Asking students to "picture" how they think
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A map of the course prepared by a student in EDU 120:
Social and Philosophical Foundations of Education"

In some of my courses, I ask students to represent their thinking visually, either by creating a visual image, or by collecting and displaying a set of found images.  The results of these assignments can range from a decorated piece of letter-size paper to a multi-page web site. Some assignments are framed as a challenge for individual students, others for groups.  In some cases, I provide detailed instructions and aim for a highly structured product or presentation. 

"Picturing" Ideas and Observations

Asking students to make visual displays of their ideas and observations can sometimes push them to be more precise in their thinking. When the visual displays are large enough for other students to see, they can also help inform and stimulate class discussions. In a Freshman Seminar that I taught a few years ago, for example, I asked students to bring to class some "doll-like objects" that they could find around the house. Students then worked in groups to create a typology for the objects they brought to class and a visual representation of the typology.  My goal for this assignment was to engage students in a kind of cultural analysis that mirrors some aspects of anthropology and sociology. 

Visual representations of three different typologies that students created for categorizing dolls and doll-like objects.
[enlarge images]

Synthesizing Course Content and Assignments

Sometimes the instructions I give students about making visual representations are detailed, but in other cases they are broad and somewhat ambiguous.  A good example of the latter is an assignment I've asked students to complete on the last day of class: "Work with other students in your group to make a map of the course."  When students ask me to clarify what I mean, I refuse to do so. I'm not trying to be difficult, but I want students themselves to figure out how the concept of a "map" could be used to represent a college course, and they find lots of interesting ways of doing just that.  After working on their" maps" for an hour or so, student teams present them to other members of the class, and I add my two cents along the way.

My goals for this assignment are two-fold: First, to engage students in thinking through relationships between different course concepts and themes. Second, to make this kind of thinking visible enough for the whole class to examine critically. Some student groups do pretty much what I have in mind and organize their map around key terms--as a kind of a "concept map."  Others take a more chronological approach and highlight individual course assignments or classroom events . Students also create maps that resemble board games or draw inspiration from natural objects (trees with branches and roots) or from physical landscapes or even their own names. Regardless of what approach each group takes, discussing the maps together usually adds another layer of insight to how I and my students think about the course. Not a bad thing to achieve on the last day of class. To view additional "map of the course" assignments select the following links: [Course Maps for EDU122] or [Course Maps for EDU 120].

Displayed below are three photos from students working on group maps during the last day of class. To view enlarged copies of these and other photos of the class seession, select this link: [Photos of EDU 120 Map Making Session]

Students working on "map of the course" assignment on the last day of class:
Education 120 "Social and philosophical foundations of education."
I've also used the "course map" as a take-home assignment. I ask individual students to create a map and bring it to class.  The maps are then put up on the classroom walls for all to see. As a second part of the assignment, I ask students to walk around and look closely at some of the maps and write a brief statement about what they found of interest. We then discuss the maps as a group, drawing out common or unusual features as these relate to the content of the course.  Individual maps that students make and bring to class are frequently more elaborate and refined in terms of their visual design [Individual Maps] but not necessarily more thoughtful than the group maps.

Student Web Sites

I used to give students a group "poster" assignment in which they had to work in groups to apply course concepts to new issues and topics. A couple of groups asked if they could do a web site instead, and that seemed fine to me. After looking at what students could do with these two different formats, I took steps to encourage students to develop web sites. I now require group web sites in one of my courses and invite students to create web sites in others.

Most students can take some markers and crayons and draw a map, figure, or table on a large sheet of paper, but relatively few have had much experience creating web sites. My approach is to ask students to work in groups and to give them a clear description of the elements they need to include and lots of freedom in how they design their site [Web Site Assignment].   After spending too much time helping students correct simple formatting mistakes, I now provide explicit guidelines for using Dreamweaver as simple web-authoring program. I found the available tutorials about using Dreamwever to be ineffective for my purposes--they were designed to teach someone how to use Dreamwever, not how to create a simple web site--so I prepared some guidelines of my own [Dreamweaver Guidelines]. I insist that every member of each group master these guidelines before uploading any files to the class web site [Web Site Test], and I also provide a template that student groups can use and revise in creating their own sites [Web Site Template]

Home pages for web sites created by students in Education 122:
"Children, learning and material culture." More website topics and guidelines
My experience with these group web sites has been that students are very anxious when they begin this assignment, but quite proud of their work by the end of the term.  What I like about this assignment (as a complement to term paper writing) is that it helps students improve their skills for linking text and images, prioritizing and analyzing data, and considering the needs of both academic and public audiences.  Through class presentations and discussion about the websites themselves, the work students do in preparing them also becomes part of the content of the course. 

Pros and Cons

I associate these varied "create an image" assignments with several positive outcomes:

  • They provide a fresh way to frame intellectual challenges for students
  • Student thinking can be displayed externally for comment and response-and for all to see
  • Most students participate actively and seem to enjoy the assignments, especially the group map-making project on the last day of class
  • By externalizing student ideas, the maps and other images provide valuable prompts for class discussion
  • The course map assignment gives me a good reality check on some of the ways in which students experienced the course.

The liabilities of using these assignments include:

  • The map assignments require access to drawing and coloring materials in the classroom-markers, large sheets of paper, etc.
  • It's not always clear what should be done with the maps and drawings that students create
  • Some students are very anxious (at least at first) about working on an assignment that is so ill defined (e.g., the "course map" or a "web site."
  • Time spent on the technical challenges of making a web site are not a good investment for every course--though they are just that for the course I teach on children, learning and material culture.

One other issue with assignments of this sort is that they aren't always easy to grade. In the group map or drawing projects, for example, I worried about how to evaluate fairly the contributions of individual students. The solution I came up with was to assign a reference grade to the group as a whole, and then use a combination of my own observations and student self and peer evaluations to recognize students who did substantially more or substantially less than other members. I developed a special evaluation form for this purpose that seems to work pretty well [copy here]. I also worried about what criteria to use in evaluating the web site or map design work. For evaluating the completed student web sites, I developed a rubric that we also used in providing feedback on an interim oral report from each group [copy here], but I also awarded credit for this assignment incrementally--with 10 points for each of three different "stages" of completing the project [copy here]. For the maps that are done in class, I usually give full credit to everyone who participates actively in the activity--and pretty much everyone does.

In sum: Assignments that ask students to "picture" how they think can require extra preparation and clean up and non-standard evaluations.  However, these assignments have also proved extraordinarily valuable in helping students clarify and synthesize ideas about the course they've been taking. On more than one occasion, I thought students learned more about the key themes of the course from making and presenting an end-of-quarter group map than they did from anything else. And they're a kick to look at.

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