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Graphical Display


Graphical displays are “graphs, charts, maps, diagrams and similar displays which communicate in a way that is primarily visual or spatial, rather than verbal or symbolic” (Phillips, 1986, p. 38). They are most commonly used in mathematics and the sciences or social sciences to communicate information clearly as efficiently as possible (Shah & Hoeffner, 2002).

Some authors have suggested graphical displays can act as memory aids because individuals can remember more information visually than through words and therefore our brains can work with larger quantities of information than they would be able to otherwise (Phillips, 1986). However, this suggestion does not seem to be validated through research.

Other researchers have examined comprehension of information contained within graphical displays and have found that mistakes by both children and adults are common when interpreting this information. This may be due to problems with the graphical display itself or result from a poor match between the user’s background knowledge and what they are being asked to interpret (Shah & Hoeffner, 2002). This finding has implications for teaching using graphical displays. One cannot assume that all students will understand how to interpret graphical displays automatically; direct instruction of these skills will be critical (Roberts et al., 2013; Canham & Hegarty, 2010).

Research Rating: Due to the lack of experimental information cited in this description, no claims about the effectiveness of graphical displays can be made. It is possible that graphical displays are effective, but this has not been confirmed experimentally.


  • Can be differentiated to the individual’s needs or learning level

  • May act as a memory aid in that they can allow individuals to work with a greater quantity of information than they would be able to through written text (Phillips, 1986)



  • Individuals will likely require direct instruction in the interpretation of graphical displays (Canham & Hegarty, 2010)


To Consider

  • When presenting information to students through a graphical display, it is important to consider the three design principles: parsimony (graphical displays should only contain necessary information), accessibility (needs to facilitate the ability to direct attention quickly to any detail in the display), and reflection (allow time for reflection on the information contained in the graphical display) to facilitate better comprehension of the information (Phillips, 1986).  

  • It may be helpful to review our Grid Paper or Software section to learn more about creating graphs.

Special Consideration: Workflow

OS Compatibility
Internet Reliance
Optimized Use

Exact prices change frequently, which is why only approximate ranges are listed. 

$ - Under $5

$$ - Between $6 and $50

$$$ - Between $51 and $250

$$$$ - Over $250



Canham, M. & Hegarty, M. (2010). Effects of knowledge and display design on comprehension of complex graphics. Learning and Instruction, 20, 155-166.


Phillips, R. J. (1986). Computer graphics as a memory aid and a thinking ald. Journal of Computer Assisted Learning, 2, 37-44.


Roberts, K. L., et al. (2013). Diagrams, timelines, and tables - Oh, my! Fostering graphical literacy. The Reading Teacher, 67, 12–23.


Shah, P. & Hoeffner, J. (2002). Review of graph comprehension research: Implications for instruction. Educational Psychology Review, 14, 47-69.


Written by Bronwyn Lamond, Last Revision April 2018

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