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Cute Visuals Can Distract Students From a Lesson: 3 Tips for Teachers

Christina Scheffel still feels sheepish about the time she was cactus slap happy.

During the pandemic, Scheffel tried to inject some sunshine into her class at a time when she and her students really needed it, she said in a session at the International Society for Technology in Education’s annual conference here.

So when she created informational slides to accompany a lesson, she went all in on adorable cacti.

“We are talking cactus border, cactus font, cactus numbers, cactus arrows, every single cactus emoji that I could find I put somewhere on these slides,” recalled Scheffel, who served as an instructional technology coach for the Indian River School District in Delaware last school year. “My students had a good laugh, and I thought everything was great.”

That feeling lasted until a subsequent lesson when Scheffel tried to get the class to recall a concept she had introduced on “cactus day.”

They looked at her blankly. Then one student said, “‘all I remember from the last lesson were the cactuses on the slides,’” Scheffel recalled.

Scheffel realized that she had gotten so caught up in injecting some fun and whimsy into her visuals that she had forgotten the important part: Making sure students understood and retained the information.

“When it comes to designing learning materials, whether they are slides, worksheets, or whatever else, it is easier than ever to make them look good,” Scheffel said. “You can hop on Canva. Grab a template. Slap a bitmoji on it. What’s that? It’s October? Slap a seasonal bitmoji on it!”

But that may be counterproductive, she warned. “Sometimes, things that are cute unintentionally make our lessons less accessible.”

Scheffel and her colleague, Jeff Kilner, an instructional technology specialist in Indian River, offered several tips for creating visuals that compliment a lesson rather than detract from it.

Their recommendations were informed by the principles of Universal Design for Learning, a strategy that encompasses a wide set of teaching techniques. UDL’s main principal is allowing multiple ways for teachers to present information and for students to engage in lessons and demonstrate what they know.

Here are three key steps they suggest:

1. Present information in a way that’s easy for students to process

Extra visuals or text may be fun, but they can add to students’ cognitive load, or the amount of information they can process at one time, the Indian Hill team explained.

To reduce that cognitive load, educators should rethink extraneous and potentially distracting content, like Scheffel’s cactus border.

For Kilner, that’s meant reluctantly jettisoning some his favorite classroom decor, including heavy metal band tour posters and World Wrestling Entertainment tchotchkes.

“If our learning resources include unnecessary things, we are asking students to take that extra processing step and therefore we are increasing their cognitive load,” Scheffel said.

2. Give students multiple options to learn the same concepts

The popular idea of learning styles—audio, visual, tactile—has been debunked. But everyone still has preferences, Kilner said. For instance, he’s a fan of hard copy books over e-books and handwritten notes over typing. Podcasts are his favorite type of multimedia.

“When you’re thinking about the content and the media and the things you’re presenting to your learners, be extremely intentional,” Kilner said. “A diverse representation of [options] will help all learners in your class be able to access” the lesson.

Scheffel uses this strategy in sharing new technologies with teachers. She may write out directions for using a tool or give her colleagues the option of using an immersive reader—a tool included with some learning management systems—to hear the directions read out loud. She can also put the steps for tackling a particular task in a short visual presentation and record simple directions over it.

That allows students—or teachers—to process information according to their preferences, she said. And if they don’t understand a concept after seeing or hearing it explained one way, they can try another.

It may not always be easy for educators to create multiple presentation styles, Scheffel acknowledged, though technology—such as the audio feature in an immersive reader—can help.

But Scheffel cautions: “Let’s be realistic for a minute. This takes time. And time is a luxury that we do not always have.”

3. Keep cuteness in its proper place

Scheffel found another use for those adorable cacti emojis. She now uses them—or similarly playful visuals—to check how students are feeling at the beginning of class. They can choose the smiling cactus on a happy day, the sunglass-sporting cactus on a day they are feeling relaxed, or the head-exploding cactus when they’re overwhelmed.

Scheffel makes an extra effort to connect with students who pick an angry or sad cactus.

And if most of the class goes with the sleepy cactus on a particular day, she knows she “might not want to start the lesson by having students quietly read an annotated article,” she said. “I might want to get their blood moving a little bit.”

In this case, the fun emojis weren’t an inappropriate diversion, Scheffel said.

“The cute decorative item was not distracting because I’m not trying to teach a concept here,” she said. “Instead, this was a place for me to bring a little joy into the classroom.”

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