key message here is opportunity of a universal approach to pedagogy.


A second key scientific dimension to consider when thinking about a universal pedagogy is working memory. George Miller brought to our attention in 1956 the understanding that our brains' capacity to store information is quickly overloaded by excessive information. We might think about working memory as a computer's RAM, or Random Access Memory. The amount of RAM our computers have determines how much can be done in a given moment. If we run too many programs simultaneously, the programs slow down or even crash. We can increase RAM in our computers, but for now, we cannot do that in our brains, which means too much information will overload and disengage our attention.

However, working memory is enhanced if we split how we receive that information into multiple modes - audio-textual and visual. It is an argument for balance in content delivery, so we can make use of both biologically-inherited opportunities, and use our limited working memory more efficiently and effectively. Images and text are complemented by the spoken word. This leaves us wondering about the written word.


PowerPoint is one of the primary tools of pedagogy in Higher Education Institutions (HEI's). The average social sciences powerpoint slide has on it 55 written words, fewer for the sciences in some cases but not always. In some cases, academics fill slides with text and bullet points; the software encourages us to do this.

It is also conventional that we speak as we present. This means we often duplicate text in written and spoken form, adding to pressure on limited working memory. Where duplication occurs, one element is redundant in terms of multimedia principles, and the result is cognitive overload. Too much text in a given moment overwhelms an audience, and this is even more so for many dyslexic learners, who experience compromised working memory to a greater degree than neurotypical students.

This provides us with an opportunity. Our brains engage with and learn from imagery. They also engage with text. And they work better when these two information sources are balanced. Multimedia Learning principles provide a solution: full slide apposite image, limited text on screen; spoken text that discusses image meaning but does not replicate text on screen, and additonal text as required placed in 'Notes View' (a facility provided in both PowerPoint (PC) and Keynote (Mac)).

This allows us to provide as much written material as needed whilst removing redundant material from the equation, creating physical space for imagery.


Mayer's second principle for the development of pedagogic practice regards the testing of scientifically informed propositions. In this case, we have been running and expanding research on effect and universality (interdisciplinarity) of multimedia learning methods. We used the scientifically-established randomized control trial (RCT) method, extending it longitudinally over 6 years in total, maintaining the experiment but expanding and diversifying the respondent base. This allowed us to cover 25 disciplines and 62 UK universities. The aggregate gender balance was 58F/42M and the age range was 18-24, leaving room for research on mature students

At each experiment (they were run back to back each semester), two groups were exposed online to 10-minute PowerPoint presentations on global warming (an area students are probably conscious of and can relate to that does not require disciplinary knowledge). This was managed thorugh a custom-built website. Their participation was digitally randomized so the students were divided into a group exposed to the content on slides with words only, and another group exposed to the same content presented with slides with images and text. The voiceover for each was the same and recorded into the presentations. After the 10 minute viewing, the students then completed an online questionnaire that asked for their verdicts on the slides (not on the text, not on the images). The questions concerned student engagement with academic content in lectures, the presence of active learning processes, and affective (emotional) and behavioural engagement, all as a result of adding imagery to the pedagogic mix. Each set of questions were derived from the scholarly literature on each aspect of pedagogy.

The objective was clear - to assess if plurazing media delivery in the most multimedia era of human history, in line with how the brain works biologically, would do what cognition scientists have been saying for the last 50 years. The data is graphically represented below.

Across the bottom of the chart is a selection of hypothetical statements drawn from the scholarly litertaure regarding the effects of academic engagement, active learning and affective and behavioural engagement. The two colours differentiate the control group from its trial counterpart. The numbers are the percentage of participants in each group that agreed with the hypotheses (statements) across the bottom.

The data is consistent each time the experiment is run and doesn't not vary greatly from test to test. With each new pair of groups, the pattern is repeated. Multimedia methods generate more engagement of each type and more active learning than monomedia methods. Multimedia content delivers content in ways that mirror the construction of the brain, universally. We have no reasons to believe this will vary greatly anywhere the experiment is conducted, with the exception of cultures using ideogrammatic written text.


There is no shortage of platforms that will carry multimedia in their stride. PowerPoint is the most widely-used and we already have great familiarity with it. But others build in image-seeking systems with safe copyright, and appealing layouts and paired fonts that make the experience easier on the eye and more engaging as a result.

Let's talk briefly about copyright. Fair usage rules in the UK mean that if we a/ do not use an image for commercial gain, b/ attribute it to the originator and c/ use it for teaching, we will be highly unlikely to ever be at risk. As academics, attribution is what we do, on speed. We are only using them for teaching and we're not flogging them off to supplement our income. If I'm wrong on any of these counts, you have been warned :)

Here's Haiku Deck. It's a handy platform that asks you to type in your keywords and then finds, and places in a slide, a good quality image. You get other slides for text. You can add your own choice of images as well, and it's all accessible in the cloud.

It's a handy starting place for those concerned with time, layout and platform application. And it's free for limited use, with platform versatility so students can get it easily on any of their devices. And just to be clear and transparent, I have no relationship at all with them :). They're a good leap-off point for anyone interested in developing or extending their multimedia pedagogy.

The objective is to clear away redundant text and integrate imagery into slide space

And bifurcate visual and textual content to balance delivery, and cognitive impact on working memory. It's just an argument to make transmission match reception.

I've chosen a few examples from across the disciplines. I use these when I consult to HEIs on how it works. The one immediately below was for an event at the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine. Click on the image for alt-text that talks about the image.

This one was used for a discussion of evolution. The placement of evidently human eyes into the face of a great ape made the connection of biological descent.

I have used this image when talking about both civil war and domestic violence. The intrinsic divergence of the two core components of the image (blood, diamond) force the brain to interrogate what the image means by creating a conflict. This takes place whilst I am talking about what I am using the image to convey.

The conflict between love expressed via a marriage ring and the danger of the blood underpin a conversation about domestic violence. Tis visual representation complements what I am saying as they look at the image.

I also use the image to talk about civil war and global capitalism's role in perpetuating it in some instances.

We might similar use an image to invoke cultural references. The one below uses the iconic 'Jaws' poster as the basis for how capitalism (the shark) attacks the swimmer (Earth)

It's just as effective for the sciences, and in fact, the sciences have a long history of using imagery (from basic circuit diagrams to complex architectural blueprints), but not always with an explanation for why it helps teach something.

This blog is about the biological underpinnings of a universal pedagogy. It's based in the natural sciences and our understanding of how the brain works at an evolutionary level.

I believe the common structure shared by all sighted people should generate a sea-change in assumptions about how we deliver academic content, and that it should mirror how the brain works, since that's where the learning develops. I believe the common structure shared by all sighted people should generate a sea-change in assumptions about how we deliver academic content, and that it should mirror how the brain works, since that's where the learning develops

The data shows meaningful increases in affective, Behavioural and Cognitive engagement. It shows the presence of Active Learning whenever images are interrogated, whether simple or complex. And it is inclusive, since the constraints in working memory normally experienced by neurotypical students apply to dyslexic learners as well.

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