Why a Diagram is (Sometimes) Worth Ten Thousand Words

Authors


Jill H. Larkin, Department of Psychology, Carnegie-Mellon University, Pittsburgh, PA 15213.

Abstract

We distinguish diagrammatic from sentential paper-and-pencil representations of information by developing alternative models of information-processing systems that are informationally equivalent and that can be characterized as sentential or diagrammatic. Sentential representations are sequential, like the propositions in a text. Diagrammatic representations are indexed by location in a plane. Diagrammatic representations also typically display information that is only implicit in sentential representations and that therefore has to be computed, sometimes at great cost, to make it explicit for use. We then contrast the computational efficiency of these representations for solving several illustrative problems in mathematics and physics.

When two representations are informationally equivalent, their computational efficiency depends on the information-processing operators that act on them. Two sets of operators may differ in their capabilities for recognizing patterns, in the inferences they can carry out directly, and in their control strategies (in particular, the control of search). Diagrammatic and sentential representations support operators that differ in all of these respects. Operators working on one representation may recognize features readily or make inferences directly that are difficult to realize in the other representation. Most important, however, are differences in the efficiency of search for information and in the explicitness of information. In the representations we call diagrammatic, information is organized by location, and often much of the information needed to make an inference is present and explicit at a single location. In addition, cues to the next logical step in the problem may be present at an adjacent location. Therefore problem solving can proceed through a smooth traversal of the diagram, and may require very little search or computation of elements that had been implicit.

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