Visualisation In Science Understanding And Literacy (VISUAL)

Visual research project new web site

Project outline

The project aims to investigate, collaboratively by the PALAVA group, the theme of diagram production and use. We will be working at different levels. The first is focusing on aspects of diagrams in science, philosophy, history, context, use in explanations, and learning. The second is to look at our collaborative processes as we undertake this investigation. The third is to look at how we change our personal ways of working by taking part, Action/ Practitioner Research. We are aiming to understand diagrams, as part of improving teaching and learning with those with whom we work.

Research questions

  1. What is a science diagram? (Philosophy)
  2. How were diagrams used in science in the past? (History)
  3. What are diagrams used for in science education? (How Science Works)
  4. How are diagrams simplified? (Philosophy)
  5. What are the sources for diagrams used in science education? (Pedagogy)
  6. Is the idea of a visual learner appropriate and/or helpful? (Psychology)
  7. Do diagrams teach misconceptions? (Pedagogy and Subject Matter Knowledge)
  8. What diagrams work, and for which teachers and learners? (Pedagogy)

Literature survey

The space below should be used to place useful links that you find. I will start it off.
Visual-spatial thinking: An aspect of science overlooked by educators James H. Mathewson (1999)
Science Education Volume 83, Issue 1, pages 33–54, January 1999
Abstract part: 'Thinking with images plays a central role in scientific creativity and communication but is neglected in science classrooms. This article reviews the fundamental role of imagery in science and technology and our current knowledge of visual-spatial cognition'

Secondary students' mental models of atoms and molecules: Implications for teaching chemistry Allan G. Harrison, & David F. Treagust (1996) Science Education Volume 80, Issue 5, pages 509–534, September 1996
Abstract part: 'This interview-based study probed 48 Grade 8–10 students' mental models of atoms and molecules and found that many of these students preferred models that are both discrete and concrete. ... Students expressed a strong preference for space-filling molecular models and their conceptions of the models used in chemistry reveal much about the difficulties that students face as they try to assimilate and accommodate scientific ideas, and terminology.'

Gilbert JK (Ed) (2005) Visualisation in Science Education, Springer
Abstract: The range of terminology used in the field of ‘visualization’ is reviewed and, in the light of evidence that it plays a central role in the conduct of science, it is argued that it should play a correspondingly important role in science education. As all visualization is of, and produces, models, an epistemology and ontology for models as a class of entities is presented. Models can be placed in the public arena by means of a series of ‘modes and sub-modes of representation’. Visualization is central to learning, especially in the sciences, for students have to learn to navigate within and between the modes of representation. It is therefore argued that students -science students’ especially - must become metacognitive in respect of visualization, that they must show what I term ‘metavisual capability’. Without a metavisual capability, students find great difficulty in being able to undertake these demanding tasks. The development of metavisual capability is discussed in both theory and practice. Finally, some approaches to identifying students’ metavisual status are outlined and evaluated. It is concluded that much more research and development is needed in respect of visualization in science education if its importance is to be recognised and its potential realised.

Matthewson (1996) Visual-Spatial Thinking: An Aspect overlooked by educators Science Education 83, 33-54.
An early article that includes the psychological aspects (such as 'vision') in our field. Well worth reading.

Wikipedia article on diagram
The article focuses on a 2D representation, and distinguishes this from illustration by restricting illustration to a drawing, painting or photograph or other form of art. In this sense, illustration is art, while a diagram is functional. There is some fuzziness with the use of technical illustration. There is clearly room for us to develop this. This page covers many examples of specific diagram forms.


The suggestions below are a start. Feel free to expand or comment on these, or ask questions.
  1. Literature survey - identify useful search terms. The literature survey has these components: a) artists' views of diagrams and illustrations; b) the nature of explanation in science; c) conventions in diagrams; d) the work of graphic artists; e) research on understanding diagrams; f) the nature of simplification.
  2. Who are our targets (teachers, pupils, parents, outsiders, policy makers)? Of course, eventually all of these are our targets but our immediate targets are teachers and pupils in the maelstrom of classroom interactions.
  3. Data collection. We have talked about noticing features in diagrams. This should be elaborated much further. When we have done this we will be able to elaborate the points below.
  4. Analysis
  5. Interpretation
  6. Conclusions and implications for practice