Infographics: A Fun, Multimodal Tool for Student Thinking and Writing

 

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By: Ben Causey

Ben Causey is a MA in English (Teaching of Writing & Literature concentration) student at George Mason University. He is also an active-duty Marine and currently teaches instructional methods at Marine Corps University in Quantico, Virginia. You can contact Ben at benjamin.causey@usmcu.edu.

Students are often encouraged to formally prewrite, outline, or somehow plan their written course work. Often, they are reluctant to conceptualize their thoughts outside the pages of their written assignments. Over forty years ago, Janet Emig (1983) realized that “able student writers voluntarily do little or no formal written pre-figuring, such as a formal outline, for pieces of school-sponsored writing of five hundred or fewer words” (p. 92). Since then, we have recognized the need for students “to draw upon a wider range of communicative resources than courses have typically allowed” (Shipka, 2005, p. 299), Students have also gained access to a host of software and media tools that allow them to compose in creative new ways. Infographics can fulfill the need for students to plan and re-conceptualize their written work, as well as provide a fresh alternative to the typical written assignment. When students are too preoccupied with language, grammar, and form to participate meaningfully in the disciplinary discourse, infographics can free students from some of those restraints so they might think more clearly.

Think back to when you learned how to “brainstorm.” What did your teacher draw on the board? My teacher drew a topic or a word on the board and then circled it. Next we thought about a related word or topic and she wrote that one down, drew a circle around it, and sketched a line to connect our two idea circles. This continued on until we had a blackboard full of idea spider webs that we could use to draft an essay. Little did I know at the time, that whether I had plenty of good ideas or not, I would often be required to turn in one of these charts before or along with my essay, year after year. This was a type of visual composition exercise that, while useful, lost its luster for me over the years. I’m not always the best student, so sometimes I would stubbornly complete my required brainstorming exercise only after I finished my essay, just so I would get credit for it. Clearly this type of requirement did not fulfill the professor’s goals in aiding my drafting and improving my perspective.

Most teachers and learners are very familiar with these various concept maps, mind maps, spider webs, flow charts, and other graphical tools used to support learning, but in 2011, the Oxford English Dictionary added the term infographic (Krauss, 2012), (that is, “a visual image such as a chart or diagram used to represent information or data in an easily understandable form”). Infographics are becoming a popular genre for media consumers, and infographics can be an exciting visual learning tool for students. Language arts teachers can use infographics for the same kind of brainstorming and mind mapping we’re all used to, but their ubiquity and their visual appeal provide for more engagement than conventional tools. Infographics are also simple and flexible enough for a wide range of classrooms and learning objectives.

Two technological advances have cultivated the success of infographics: extensive access to information and prolific user-friendly design applications (Polman & Gebre, 2015). The wealth of information at our fingertips has created a need for new ways of representation, while software and web apps have made complex, non-linear graphic design easy for the layperson. Infographics have become a staple of newspapers and magazines, especially for reporting on scientific, quantitative subjects (Cressey, 2014). A dry text article full of numerical data and restrained interpretation can be turned into a colorful page of icons, charts, and clip art, along with text. Infographics are usually nonlinear. The starting point, ending point, and overall flow are not fixed, so infographic authors have many choices about how to organize their content. Students who have the opportunity to arrange their ideas visually can make connections with their content they might have missed with strictly verbal composition.

Visual literacy is increasingly important for our students, and infographics are now popular enough to take their place among the different versions of graphic learning tools that we have been using for years. The infographic genre familiarizes students with a form of communication that is increasingly common in the media, and it can be used to develop conventional writing skills. The process of visual communication provides an opportunity for students to think differently about the writing process. Infographic design also gives students an opportunity to hone their software and computer skills. All together, introducing infographics to your students can make the classroom a more dynamic and engaging place to learn.

Science and STEM-related infographics seem to be the most popular and are gaining ground in science education (Davidson, 2014), but all infographics require the kind of invention and synthesis skills needed for reading and writing learning outcomes. Infographic writing can be used as a prewriting technique, a revision tool, or on its own. But first, we’ll need to determine how to draft our infographics in the first place. Use the following three sections (and the sample infographics here!) as guides for locating, learning, and integrating infographics in your classroom to bolster your students’ thinking and therefore their final products.

