Formative assessment of graphic awareness

Assessment is an essential part of teaching.  Unfortunately, schools focus on summative assessments that, even if appropriate, don’t provide either student or teacher with information about to get to their educational goals.

For  “how are we doing?” help, you need formative assessment.

Our tendency as teachers is to use formative assessment to see how well students learned what we taught. However, formative assessment can also be used in determining what you need to teach. Students may know more than you think—or they may know something quite different from what you think they know.

I find the best formative assessment tool for my nonfiction writing classes is informal writing in response to a writing prompt. Misunderstandings about the meaning of common English class terms are a routine problem.  I use informal writing to uncover such problems.

Another potentially serious source of misunderstandings are graphics.

I started thinking about the problems inherent in graphic representations when reading Richard McKenna’s The Sand Pebbles. Early in the novel, Jack Holman  attempts to teach an illiterate Chinese man how a steam engine operates. Jack’s first attempt is frustrated by Po-han’s lack of numerical literacy. Since Po-han does not understand numbers, he thinks the larger the type size on a dial the greater the amount of pressure in the engine.

I teach students to use graphic elements such as heading size as reading comprehension tools. It had not occurred to me how important it is be sure students are correctly reading graphics that are supposed to help them understand course content.

When I thought about it, I realized it’s not just illiterate coolies that can misunderstand graphic representations. Literate people can misunderstand a graphic that they interpret with a different set of associations than those held by the graphic’s designer.

Take, for example, the little magnifying glass icon. If you use the web regularly, you know clicking the magnifying glass icon will bring up a search box. You may assume that everyone will interpret the magnifying glass as you do. However, if you were to ask a group  of folks who are not regular web users to write a sentence or two telling what they would expect to happen if they clicked on a magnifying glass icon, you might  learn many people  assume that the magnifying glass icon will make the type bigger because that’s how they are accustomed to using a magnifying glass.

Another problematic icon in education is the pyramid representation of Bloom’s Taxonomy of Educational Objectives.  Many people interpret that graphic as meaning they must spend much more time on the broadly based objectives than on the more narrowly based ones, which fits the graphic image but is a total misinterpretation of the taxonomy. (The graphic, incidentally, is not in the Bloom’s taxonomy, which presents the objectives an ordered list.)

If you use many graphics to communicate concepts and procedures, as I do, you can identify potential  graphic misunderstandings by using informal writing for formative assessment.  Simply have the learners write a sentence or two explaining what they think a particular graphic feature means. For example, you might ask, “What would you expect the relationship between these two items to be?”

Or ask, “How do you think the information represented by the yellow area of this graphic is likely to be related to the information represented by the blue area?

Such formative assessment writing prompts are not hard  to prepare, and don’t take long to administer, but the answers can go a long way toward improving teaching and learning.

[Removed links to information no longer available 04-03-2014.]