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Modeling and the use of graphics in Web tutorials: A lesson from social learning theory

by Doug Suarez

How do we create effective learning en- vironments for our students to help them learn how to use library resources? And how do we do this so they retain these skills for use throughout their lives? One poten- tially useful explanation that can help us plan and execute our li- brary Web instruc- tional tutorials comes from the discipline of social psychology.

Social learning theory

Observational learn- ing, or modeling, is a key component of so- cial learning theory.

Psychologist Albert Bandura1 first pro- posed that social learn- ing theory could ex- plain psychological functioning in terms of a continuous reciprocal interaction between personal and envi- ronmental determinants. His assumptions were that most behavior is learned by direct experience or by visual observation; that most behavior is learned, deliberately or inadvertently, through modeling; and that modeling can take the form of observing others performing certain skills or learn- ing by observing representations of desired skills. Modeling can significantly help reduce the trial and er- ror of learning.

Figure 1. The white water rafting image implies dynamic team activity; it accompanies library instruction tutorials for the Faculty of Applied Health Sciences.

The theory in- volves four essential steps in the modeling process:

Attention. The Attention. The most fundamental and obvious step in the learning process is paying attention. Physical discomforts such as sleepiness, sickness, or being tense and nervous are obvious examples of distractions, but there are others. If the ex- amples used in your tutorial lessons are not attractive and do not grab your students’ attention, then they could be doing just the opposite of what you in- tended.

About the author

Doug Suarez is applied health sciences reference librarian at Brock University, St. Catharines, Ontario, Canada, e-mail:

Figure 2. Skydiving image is used throughout the library instruction tutorial for Community Health Sciences Department, Faculty of Applied Health Sciences.

One good way to create attention is to use images in your tutorial that make inter- esting metaphors. For example, on the li- brary instruction Web pages created for teach- ing support in the Faculty of Applied Health Sciences departments at Brock University,2 the homepage prominently displays a large image of white water rafting. The goal is to generate interest from students in the Physi- cal Education, Recreation and Leisure Stud- ies, and Community Health Sciences depart- ments by presenting a dynamic team ath- letic activity that implies the idea of working together for common goals (figure 1).

In practical terms, I would suggest that librarians designing Web pages use appro- priate images as much as possible without compromising the page loading response time.

The images should be colorful and dynamic so that they demand at- tention and motivate students to proceed to the individual tutorial lessons that follow. If the images are attrac- tive, students will pay more attention to your message. Simply plac- ing textual instructions on a page is not ad- equate.

Retention. In order to learn something new, we must be able to remember what we have paid attention to. We store the information we have observed in the form of mental images and verbal descriptions. We can retrieve these images at a later date to solve a similar problem or repeat the learned behavior. When we create Web tutorials, we need to use images that reinforce our message in the best ways possible to help our students recall these tutorial images and thereby learn better.

Figure 3. An example of the image used as a header in the exercise quiz that accompanies the generic tutorial for each of the three departments in the Faculty of Applied Health Sciences.

For example, in the Community Health Sci- ences tutorial selected from the library research instruction pages cited above,3 I have used a skydiving graphic throughout the tutorial. The intention is to pro- vide a dynamic background image that implies group participa- tion and cooperation in a controlled, but risky, environment. While not directly health related in the traditional sense, the graphic is memo- rable and should help students identify with the people shown and, by association, the tutorial content (figure 2).

Reproduction. Without being able to reproduce the behaviors that are necessary to duplicate a newly learned skill or skill set, we have to allow for practice. Your tuto- rials must provide direct practice exercises or support-specific course requirements that will reinforce these newly taught skills. Us- ing images that remind students of the skills they have just been taught will go a long way in this process.

In the quizzes that are provided with the Web instruction pages cited above, images have been incorpo- rated to highlight the intent of the exercises and to provide some humor to an otherwise pedestrian procedure’ (figure 3).

Motivation. Lastly, we need to mo- tivate our students to imitate these new skills in some meaningful ways. How can we do this? Perhaps we can provide quizzes within the Web tutorials (that are preferably graded) or integrate the tuto- rials into specific academic courses (whose requirements for term papers and exams in turn require mastery of those library skills we have been trying to teach). If your pages are well constructed with text and comple- mentary images, and they are presented in an attractive and relevant manner, then students should learn better and retain the skills you want to teach.


Those of us who have been developing library instructional tutorials in different formats have been constantly trying to improve our products. I have argued here that the use of more images is required when creating Web tutorials if we are to take full advantage of the concept of modeling in social learning theory. Because a large part of student learning is visual, we need to use images that stimulate, motivate, and reinforce our tutorial content; using a familiar and appropriate metaphor is a useful way of doing this.


  1. Albert Bandura, Social learning theory (Englewood Cliffs, N.J.: Prentice Hall; Toronto: Prentice-Hall of Canada, 1977).
  2. Library Research Instruction, Faculty of Applied Health Sciences, Brock University Web page at -dsuarez/physeduc/index.html.
  3. Library Research Instruction Department of Community Health Sciences Web page at physeduc/chsgen_develop.htm.
  4. Exercise Quiz, Department of Recreation and Leisure Web page at http:// spartan. ac. brocku. ca/~dsuarez/physeduc/ reclgeneric_quiz.htm. ■
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