When Students Get Stumped—Changing Textbook Illustrations that Confound

RIT professor studies visual communication in biochemistry

Thomas Kim

Success or failure in chemistry class has a lot to do with how students “read” their textbook illustrations—from simple schematics to pictures packed with detail.

Scale and representation of chemistry images challenge students’ visual-spatial skills. The complexity of biochemistry leads to textbook images that convey thousands of atoms on different scales that could confuse the inexperienced student.

“In order to be fluent in chemistry, you have to be able to move between these different representations,” says Thomas Kim, associate professor of biochemistry at Rochester Institute of Technology and a member of the Science and Mathematics Education Research Collaborative, a group of RIT faculty who pursue discipline-based education research in physics, biology, chemistry, biochemistry and mathematics.

This academic year, Kim will study how undergraduate biochemistry students at Michigan State University glean information from simple illustrations and highly detailed representations of biochemical concepts. He will conduct his educational research at Michigan State’s CREATE4STEM institute—the Collaborative Research for Educational Assessment and Teaching Environments for Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics. The institute awarded Kim a fellowship and a $40,000 stipend.

“I want to see what the students get out of the two different kinds of images and whether or not they can make sense that this is a scaled-down picture and this is a detailed picture. My hypothesis is that students don’t see the same thing when they look at two different levels of scale in a representation of the same idea.”

The problem illustrates a disconnection between the expert who renders the drawing and the novice, the student, who overlooks the salient features.

“That’s not a skill we explicitly teach,” Kim says. “It’s assumed that students will know how to look at a picture and makes sense of it. Or that they know how to draw the structure and they know what the structure means.”

Kim says the issue is pervasive in higher education. “Faculty select textbooks based on the fact that everything looks fairly obvious to them. But they have overcome the hurdle of how to make sense of these representations.”

His study seeks to gain an understanding of how students approach these complex images. His target population consists of approximately 300 biochemistry students at Michigan State. He will partner with Julie Libarkin, a professor of geology at Michigan State who has explored similar concepts pertaining to climate change graphs. Together they will use eye-tracking technology to identify where students look when they are presented with images that have different complexity levels based on scale. They are curious if students hone in on the germane and relevant portions of the image or if nonessential information in the picture distracts them. Interviews, transcripts and qualitative analysis will complement the investigation.

“The idea of reconstructing how we present illustrations is a new idea,” Kim says. “So is the idea of examining them rigorously in an evidence-based manner to determine what we need to incorporate into scientific illustrations. Affording to the things that make sense and blocking out the things that don’t is not a skill that students come in with. Students lack the skill because they are not experts yet.

“The outcome we’re looking for is to hopefully redesign some of these representations to make them more explicit and more accessible to novices putting in the layers of representation we take for granted at the expert level.”

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