Where are the diagrams?

Coming from a background in the Biological Sciences, I am always amazed at the paucity of visual representations within the social sciences, and within educational research literature in particular. Pick up almost any science journal and the diagrams (graphs, charts, micrographs etc.) jump out of the page. And yet within education, diagrams appear to be considered as secondary. I even had a paper rejected by one journal a few years ago as they didn’t publish diagrams – even though the paper was on visual literacy! Within the sciences, some images reach almost cult status – for example the famous “photo 51”  that became a vital data source in the discovery of the structure of DNA.

It is a bit of a joke within my own department that when I want to explain something I invariably start to draw a diagram. Is this related to learning styles (visual vs. verbal learners)? Is it to do with my academic training as a Biologist? Or is it something else?  Several years ago the Speaker of The House of Commons rebuked an MP for bringing a chart into the chamber to help him explain the point he was trying to make during a debate. The Speaker proclaimed that “Members of Parliament should be sufficiently eloquent not to have to resort to drawings”. I had the opposite perspective on this – that there weren’t enough scientists present with sufficient visual literacy to be able to grasp the meaning of the diagram. Perhaps this is a fundamental difference between the sciences and the humanities?

The importance of visual literacy within the sciences has been documented by various authors. Schönborn and Anderson (2006) commented on how “visualisation is an essential skill for all students and biochemists“, and they offer useful  guidelines for the promotion of visual literacy. Crucially, these include acknowledgement of the importance of pedagogical content knowledge, and development of students’ metacognitive processing skills. I have also recently read an excellent paper by Quillin and Thomas (2015) that considers ‘drawing-to-learn’ as a skill that should be taught. They stress that the drawing may represent and end-point of learning where students have applied their mental models to the application of a problem, or may represent part of the process of model development. The externalisation of these mental models through drawing provides a mechanism to support dialogue and peer review that can help the student to refine and develop their understanding.

This is not just an issue in the sciences. Hattwig et al., (2013) have discussed the issue of visual literacy across higher education and consider guidelines for practice in the form of visual literacy standards that were published by the Association of College and Research Libraries (ACRL). It would be interesting to see these applied to university documentation – what effect would they have? We read a lot in the education literature about ‘academic literacy’, but much less about ‘visual literacy’. Given the visual digital media through which students receive much of their subject content, this seems like a serious omission. This also has serious implications for the academic development of colleagues who are based in the sciences, as the lack of visualisation in education may create another barrier for them in their engagement with the academic/faculty development literature.

It would be interesting to know if colleagues consider any particular image from educational research to have had an impact on their learning. The most common image to appear in postgraduate assignments on education is probably Kolb’s Cycle of experiential learning. Is it a coincidence that Kolb is one of the most cited authors within the educational literature? If you feel there is a more important image in the field, perhaps you could let us know?


Hattwig, D., Bussert, K., Medaille, A., and Burgess, J. (2013) Visual literacy standards in higher education: New opportunities for libraries and student learning. Libraries and the Academy, 13(1): 61 – 89.

Schönborn, K.J. and Anderson, T.R. (2006) The importance of visual literacy in the education of biochemists. Biochemistry and Molecular Biology Education, 34(2): 94 – 102.

Quillin, K. and Thomas, S. (2015) Drawing-to-learn: A framework for using drawings to promote model-based reasoning in Biology. CBE – Life Sciences Education, 14: 1 – 16.


PS under the title:  ‘When we understand that slide, we’ll have won the war:’ US generals given baffling PowerPoint presentation to try to explain Afghanistan mess’ is one of the worst diagrams/PowerPoint slides I have seen recently. But perhaps the point is than somethings are too difficult to understand, let alone put into a diagram:



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