I’m a visual thinker. I don’t just make lists. I make lists with arrows leading to check-boxes. My lists include Venn diagrams, connected boxes, clouds, and call-outs like the ones above characters’ heads in comic books. It’s just the way I have learned to think. I once had a class challenge me to write my notes simply in outline Roman numeral format without the arrow, without the parenthetical clouds, etc. I stood at the overhead projector nearly speechless. I couldn’t do it. But my class let me off the hook that day and several students told me at that point that they were glad for my clouds and arrows and little diagrams because they modeled how the thoughts or ideas that we were talking about connected. As I’ve grown professionally, I have been exposed to numerous varieties of visual presentations and read report after report on best practices in teaching that indicate that the use of such techniques (in the form of concept maps and visual organizers) are very helpful for learning. So, it seems my inability to make a simple list may actually be a hidden talent. This isn’t about me though; it’s about how to use techniques such as concept mapping and visual learning tools to help students make meaning out of their learning, specifically in science.
For starters, I have learned that visual tools in whatever form they take in your classroom have to be a regular practice. Students can’t be expected to simply use visual tools at random times – they have to be used weekly and they have to be embedded in your instruction and classroom practice. The diagram to the left is an icon in my class, we call it the “bubble map,” and we use it on the first day of class and at least once a week to learn human anatomy.
Next, visual tools and concept maps work best when they serve to help students take new content and incorporate it with what they know. With the bubble map example, we take the structure that we are learning and write it in the middle (filled) oval. Then, students choose known structures to compare it to in the surrounding ovals. Next, we use the anatomical location terms such as anterior and posterior to describe the new structure (in the middle oval) to the surrounding structures.
Lastly, visual tools have to resemble authentic thinking in your class. I model out loud often what this bubble map tells us by stating the three comparisons that each bubble map makes: ex “the middle oval is anterior/posterior to the bottom oval.” I require that students use a different location term (medial/lateral, proximal/distal) at each branch. After a while, not only are students adept at comparing new structures with old, and using a study tool to become more independent as learners, but the use of this tool also enhances their ability to write and speak about what we are learning. No longer can they say “I don’t know” when we review anatomy before a test, and they are less likely leave a blank answer when I ask them to describe the location of body parts. So many times I have bemoaned the fact my students won’t even try to learn independently, but with a visual tool like this that is regularly modeled, utilized, tested, and evaluated – they can.
Dan Bartsch is a National Board Certified biology instructor and department chair at Billings Senior High School in Billings, MT. He has served as a LifeSciTRC Scholar and Fellow. Dan has been teaching for over 20 years and feels blessed to be part of such a great endeavor.