Initial Publication Date: March 16, 2018

Fostering Strategy #1: Learners create concept-driven visualizations to explain their ideas

(most recent update 24jan2018) (return to workshop front page)

Contributors: Sarah Klain, Yuen-ying Carpenter


Stand-alone format:

  • Individual students or small groups of students are prompted to create a drawing that conveys a process, structure, system, hypothesis or concept.
    • Instructional context: homework or in-class assignment, assessment, figure in a proposal, write-up of laboratory inquiry, field observations (e.g. geology or ecology)
    • Medium: Most commonly this would be on paper with pencil or markers, but drawing software or even animation software can also be used.

Facilitated format:

Distinctions: This strategy differs from Strategy 5 in that in this strategy, learners make concept-driven visualizations (such as diagrams, flow-charts or concept sketches), whereas in Strategy 5 they make data-driven visualizations built from quantitative empirical or model-base data.


  • Concept mapping
  • Assessment question: "Explain the following idea using a diagram and a maximum of X words" (e.g. last common ancestor in intro genetics)
  • View or conduct a chemical reaction and then draw molecular-level depictions of the before and after states
  • Sketch graphs to compare behaviour of a system under different conditions (e.g. concentration vs. time for a chemical reaction with or without a catalyst)
  • Ask for class volunteers to draw a diagram explaining how something works (e.g. how do you drink water through a straw?); collect these visualizations and have a whole class discussion comparing common features and differences
  • Draw progress of something that occurs over time (e.g. a reaction, geological phenomenon), or given the beginning and end, fill in the middle items
  • Distill a conceptual drawing capturing the key features of a collection of 'messy' real-world items
  • Design sketches in proposals, and pitches in engineering and related fields
  • K-12 mathematics: Using representations (drawing or with physical manipulatives) to explain the meaning of mathematical operations (e.g. when learning the meaning of exponents) to each other

Affordances of this strategy/what it is good for:

  • Distilling an idea: Process of creating a concept-driven visualization forces the learner to focus or attend to the key features and figure out or clarify for themselves what's important vs. not important.
  • Visualizations can help learners organize their thinking.
  • Visualizations can support learners in creating an idea that is bigger than what can be held in the foreground of the mind at one time.
  • Discourse over materials: In collaborative group work, the shared visualization (either created by one learner or co-created) gives a common reference point for discussion of ideas, especially useful when students have not mastered the disciplinary language.
  • A student-constructed visualization can reveal student mental models to the instructor, including flawed models.
  • Sketching has different affordances than making a visualization with a digital tool that is specialized for the discipline (e.g. a computer-aided drawing tool for engineering.) Specialized software is often designed to do some of the thinking for the user and protect the user from certain kinds of mistakes, and thus may hide from both the learner and the instructor a weakness in the learner's understanding or skill set.

Potential pitfalls & challenges:

  • Students may be recreating from memory a common textbook or other popular visualization without understanding the context or content; their actual mental model of the phenomenon may not be related to the diagram they've drawn.
  • Some ideas may require learning a visual vocabulary or discipline-specific conventions in order to express ideas non-verbally.
  • Students typically have less practice with creating visual representations than with writing, and thus may struggle to express their ideas visually.
  • Students may protest that they are "not good at drawing," and complain that grading them on their "art skills" is not fair in a science class.

Emergent insights:

  • This is a powerful strategy, but one that benefits from practice, practice, practice. In most schools, students get frequent practice and feedback on expressing their ideas in words--but very little practice or feedback on expressing their ideas visually. This strategy will become more powerful if students encounter it year after year, in different contexts with different content.
  • There is a need for instructional design strategies that require students to assemble their own visualization from their own observations and ideas, rather than recreating a diagram that they have seen in a textbook or other reference source.
  • Disciplinary instructors could include feedback on the features of the visualization and the clarity with which it expresses the idea (rather than solely on the correctness or incorrectness of the disciplinary idea.) But most disciplinary instructors have little idea how to give such feedback, and students may resent being scored on their "art skills." It might help to create and circulate a scoring rubric specifying what a clear and complete visualization needed to include; for example, critical spatial relationships. Students and instructors both need to develop the attitude that expressing one's concepts and models visually is a professional practice of science & engineering, and that improving in this practice is a legitimate learning goal of STEM classes.
  • There are certain kinds of phenomena for which a visual representation can convey information that is difficult to convey in text. Text is inherently one-dimensional; the reader is expected to begin at the beginning, proceed through the middle, and arrive at the end. Drawings are inherently two-dimensional, and can be crafted so as to convey 3 spatial dimensions, or 2 spatial dimensions plus time. This instructional strategy is most effective when it is deployed in support of a situation or phenomenon for which words alone fail (or are much less effective than a diagram) to convey important aspects. Some such situations include:
    • Information that is inherently spatial (e.g. outcrop sketches in geology, weather fronts in meteorology)
    • Information that combines temporal and spatial information (e.g. series of sketches of how the configuration of an experimental apparatus changes from the beginning to the end of an experiment)
    • Compare and contrast two things which are analogous in some ways but different in others (e.g. molecular diagrams of closely related chemicals, sketches of alternative working hypotheses)
  • It seems that in some circumstances sketching a concept allows learners to begin to communicate their ideas even before they have the appropriate language and vocabulary; an analogous role has been suggested for gestures (Roth, 2000) and for "muddle talk" (Roth & Lawless, 2002).

