Using Visual Tools for Science Learning

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 scienceIMG_0672.

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.  bubbleAfter 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.


7 thoughts on “Using Visual Tools for Science Learning”

Excellent article! I hadn’t thought of using a bubble chart that way! Thanks for sharing!

I found your blog to be extremely useful and relatable. I too am a visual thinker. I will definitely use your methodology with concept maps. I never thought to help students visualize the relationship between bones the way you represented them. I see this as extremely helpful to most students. You truly enlightened me and I can’t wait to use this as a review for the final exam.

No this is something I could get behind. I have been experimenting with taking notes that resemble more of an infographic that Cornell style notes. The syudents LOVE the notes more than I thought they would.

    “Now” and “students”

    I guess I cannot type in the dark.

This is a great article! I teach Special Ed high school science and this is a wonderful way to differentiate instruction with my students!

It is great to read about this example of concept mapping being used in an advanced class, such as Anatomy. I feel that these tools sometimes get lost in translation somewhere around 6th grade. Many advanced classes move away from visual aids as students become more adept at reading comprehension. As the concepts become more abstract, however, it is best to continue using visual aids such as concept maps for the sake of the brain’s ability to organize visual information quicker.
I find that my brain sometimes OVER analyzes things. It is difficult for me to create a simple concept map without going crazy and overwhelming my students instead of helping them.

I would be interested to see more examples of your concept maps used in a single lesson so that I can understand what logical steps you take to paint the entire picture for your classes.

I am interested to try out this style of notes! I related a lot to your last sentence. If I want my students to learn independently, there must be some modeling of how.

“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.”

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