Friday, February 24, 2006

King of Charts: Visual Thinking with Diagrams

Designers, scientists, mathematicians, and inventors commonly use sketches and graphic representations to communicate with others, reason, and brainstorm, however rarely are teachers or students educated in diagrammatic thinking. For students, diagrams often need to be processed more slowly that lecture or text, but well-designed diagrams can be powerful tools to emphasize salient information and relationships, and deepen understanding.

In the Self-Explaining study below, researchers found that "students given diagrams performed significantly better on post-tests than students given text. Diagms students also generated significantly more self-explantations thant text students." Interestingly, although text only students "spoke significantly more than diagrams students, the majority of their statements were paraphrases and they gave fewer self-explanations." It seems that verbal information is more readily repeated back without actual comprehension, whereas visual diagrammatic information requires translation of the the relevant information into words. The authors add, "diagrams reduce memory load and cognitive effort by computational offloading. Self-explaining is a challenging activity that many learners do not engage in spontaneously. Diagrams free the limited resources of learners to engage in meaning-making activities. Diagrams limit abstraction and aid processibility by restricting the learners' interpretation of the situation."

We recently discovered Edward Tufte through his book, Visual Explanations. It's a beautiful and informative book. More links about information graphics can be found below.

Self-Explaining and the Use of Diagrams in Teaching
Edward Tufte - Wikipedia
Ask Edward Tufte.: Links, Causal Arrows, Networks
Diagrams at Stanford Philosophy
Diagrams about Thoughts about Thoughts about Diagrams
Analogical Representation and Graph Comprehension
Eide Neurolearning Blog: Visual Thinking with Diagrams - The Cartoon in Your Head

Conventional Classroom Resources for Graphic Organizers:


  1. Edward Tuft books are fantastic. Simultaneously they educate and inspire. They are works of art that are a joy to own and hold.

    The illustration above is Napoleon's march on Moscow. There is more about it here [ ]. It manages to combine information on the size of the army, time, tempreture and geographic data all in one simple graphic.

  2. Fantastic post. I've recommended to many colleagues and posted a link at Zenpundit.