Modern medical students are exposed to a variety of anatomical and physiology textbooks and atlases as part of their medical training. Although little has been written on how these students interact with medical illustrations during learning, several scholars allude to the importance of combining visual and textual information in the learning process. Medical illustrators have the ability to proficiently organise visual and textual elements in such a fashion to communicate a certain message. However, medical illustrators should be aware of students’ needs when designing visual material for learning purposes. The gap that this study aimed to address is one often experienced in South Africa, where illustrators know very little about the user, in this case medical students’ use of illustrations as a learning tool. The importance of this study derives from the development of user-centred knowledge to improve the quality of work produced by medical illustrators.
The aim of the study was to explore how design elements and principles influence the use, comprehension and preference of medical illustrations as part of the learning experience. Two other aspects selected for this study are the relevance of labelling techniques in medical illustration as well as the quality of the reproduction of images, especially for learning purposes.
This study was conducted through exploratory qualitative research in order to develop a deeper understanding of the way medical illustrations are used during learning. Constructivism was selected as the epistemological approach for this study as it focuses on new knowledge constructed by students from previous experiences.
Data was collected by means of semi-structured in-depth interviews and open-ended questions. Six second year and six fifth year medical students of the School of Medicine, Faculty of Health Sciences at the University of Pretoria were purposively selected and interviewed. The discussion guide used for interviews consisted of 15 sets of medical illustrations with three or four images per set. Each illustration contained a different application of the same design characteristic, but similar in content or nature of information. The largest part of the interview was an adaptation of the repertory grid method to compare and analyse rich data.
Data were transcribed verbatim and organised following the principles of grounded theory. Data sheets were listed, compared and analysed through the application of open and axial coding to determine the relationship between students’ learning styles, and the attributes of the design characteristics selected for this study.
This study shows that design elements in medical illustrations influences second- and fifth-year medical students’ comprehension and learning of anatomy when illustrations are used as teaching material. Deeper understanding regarding their learning styles, drawing abilities and preference for drawing styles were gained. Furthermore, second- and fifth-year medical students’ preferences for media, labelling methods, as well as the quality of the reproduction of the illustrations for learning purposes were illustrated. This information is imperative when designing illustrations for learning and teaching purposes. This study accentuates the importance of collaboration with medical illustrators in South Africa and abroad, as well as with physicians and educators.