by Laurel Westbrook, Sociology
Teaching Effectiveness Award Essay, 2007
Students have diverse styles of learning. While some students learn best by doing assigned readings and attending lecture, others learn best using other methods, such as creating visuals to represent the ideas from class, writing and speaking about ideas, doing original research, small group work, or applying theories from a class to real-life experiences. In order to give every student the chance to learn, I always try to present important concepts in multiple ways. In my seven semesters of teaching, I have found that drawing concepts and theories has been the teaching technique that reaches the largest number of students. By drawing I mean creating visuals such as charts, diagrams, and graphs. Drawing is a useful technique because it encourages students to see concepts in relation to each other and because it provides students with a clear depiction of a concept or theory. Often I have found that students who were having trouble identifying which parts of a theory they found confusing were easily able to pinpoint the trouble spot once we had drawn the theory out together. Seeing the effectiveness of this method, I decided to collect a toolbox of drawing techniques. I did this by reading through teaching guides, asking my fellow GSIs what had worked in their classrooms, and inviting my students to share on their mid-term evaluations, in person, and on their final evaluations what had been the most useful drawing activities in class and how those could be improved. I combined these with my own assessment of my existing array of teaching-through-drawing methods. Here I will present the drawing activities that I have found most effective of those I assembled: charts and diagrams. All of these drawing activities can be done in multiple settings, including in a full-class discussion, in small groups, and as a homework assignment.
Charts — boxes with rows and columns — can be used simply to outline the pieces of a theory or, more complexly, to compare theorists, paradigms, case-studies, or methods. For charts I usually include a column for the definition of each idea and a column for how each could be used to answer the central questions of the topic of the week or session. Other columns can be added to include who uses the idea, sub-parts of the idea, and how the idea could be used to study a real-life problem. The application to real life has been especially effective for group work. After we chart the ideas together as a class, I then break them up into groups and give them a real-life event to explain using each of the ideas we have covered that day. I then bring them back together to discuss what they found and to compare and contrast the theories and their applications. Charts are also useful for teaching students how to write essays. In sociology, students are often asked in exams to compare and contrast theories or concepts. I found that teaching them to sketch the answer in a chart before writing it out greatly improved their essays. Finally, charts are great for summarizing the course at the end of the semester and helping the students see the big picture of the class as a whole.
Diagrams are combinations of words and symbols that visually depict a concept or how several concepts work together. Whereas a chart is good for definitions and comparisons, a diagram is good for showing how different pieces of a whole interact. I have found it best to try to use symbols consistently (e.g., a triangle is always a hierarchy) and to attach action words to the arrows connecting the symbols (e.g., increases or causes). Another use of diagrams, for a GSI who is teaching his or her own class or who has a good sense of how the professor will teach the class, is to start the semester by presenting a diagram of the central concepts and how they relate to each other, and then bringing the diagram in throughout the semester, showing how each new piece they have learned fits into the whole.
Assessment: Since I have started using more visuals in class, my students’ exams and papers have improved, as has classroom discussion. On midterm and final evaluations the vast majority of the students list charts and diagrams as the most useful classroom activity, and many said that they would like to see even more drawings. I continue to use these evaluations to improve my toolbox.