Don’t use your words: evocative visuals and active learning


As educators, we spend a lot of time explaining things. We (and our students) value clear explanations. Sometimes we want our students to practice observation or interpretation skills, or just discover that there is more than one way of looking at a piece of information or a problem.


In such cases, it may help students if we teachers don’t use our words. 


I was talking with a faculty member who coordinates teaching assistants. One of her perpetual challenges is helping new teaching assistants learn to recognize when students working in class need their help, and determining what kind of help those students need. “They only listen to me so much,” she mused. “It’s like they have to go out and experience such a situation before they can understand how to deal with it.” We concluded: she can talk all she wants, but the TAs really need practice identifying and responding to challenging groupwork situations. 


A day before that, I was sitting in a talk with a bunch of engineers. Now here are some folks who like to solve problems! The speaker knew her audience. She showed them a photo of a traffic jam and asked them “What is the problem here?” 


We receive new information all of the time. But if we are actually going to use it, we have to grapple with it on our own terms. Not everything can be explained to us; we have to engage in our own discovery and interpretation.             


In what cases can visuals help your students have those experiences? 


To think about how you would do this in your own teaching, consider the following technique:  


Put an evocative visual (photo, video clip), a powerful text passage, or a quantitative chart in front of the class. Select an item that will engage students both emotionally and cognitively and are likely to elicit multiple interpretations.


Ask students to interpret the item by asking a question such as “What do you see?” What’s going on here?” After students brainstorm their analysis, ask a question such as “What does it mean to you?” or “What do you think it means?”


Source: Frederick, Peter J. 2002. Engaging Students Actively in Large Lecture Settings. In Engaging Large Classes: Strategies and Techniques for College Faculty. Anker, Bolton, MA.    


1 thought on “Don’t use your words: evocative visuals and active learning


    I love the idea of having students consider graphic representations. Graphics can be discussed, reflected on, elaborated, etc.

    I especially like the idea of having students generate the graphics. Students can be invited to develop concept maps of content, create graphic representations as alternatives to written assignments, and generate problem solving strategies. The latter idea is one taken up by Dan Roam and his Napkin Academy. Simple, but powerful, ideas!

    Representing ideas and content graphically is not about drawing, per se. Rather, it’s about showing how ideas are related to one another, how they compare to one another, and explicating how they are linked by paths and patterns. Injecting a little visual thinking into any course is a surefire way to spice it up and help students think differently about the content.

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