Research Questions

  • Is the complexity continuum an appropriate predictor of instructional effectiveness?
  • Does a student’s prior knowledge in a content area influence ability to benefit from visualized instruction?
  • Is selective use of preattentive features an important instructional attribute in guiding attention toward more thematically relevant structures?
  • To what extent does perceptually salient information contribute to informing the development of a mental model of events depicted?


  • Increased complexity fosters greater understanding of molecular interactions
  • Prior knowledge is correlated with increased understanding of visualized instruction
  • Colour and motion are effective features for guiding attention
  • Colour impedes understanding of the environment as a “collective” whole
  • Students, regardless of year of study, attach agency to molecular motion, anthropomorphizing molecular interactions

What effect does visual complexity have on understanding?


Jenkinson, J., & McGill, G. 2013. Using 3D Animation in Biology Education : Examining the Effects of Visual Complexity in the Representation of Dynamic Molecular Events. Journal of Biocommunication, 39(2), 42–49. (PDF)

Six screenshots (labelled a-f) depicting the binding process between SFC and C-KIT in a step-by-step fashion

Figure 1. Static frames from one of the animations (treatment 2) show the different stages of binding and receptor activation. These events are present in each treatment.

Four screenshots of four animations depicting the same cellular process but at increasing levels of visual complexity

Figure 2. Opening frames from four animations representing the same receptor-ligand binding event. Each successive treatment builds upon the contents and depictions of the previous treatment: 1) treatment 1 depicts the event using smooth, directed motion of the ligand toward the receptors; 2) treatment 2 introduces random, nondirected (Brownian) motion; 3) treatment 3 introduces molecular crowding; 4) treatment 4 introduces molecular water.

Project Summary

This project examines the effectiveness of visual complexity in animation for learning about molecular events. In 2 related studies, undergraduate biology students were shown increasingly complex versions of the same binding event (Fig 1), depicted in each of 4 animated treatments (Fig 2). Students were assessed using tests, verbal reports, and eye tracking data in order to characterize their understanding. Our findings suggest that students attend to the same narrative elements regardless of the complexity depicted in each animation, and that visual complexity was positively correlated increased knowledge and with elaborated explanations of events depicted. However, our results also suggest that students have difficulty understanding the random nature molecular events and anthropomorphize these processes.


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