Ways

Resources

  • Students with access to computers but limited access to the web can use slide presentation software. Keynote or PowerPoint can generate fine infographics.
    • Use a single slide as a canvas to copy-and-paste pictures, insert shapes, or add text.
    • Word processing software can be used in the same way with a few techniques like disabling text wrapping, or moving all graphics and objects to the front of the page.
    • Using these common professional software applications can help students develop their technological proficiency.
  • Internet applications provide more simple and powerful resources for infographic composition.
    • Easelly (easel.ly) provides free templates and graphics with an easy interface for infographic drafting. No registration or account is required, and students can save their work as a JPG image file when complete.
    • I designed the infographic above using Easelly in under an hour.
    • Piktochart (com) is another web-based application that lets users easily create simple infographics or even multi-level interactive ones that can be published to the web and searchable. Piktochart requires new users to sign up for a free account.
  • Students can simply freehand draw an infographic to mimic the style of computer graphics.
    • In fact, it might be better to begin with a hand-drawn draft, as pencil and paper is never limited by software capability or computer know-how.

When choosing a tool for infographic creation, let students get hands-on and show them some major features like how to make shapes, paste images, and insert text boxes.

Uses

Pre-Writing

  • Have your students start with looking at some professional or commercial infographics.
    • Possibly select some visual/graphic presentations in their textbooks.
  • Ask them how an infographic about your course content or relevant writing prompts might look.
  • Remind students that they do not always have to use statistics or numbers like many common infographics, but they can use their own qualitative ideas or observations for main points:
    • Pick five things they think are most important about a unit or module.
    • Choose five icons or pictures that convey each reason.
    • Write a clarifying sentence next to each image.
    • After the class has created unique infographics, have them write an essay that communicates the same ideas as their images.

Revision

  • Introduce infographics to your class after they have completed their first drafts of a writing assignment.
  • Have your students create an infographic that represents everything they tried to say in their first drafts.
  • Again, have them pay close attention to their thinking and how the process of selecting images for communication is similar to and different than verbal writing.
  • After the infographic project is complete, have students share what they learned and ask them to write their next drafts using insight they gained from infographic creation.
    • Perhaps have students add new components to their infographic based on the feedback they have received from you.

Of course, drafting an infographic can also be used as a stand-alone assignment. You could lead a post-assignment discussion about how visual creation is similar to conventional writing. This discussion should focus on the invention and composition processes. Also highlight how disciplinary writing depends on the connections between and organization of ideas.

Have students pay close attention to how writing about their ideas verbally is similar to and different than depicting them visually. The act of visually composing their ideas might very well inform their verbal communication, leading to better quality writing. If visual content can inspire writing, then perhaps students can be inspired by their own visuals! Students who supplement their writing with multimodal composition might realize that they are “doing something that is at once more and other than writing (i.e., placing and arranging words on a page or screen)” (Shipka, 2005, p. 300). Such activity could demonstrate to students that their task in writing is to look beyond summary and form, and instead to compose original ways of thinking and representation.

Disciplinary writing requires much more than just form and grammar, so pre-writing and revision strategies are important for students to explore and organize their ideas. Infographics are a great tool to promote disciplinary thinking while improving student visual literacy and technological skills. Even when written verbal communication is the objective, visual design via infographics can enhance student engagement and development.

References

Cressey, D. (2014). Infographics: Truth is beauty. Nature, 507(7492), 304-305.

Davidson, R. (2014). Using infographics in the science classroom. The Science Teacher,

81(3),34-39.

Emig, J. A. (1971). The composing processes of twelfth graders. Urbana, Ill: National Council of

Teachers of English.

Krauss, J. (2012). More than words can say: Infographics. Learning & Leading With

Technology, 39(5), 10-14.

Polman, J. L., and Gebre, E. H. (2015). Towards Critical Appraisal of Infographics as

Scientific Inscriptions. Journal Of Research In Science Teaching, 52(6), 868-893.

Shipka, J. (2005). A multimodal task-based framework for composing. College Composition

and Communication, 57(2), 277-306.

 

 

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