A visually statistical wonderland

I love data. I love stats. Last week we had parent conferences. In our school this is four hours on Thursday evening and then a full morning (8am-1pm) on the Friday. In order to keep track of who comes to parent meetings we sign our names by students when they visit in a master spreadsheet.

A simple way to keep track of visiting parents. Names may have been made anonymous…

As Friday went on the crowds got lower and lower and I notice the Computer Science teacher had done something. On each tab (one for each grade level) he had made a quick algorithm to count how many students each teacher had seen. Challenge accepted. Going into full on nerd mode I make a new tab, and start to work with the data the CS guy had already generated, having sheets add the values together for each teacher, sifting out the repeat names and culminating in a ranking of all teachers and how many students they had seen. I came second (there were discussions afterwards that percentage of students seen being a more useful statistic, but not all that data was at hand and it was time to go home!).

I came second with 57 interviews!

One of my favorite forms of data representation is in infographics. Infographics are ways of conveying information in a largely graphical manner. They can display quantitative or qualitative data but they should usually describe as much as they can visually. They are good for learning because of how well we absorb visual information in comparison to text. Take the below example, a trap students frequently fall into in my subject area. Diagrams in science are an outrageously easy manner in which to communicate to the reader how the experiment should be set up. This has all the hallmarks of good science, building reliability into those experiments which seek to replicate the results of the original report. However so many students every year decide to go the wordy route. My conclusion as to why is that diagrams are harder work to make, despite the fact that actually (with the correct tools) they aren’t.

Every year I give my half my students a diagram, and half of them a written description of how to set up an experiment. Which do you think do a better job?

Personally I love the way inforgraphics represent numbers, and how they make almost any topic at least a little bit interesting. Numbers are scary to many but by expressing statistics in terms of pictures, you get people more comfortable with the idea of using numbers to communicate ideas or meaning. Its like slipping a pill into the dogs dinner to help the dog eat it, presentation is key. That’s not to say all infographics are good. When researching this blog post I started looking for things I could use in my classroom immediately. I found things like this infographic on thermal energy, which whilst very informative does not make good use of images to convey the information – I would call it more a poster than an infographic. I found this infographic on internal energy which is also much more like a poster than anything else. Infographics are eye catching, and they use different methods of imagery to convey information. Most importantly they make a greater use of images than text, which is where these two examples fall down.

So instead of just using an infographic in my teaching, why not have my students make an infographic of their own? This was a fortuitous time for this assignment, as I have just gotten to the point in semester one where I give presentation based assessments. For one class the infographic would be perfect for the topic they are currently on. They are looking at thermal physics, a topic light on math and heavy on concepts. Conceptual physics is great for something like an infographic because it is generally easier (in my experience) to communicate concepts visually than in text or speech. It is at least easier to learn conceptual physics visually, so even if the students find it hard to communicate it is still a good candidate for an infographic. The bad news seems to be they haven’t done an infographic before. So I found this:

An infographic on creating infographics… Created by Customer Magnetism and chopped into two by me to make it fit better. Original here.

An infographic seems like an excellent tool for explaining what an infographic is. However students knowing what one is may not be enough to help them create an authentic piece of work for themselves. Part of the problem is lack of exposure to different methods of representing data (I would expect some degree of remixing from the graph above- which is OK, but preferably not from every student!). Whilst students are exposed to more graphing styles now than ever before, much of what we do in Maths and Science is still focused on pie charts, scatter graphs and line charts. So to help fix this problem I will also share with the students an amazing resource by visual-literacy.org, which is a periodic table of different visual presentation techniques. There are a few great things about this:

  • It has it all, the whole shebang in terms of data visualization. A smorgasbord of styles from tables and bar charts to cartoons and ‘heaven and hell’ charts.
  • There are examples for each of the graphs so students can see how to set them up (although some of the examples are really old (check out continuum in the top left).

We will also look to use other infographics to see what works and what doesn’t, and potentially (to take them out of their comfort zones) ban bar charts, line graphs and scatter diagrams for their first attempt!

I look forward to using these resources in my class. I find students to be much more enthusiastic about this kind of project than they are tests, essays or labs- and where there is enthusiasm, there is learning.


Thanks so much to Michael Leyland who found loads of great links for his blog, that I learned from… and then nicked to help improve my own work! 🙂



One thought on “A visually statistical wonderland

  1. Alex, cool stuff! Infographics are great and “graphical” anything is usually better than 1000 words.

    Its a neat exercise to give some students written instruction and then give the other students a diagram to follow. I have been teaching students to use Arduino and make circuits etc and I notice that as soon as I show them the diagram of the circuit to build the lightbulbs start turning on, pun intended!

    It has me thinking quite a bit about how I could visually represent other things that mystify students. By the way have you used Algodoo? I am excited to get the kids visualizing and simulating Newtons Laws of Physics. Minecraft can do some of this too. Visual seeing a result of a simulation is even more interesting I think than an infographic in this regard.

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