Researchable questions:

  • Are there ways of teaching or facilitating that support transfer of these ideas across domains?
  • How can we support teachers in developing prompts that help them gain insights into student thinking, rather than prompts that students answer from memory of typical diagrams?
  • Are there advantages of having students create dynamic visualizations (short animations) rather than a series of static drawings of time-dependent phenomenon? (even with modern software, there's a bit more of a learning curve and time-in required to have learners create these, so is there a payoff?)
  • Do students who engage in explanation through visuals see the goal as the visual product, or do they perceive the gains occurring in the process of creating these representations? How can we support students in seeing the value of the practice for their learning?
  • How much scaffolding or constraints should students be given to start them generating the visuals?
  • Can we map and evaluate visualization-centered explanations along the same criteria as word-based NGSS-explanations: Claim, Evidence, Reasoning?
  • There is research around discussions in peer-instruction college classes showing that simple addition of a 'justify or explain your reasoning' prompt to every in-class polling question can significantly change the depth of student discussions. Can this type of prompt also apply to student construction of visual explanations? How can the addition of visualizations to peer discussion change the discussions?
  • Does asking students to draw a diagram as part of their explanation or prediction support students in making more accurate predictions (in formative or summative contexts)?
    • e.g. Students are asked on an assessment to compare two items or scenarios which are described in words, such as a solution is divided into two equal portions, and then one portion has more water added. Compare the concentration and amount of the specific chemical in each. Anecdotally, it looks like students perform better on these comparison questions if the question is paired with another question that asks students to also draw a representation of the two items.

References & Credits:

  • Attari, S., Poinsatte-Jones, K., & Hinton, K. (2017). Perceptions of water systems. Judgment and decision making, 12(3), 314-327. [research study in which water experts and novices were asked to draw diagrams illustrating their understanding of the processes by which clean water reaches the tap in the average home in the United States. Has some interesting thoughts about how to score diagrams and why diagrams are good ways to elicit understanding.]
  • Gobert, J., & Clement, J. J. (1999). Effects of student-generated diagrams versus student-generated summaries on conceptual understanding of causal and dynamic knowledge in plate tectonics. Journal of Research in Science Teaching, 36, 39-53.
  • Edens, K., & Potter, E. (2003). Using descriptive drawings as a conceptual change strategy in elementary science. School science and mathematics, 103(3), 135.
  • Gobert, J. (2005). "The Effects of Different learning Tasks on Model-building in Plate Tectonics: Diagramming Versus Explaining." Journal of Geoscience Education, 53(4), 444-455.
  • Johnson, J. K., & Reynolds, S. J. (2005). Concept sketches–Using student- and instructor-generated, annotated sketches for learning, teaching, and assessment in geology courses. Journal of Geoscience Education, 53, 85-95.
  • Lobato, J., Hohensee, C., & Diamond, J. M. (2014). What can we learn by comparing students' diagram-construction processes with the mathematical conceptions inferred from their explanations with completed diagrams? Mathematics Education Research Journal, 26(3), 607–634.
  • Novak, J. D., & Cañas, A. J. (2008 (Rev)). The theory underlying concept maps and how to construct and use them. Technical Report IHMC. Pensacola, FL: Institute for Human and Machine Cognition.
  • Roth, W.-M., & Lawless, D. (2002). Science, culture and the emergence of language. Science Education, 86, 368-385.
  • Roth, W. M. (2000). From gesture to scientific language. Journal of Pragmatics, 32, 1683-1714.
  • Wiebe, E., N., Madden, L. P., Bedward, J. C., Carter, M., & Minogue, J. (2008). Improving early spatial intelligence through science notebook graphic production: Effective elementary classroom practices. Paper presented at the Conference on Research and Training in Spatial Intelligence, Evanston, IL.
  • Wilkerson-Jerde, M. H., Gravel, B. E., & Macrander, C. A. (2014). Exploring Shifts in Middle School Learners' Modeling Activity While Generating Drawings, Animations, and Computational Simulations of Molecular Diffusion. Journal of Science Education and Technology.