“If a picture is worth a thousand words, it should be given that much of your time,” says Edward Tufte. Biology professor Amy Wiles says it was what got her started thinking about the importance of visual representations in her field: “Students needs to be visually literate just as they need to be verbally literate, but skills required to develop visual literacy are often overlooked in undergraduate education” (p. 336). Instructors, used to seeing how data are organized in tables and graphs and comfortable with diagrams that visually represent relationships, don't stop to think how unfamiliar those may look to students. We should ask ourselves, how much instructional time is devoted to helping students make sense of these ways of communicating content?
Wiles decided to do something about this in her biology courses. Her strategy isn't all that innovative. It makes use of the course textbook she has students bring to class. She starts with a succinct introduction to the material contained in or relevant to a particular figure in the text. She uses “figure” in a broad sense. Visual representations in her courses include charts, tables, graphs, and diagrams.
Then students examine a designated figure in the text, and after they've had a chance to look at it, they talk about it with peers seated nearby. Often students are silent because they don't know what to talk about. Wiles encourages them to start describing what they're seeing. She follows her first article with another that highlights the kinds of conversations student have when they talk about the figures. Even though those conversations are very discipline specific, they illustrate how students struggle with content represented visually. While they are discussing the figures, she walks around the room listening and responding to what they are saying. She gives them feedback on their conversations, answers questions, asks questions that challenge them to see more in the figure, comments about how content in the figure relates to other course concepts, and so on. The activity concludes with an instructor summary that may include concerns that came up in one group but are relevant to the whole class.
Wiles also spends time in class using textbook figures and modeling how they should be approached and understood. She explains how each figure is routinely laid out. If it's a chart, it's the axis that first needs to be examined, then the shape of the curve, and finally its relationship to the axis. She talks about charts first in terms of the row and column headers. And she explains how diagrams work and how they are often used to capture the action at one point in a dynamic, moving process.
Once students get used to looking at figures, she challenges them to start drawing their own visual representations. They can create a figure using elements in the textbook, or they can create something that visually represents content that's not presented that way in the text or class. Some learners are more visually inclined, and graphically relating content aids their understanding, as has been discovered in research on concept maps.
Despite their initial discomfort, students responded favorably to this activity. A sizeable majority in all four of the courses where Wiles used it said it taught them to read and interpret figures (84 percent) and that it helped them learn more than the traditional lecture (88% vs. 74%). Seventy-five percent said talking with peers facilitated their understanding better than examining the figures on their own. They reported using figure analysis when studying on their own and said they were more confident examining figures as a consequence of taking this course.
Besides gains like these, there were several side benefits. The activity engaged and focused students, in part because the instructor was walking around and commenting on their conversations. In trying to understand the figure itself, students grappled with course content in class with an instructor there to answer questions. The activity helped them learn. Moreover, it's an activity that gets students using their textbooks. They were looking at the figure, but often their struggle to understand it led them to relevant parts of the text that they were reading and discussing. The activity demonstrated why the text has value and how it can help students learn. If students have their books in class, then teachers can use them for other purposes as well.
Wiles does offer one important bit of advice. When using an activity like this, a textbook with “good” figures is essential. She also notes that figure analysis is “appropriate to any course, content-heavy or not, whose material may be readily presented in pictures and diagrams” (p. 343). She's writing about biology, but information is communicated graphically pretty much across the board today. We should be teaching students how to interpret information configured as figures, tables, charts, graphs, and diagrams.
Reference: Wiles, A. M. (2016). Figure analysis: A teaching technique to promote visual literacy and active learning. Biochemistry and Molecular Biology Education, 44(4), 336–344.
Wiles, A. M. (2016). Figure analysis: An implementation dialogue. Biochemistry and Molecular Biology Education, 44 (4), 345–348.