Researchers study visuals’ effect on learning

Professor saw issues arise in own teaching, molecular bioscience classes



Erika Offerdahl, associate professor at WSU’s School of Molecular Biosciences, describes learning as a spontaneous reaction and the importance of removing barriers to a student’s learning Friday.

SANDY VO, Evergreen reporter

Two researchers are studying how visual literacy skills can be incorporated into their teaching.

Erika G. Offerdahl, associate professor for WSU’s School of Molecular Biosciences, said visual literacy skills can be described as skills that help students learn how to develop visual representation skills. When students learn to make sense of the symbols around them, they use them to create new meaning.

“It could be graphs, cartoons, schematics — all of those things are a visual representation that we can use to communicate with each other,” Offerdahl said.

She said she saw issues arise in her own teaching. In molecular bioscience classes, students are dealing with ideas that cannot be seen or perceived, so they work to collect data for reference models on the concepts they learn about.

“The ability to make visual representation of the things we cannot see with our eyes is an important skill if I am going to be a molecular biologist or a biochemist,” Offerdahl said.

Jessie Arneson, postdoctoral research associate for WSU’s School of Molecular Biosciences,  said she and Offerdahl began looking at how often textbooks exposed students to certain types of visuals. They used this to determine the skills students would need to interpret them.

“Traditionally, it’s been putting images on slides and in books, but it is going to be on the students to figure out what it all means,” Arneson said. “We know that does not work because we’ve seen graduate students who cannot interpret basic graphs.”

For example, Offerdahl said when she teaches structures of protein, students cannot thoroughly understanding the meaning unless instructors help them develop visual literacy skills.

Arneson said she began conducting experiments by handing out two exam questions written for the same level. One question was in visual form, while the other question was all in text.

“What we found was it all depends on the type of question, what level we are testing at and what kind of representation we are using,” Arneson said.

She said there is no general trend, but if questions were written at a higher level, students had to do more thinking and struggled more with visual representation because they had to unpack more.

Arneson said this is not just for students who are going into a STEM-based field, but for general science classes too.

“The goal of general science instruction is not just to produce more scientists, but also to produce a more scientific, literate populace,” she said. “If we are not holding off until high-level classes and doing it at the general level, we can produce a more visual, literate population.”

Offerdahl said a good example of this is how society makes sense of climate change data.

“A lot of our data that we, as scientists, generate to help the community may not be the right method if society does not have the basic level of literacy,” she said. “Visual literacy skills allow us to communicate better and for society to understand what is happening.”

Brenna McMakin, a junior English and Spanish major, said visual representation is important to understand how things work together. Before she became an English and Spanish double major, McMakin said she considered the genetics, nursing and biology fields.

“Visual representation in science classes helped me recognize patterns and put my thoughts together easier because I can actually see it,” McMakin said.

She said she had a preconceived knowledge of visual representation in high school.

“For me, I feel like I can look at an image and graph and know how to unpack it, but I do not know if everyone has been taught that,” McMakin said.  “In college, it seems like professors just automatically assume that every single student is familiar with how to look at visual representation and know how to interpret it.”

Arneson said she hopes the outcome of this research is to diagnose areas in which students struggle with representation, and develop instructional activities or strategies to help target those areas.

“I hope we can generate tools that instructors can use to achieve the learning goals they have [for] their students,” Offerdahl said. “I hope those learning goals include the ability to generate visual representation and make sense of visual representation.”