Teaching Students How to Create a Picture Worth a Thousand Words

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Categories: GSI Online LibraryTeaching Effectiveness Award Essays

by Julie Ullman, Molecular and Cell Biology

Teaching Effectiveness Award Essay, 2010

The semester while I was a GSI for MCB 160, an introduction to neurobiology, I implemented a teaching strategy centered on the creation of diagrams that utilized a progressive format beginning with individual work then culminating with group exercises. The decision to emphasize visual learning came from student surveys I dispensed at the start of the class, wherein the overwhelming majority of students self-identified as visual learners. Ultimately, the decision to create and implement these exercises grew out of an observation about the unusual bi-modal results of the semesters earliest exam.

My co-GSI and I discovered that the bi-modal grade distribution from the first midterm could be explained by grouping students into two populations. The students who had research experience comprised the higher-scoring peak. Those without this experience understood the concepts and could express their understanding verbally, but they had done poorly at capturing the precise language that was the standard for scoring the questions. Precision in language is an unspoken tenet of scientific disciplines, and it is fair to have strict requirements for that in exams. Yet the question arose: How could I help to level the achievement gap between students who worked in science and had extensive, confident scientific lexicons and those who didn’t, while at the same time challenging everyone?

In attempting to address this issue I chose to reinforce the students’ strength in visual learning and began to use diagramming exercises that varied in detail but carried the same three structural elements. The exercises emphasized visual learning, paired students from different scientific experiential backgrounds, and ensured that every student was challenged to think through the task as an individual before contributing their understanding to the resolution of the task within a group. For example, I would do a review lecture of the past week’s concepts then ask students to answer a question, in five minutes, through an illustration that contained a legend, a title, and short description of the concept. I would then pair up students in groups of three to five, making sure that at least one of the experiential learners was present in each group. They would share their work, and then put together a new diagram combining the clearest and most accurate elements from each individual’s work. To wrap up we would discuss all the diagrams; but if we ran out of time I would collect all diagrams and post them on bSpace for students to compare their ideas and methods to those of their peers.

These exercises required students to identify the essential components of an idea and the precise relationship between constitutive parts. They also provided a forum in which students could learn from each other and assess their understanding of concepts relative to their peers. The students further benefited from the exercises as it produced diagrammatic study material for the students to use at the time and in the future. Lastly, knowing how to create a well designed diagram was a useful tool for students who think visually to respond to exam questions so that they could avoid some of the written ambiguity present in their early efforts.

Based on student feedback and improved exam scores, I believe that this method was an effective teaching tool for this group of students. By the final quiz and exam, students in my discussion utilized diagrams more in their answers and the bi-modal distribution was gone. Use of these visually based exercises taught students how to create a great figure and encouraged students to translate their conceptual understanding into clear, precise scientific diagrams that helped the class score closer to their potential. Moreover, I believe that these exercises helped lay the foundation for a skill essential to scientists and incredibly powerful for all disciplines, the ability to communicate complex ideas through straightforward images.