Teaching Strategies

Making the Most of Visual Aids

Three strategies for using visual aids to encourage students to engage more deeply with course content.

June 20, 2018
Teacher standing next to a blackboard that has a diagram drawn on it. She is pointing off-camera.
©iStock/Sidekick

Most teachers understand the power of visual aids in helping students grasp content. Teachers value the support that visuals lend to classroom instruction because they encourage students to make associations between pieces of information, soak up chunks of course content quickly, and function as a memory aid.

But sometimes we teachers don’t approach the use of visual aids as carefully as we should. We may be too lax in monitoring how students interpret visuals (allowing the oversimplification of content) or how students create visuals (which shows whether they understand what should be included). As a result, students struggle to make the needed connection with course content.

As an educator who relies on graphic organizers and charts in the classroom, I have three strategies for using visual aids without sacrificing course content.

Sharing Intent

We often naively believe that a visual can stand on its own with minimal explanation. Instead, we should directly communicate to students what we hope for them to see (or interpret) based on the lesson at hand. For example, it’s useful to help students explore why the visual was selected and what the key characteristics of it are, and to identify the non-essential elements of it. And we should specify what we intend for the students to know after examining it. For instance, Professor Howard Cox’s purpose in integrating props like an officer’s cap and a replica revolver into his lectures on fiction set during the Civil War is to help build his students’ foundational knowledge about an author’s purpose and inspiration.

If time allows, I like to share a “runner-up” image and invite students to consider why the image didn’t make the cut. This discussion can deepen their understanding. And teachers can use prompts to help students reach that deeper understanding. Examples include “This image is a stronger representation of the concept because _____” and “This image makes me think about _____ from our lesson, which is important because _____.”

Activating Discussion

Most teachers encourage some level of class discourse when presenting a visual aid, but we need to go a step further. We can promote a conversation about how the visual helps in processing the course content. For example, ask students to share how the visual reinforces—or challenges—what they previously learned about relevant vocabulary terms. In my College Readiness class, we review a line graph that compares letter grades and attendance, discussing how the upward direction of the lines supports our expectations of a connection between consistent attendance and higher grades. We also question the story presented by the graph: Beyond lower grades, what consequences do absentee students face?

To increase students’ processing opportunities, use a think-aloud to get students talking about what makes a visual useful vs. the qualities that seem less important to understanding the theme or central message of the graphic or its connection to other content.

Push students to think deeper. For instance, in order to promote retrieval practice, put the visual away and ask students to break down the concepts represented in the visual relying solely on their memory. It’s important to discuss any discrepancies between what the students recall and what’s actually present in the image.

This is an excellent opportunity to explore misconceptions about the concept at hand. It’s also an ideal time to highlight any blind spots or typical areas of confusion related to the concept. For example, when sharing a bar graph, caution students that the measurement scale can lead them to misread it, especially if the y-axis starts with a random number instead of zero or if information is measured in the short term instead of the long term.

Creating Visual Aids as a Class

I believe involving students in the design of visual aids is essential to foster buy-in and learning ownership, but initially, students may hesitate to create their own visuals and take on the designer role.

Establishing design parameters for students should help. For example, limit their format options by specifying the type of graphic organizer or chart they can use, and provide time to discuss what kinds of visuals would potentially work best based on the content at hand. You can also assign a specified number of key concepts—based on the content reviewed—that students are required represented with their visual.

For students who continue to seem uncertain about creating a visual on their own, educator Matt Miller explains the value of maintaining a library of icons (related to the topic, of course). Such a library allows students to focus on making meaning from the course material instead of becoming frustrated with the design work.

In addition to parameters, offer models. Make a point of asking students if it’s OK to share their visual with peers, and let them know why you wish to share their work. And teacher models are priceless. Dr. Deidra Gammill, a high school teacher in Mississippi, makes a habit of including images in her notes in order to provide concrete examples for her students to follow.

It’s not enough for a visual to capture attention—it should help students become more engaged. Over time, I’ve learned that aligning visual aids with course content is a deliberate process, one that is harder than I realized when I was starting out. With appropriate attention, we can ensure that our visual aids are windows to our lessons’ purpose and construction.