By Erin McKenney, Assistant Professor and Director of Undergraduate Programs, Applied Ecology
I’m a visual learner. I’m the person who doodles diagrams and flowcharts when I take notes, who traces ideas in the air when I’m talking, and who physically reorients my body and signals right or left when I’m giving someone directions. As an educator, I am equally likely to draw pictures on the whiteboard as I am to write down definitions. This personal game of Pictionary bleeds into my research, where I use iterative data visualization to decode my statistical results, then refine my figure design to tell a cohesive and intuitive story to others.
It never really occurred to me that my ability to think in pictures and communicate science through data visualization is unique or particularly valuable, until my students started commenting on it. “I LOVE how you draw pictures! They help me so much, but I could never dream up a picture like that on my own – I’m no artist.” Their dismissive self-deprecation concerned me: they were writing off a learning approach that they readily admitted was useful, because they thought they lacked artistic talent. Previous studies have shown that drawing facilitates knowledge building in science by enabling students to scaffold complex (spatial) concepts (1); and data visualization is a critical skill for practicing and communicating science (2). How could I empower my students to embrace visual learning?
I found the answer during a seminar on bee gut microbiomes. The researcher’s slides were so impressive – clean, professional… and all with a “BioRender” watermark in the bottom right corner. I Googled BioRender and found an online app that enables users to create compelling and professional scientific figures. I opened a free account, verified that it really is as easy as “drag, drop, resize”, and began drafting prompts to assign my students in Applied Ecology (AEC 400). On the first day of class, I stressed the importance of science communication: effective figure design is a marketable skill, and my students would have the opportunity to hone that skill over the series of 4 BioRender assignments.
Anecdotally, students loved the chance to explore and apply class materials through the open-ended assignments, and they appreciated the opportunity to be creative without the pressure of “having to be an artist”. (BioRender includes a library of thousands of ready-made icons, and creates new ones every day in response to requests.) But I wanted to understand more about their learning experience: did BioRender make visual learning more accessible to self-perceived “non-artists”? Did students feel that figure design helped them understand the material better? And, did students perform better on quizzes after creating a BioRender figure about the material?
To answer these questions, I met with folks at BioRender to develop survey questions; and I got IRB approval to collect and analyze student responses and grades. Students’ quiz scores actually dropped after the first BioRender assignment (though performance was likely affected by low morale surrounding the shift to online course delivery, due to COVID-19). Quiz scores increased after the second and third assignments, and students recognized the value of figure design, regardless of their quiz scores.
- Fiorella, L., & Kuhlmann, S. (2020). Creating drawings enhances learning by teaching. Journal of Educational Psychology, 112(4), 811–822. https://doi.org/10.1037/edu0000392
- Ainsworth, S., Prain, V., & Tytler, R. (2011). Drawing to learn in science. Science, 333(6046), 1096-1097.