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Teaching Middle School Students to Reason with Visual Representations in Science. Jennifer G. Cromley , Nora Newcombe , Theodore W. Wills, Melanie Wills, Melissa Karakus , & Michael Batchelor

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Teaching middle school students to reason with visual representations in science l.jpg

Teaching Middle School Students to Reason with Visual Representations in Science

Jennifer G. Cromley, Nora Newcombe, Theodore W. Wills, Melanie Wills, Melissa Karakus, & Michael Batchelor

Departments of Psychological Studies in Education, Curriculum, Instruction, and Technology in Education, and Department of Psychology

Temple University, Philadelphia, PA


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Context of the Project Representations in Science

  • 21st Century Center on Cognition and Science Instruction

    • 21PSTEM, Conshohocken, PA

    • Temple University

    • University of Pennsylvania

    • University of Pittsburgh

  • 5-year development & RCT project, testing effects of modifications of existing curricula using principles from cognitive science

    • Contrasting cases

    • Visual representations

    • Prior knowledge/misconceptions

    • Spaced testing


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Visual Representations in Science Textbooks Representations in Science

  • Line diagrams

  • Photographs

  • Photomicrographs

  • Flow charts

  • Tables

  • Graphs


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Conventions in Theories of Diagrammatic Reasoning Representations in Science

  • Larkin & Simon, 1987

    • Search in representations…requires knowledge of conventions

  • Narayanan & Hegarty, 1989

    • Need to recognize objects . . . in order to make representational and referential connections

  • Mayer, 2005

    • Forming verbal and pictorial mental models . . . Requires knowledge of conventions


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Research on Students’ Understanding of Visual Representations

  • Mostly conducted in Europe and with undergraduate non-Science majors reading researcher-developed texts

  • Difficulties with

    • conventions of diagrams (arrows, color keys, captions, labels, etc.; Heiser & Tversky, 2006).

      • Issues with meaning and also failure to inspect these features

    • “seductive details”—paying attention to the relevant parts of the diagram (Sanchez & Wiley, 2006)

    • failure to make inferences (Canham & Hegarty, 2010)


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Research on Students and Visual Representations Representations

  • Affected by individual differences

    • Lack of background knowledge (Scheiter et al., 2009)

    • Spatial ability (Bartholome & Bromme, 2009)

    • Visuospatial working memory (Seufert et al., 2009)

    • These might interact with domains (e.g., 3D diagrams in Earth Science vs. 2D other domains)

  • A few intervention studies, again mostly with undergraduate students

  • Note that there is a separate body of research on animations

    • Animations add additional challenges


Example ms cells heredity l.jpg

Example (MS “Cells, Heredity”)


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Why Teach Conventions? scale/magnification, symbols

  • Middle school science textbooks frequently use visual representations (approx. 1 per page)

  • Standardized science tests at the state, national, and international level frequently use visual representations, and student performance is poor on these items

  • Textbooks do not embed instruction in how to understand these representations

  • Teachers assume that students already know how to use these representations, so they do not teach them


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Our approach scale/magnification, symbols

  • Create modifications

    • Instruction in conventions of diagrams that teachers give verbally

      • Begin with one convention at a time, gradually increase the number of conventions per image

      • Spaced testing on these conventions

    • Student practice

      • Identifying conventions (e.g., naming labels, captions)

      • Creating their own captions, etc.

      • Matching, e.g., labels to parts of diagrams

    • In a very few cases, create “fly-ins”—versions of modifications where layers of the diagram are shown one at a time


Example ms intro to matter l.jpg

  • A scale/magnification, symbols

Example (MS “Intro to Matter”)

  • Would the beam still follow the same path when the plates are charged?

  • What happens to the beam when the plates are charged?


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Teacher scaffolds discussion scale/magnification, symbols

The teacher presents the modified image, and gives students a minute to read (or reads to them) the questions and asks if there is enough information in the diagram to answer the questions. (The students should have difficulty answering them because the information in the labels is incomplete.)

1) Would the beam still follow the same path when the plates are charged? Explain. (or Would the glowing spot be in the same place when the plates were charged? Explain.) No. It would go through a different path which is pulled towards the positively charged plate. (No. It would be lower and closer to the positively charged plate.)

2) What happens to the beam when the plates are charged? The beam would be pulled towards the positively charged plates.


Before l.jpg
Before scale/magnification, symbols


After l.jpg
After scale/magnification, symbols


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After (Teacher explanation) scale/magnification, symbols

In addition to their roles in indicating magnification and indicating length, arrows can also be used to indicate that substances are changing (from one state to another, in this case).

Display the image above, which is a modified version of Figure 1 on Page 40

The Teacher should indicate that the arrows show that ice cubes and water are interchangeable through the processes of melting and freezing, and clouds and water are also interchangeable through the processes of condensation and evaporation.

The directions of the arrows show the states before and after the change (for example, changing from water to ice is the process of freezing, and changing from cloud to water is the process of condensation, etc).

Remind students that, from what they learned in Chapter 1, what is written in the arrows are naming labels which identify the processes.


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Example (MS “Inside . . Earth”) scale/magnification, symbols


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Challenges of Doing the Research scale/magnification, symbols

  • Adding this instruction means some other aspects of the curriculum have to be cut back

  • Diversity of

    • Types of representations

    • Conventions

    • Prior knowledge required

  • Diversity of student literacy and background knowledge levels

  • Teacher implementation; initially invisibility of the problem

  • Occasional need to replace images


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Integrating Cog scale/magnification, symbolsSci Modifications

Contrasting case work influences Visual representations work which influences Misconceptions/Prior knowledge work (and vice versa)


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Acknowledgments scale/magnification, symbols

  • F. Joseph Merlino, PI and The 21st Century Partnership for STEM Education staff

  • Christian Schunn, Christine Massey, Andrew Porter, Co-PIs

    • IES award #R305C080009 to The 21st Century Partnership for STEM Education

    • The opinions expressed are those of the authors and do not represent the views of the U.S. Department of Education

    • Contact: jcromley@temple.edu