How and why to use visualization in your class

Drawing pictures is not just for kids


Drawings help students create meaning, make comparisons, see patterns, group similarities, and differences, and highlight important information. Drawing or curating any visual requires that students organize their thoughts, consider how ideas fit together and make an effort to represent what they think to others.[1] That’s hard work.

Asking students to create or draw a picture of a class concept means that they have to struggle a little.[2] In creating a visual they have to ask themselves a series of questions: What do I know or think I know? What information should I highlight? What should I leave out? And how do I represent my ideas to others? The struggle is well worth the effort: studies show that drawing or curating an image is a memory strategy – students are more likely to remember what they learned because of the effort required and because the visual becomes associated with that effort.

A picture is worth many words.


In your class, you can have students post pictures and videos and create diagrams to represent what they know. Below are several ways to use visualization in your class:

  • Ask students to make concept maps. Concept maps are drawings of a series of concepts and their relationships. Drawing a concept map is an effective technique for making sense of multiple concepts, allowing students to explore what they know and deepen their understanding of how concepts connect. The process of diagraming forces students to decide which concepts to highlight, how to show connections and what to leave out of the picture. This is an exercise that can be sent to a group of students or to individual students and can serve as a peer review exercise — students can view a variety of maps and discuss what it means to decide what to represent, out of the many possible interpretations.

concept map.png

Source: Daley & Torre, 2010. Figure 1. A concept map of a concept map. Retrieved from:

  • Ask students to create context through pictures. Asking students to explain a concept in their own words and ground that context in a real-world example promotes understanding. When you ask students to explain something to their peers and post a picture related to the concept, students have to make an effort to organize their thoughts, summarize what they know, and consider how the concept relates to the real world[3]. For instance, in an Entrepreneurship course, you can ask: Post a picture of a startup whose logo reminds you of their mission. What is their mission and what is the connection?
fed ex.png


  • Ask students to fill out an existing diagram. Many fields have standard documents or forms to fill out. Having students fill out these documents and posting pictures of their answers works as a comparative exercise — students can fill out their own forms and then compare their work with peer work, surfacing gaps in their process and reconsidering their viewpoints. For example in an Entrepreneurship class, they could fill out a form explaining how the parts of a business fit together.

Source: Wikimedia Commons. Retrieved from:

  • Ask students to consider a variety of lenses. One picture can represent many perspectives. You can ask a group of students to post a picture of a leader and then use different stakeholder lenses to analyze the leader. For example, you can ask a group of students to post a picture of an iconic business leader and report out how this leader is viewed through a variety of lenses: customers, investors, and employees.
Jeff Bezos.jpg

  • Ask students to create timelines. Creating timelines allows students to visually place events in chronological order, illuminating the relationships between events. As students create timelines, they are prompted to revisit previous lessons and surface connections between events, placing events in chronological order and noting casual relationships.[4] You can also ask students to comment on peer timelines, exploring any differences in the interpretation of significant events.

Source: A Timeline of Art Movements. Retrieved from:

  • Ask students to create memes. You can ask students to create a meme of a class concept. In creating the meme students will need to consider the most important elements of the concept and how to represent that concept to their peers. The process of filtering out and recognizing the important elements of a concept and crossing modalities (into the visual) to represent that concept requires revisiting previous lessons and is an exercise in retrieval practice. Memes have the added benefit of creating communities by signaling belonging[5] — members of the class community understand what their memes mean because they have developed a collective set of ideas.

twitter meme.png

Source: Gantman, Ana. (2019, May 21). On the fundamental attribution error. [Twitter Post]. Retrieved from

  • Ask students to draw visual explanations. Asking students to create visual explanations to explain scientific processes promotes learning; students who provide visual explanations for processes generally outperform students who do not.[6] In creating visual explanations, students have to pick out the important elements of the process and organize those elements – a higher-order thinking skill that requires analysis (how does this work) and synthesis (this is how it all fits together).
visual explanation.png

Source: Bobek, E., & Tversky, B. (2016). Creating visual explanations improves learning. Cognitive Research: Principles and Implications, 1(1), 27


  1. [1]

    Tversky, B. (2019). Mind in Motion: How Action Shapes Thought. Hachette UK

  2. [2]

    Schwartz, D. L., Tsang, J. M., & Blair, K. P. (2016). The ABCs of how we learn: 26 scientifically proven approaches, how they work, and when to use them. WW Norton & Company

  3. [3]

    Bisra, K., Liu, Q., Nesbit, J. C., Salimi, F., & Winne, P. H. (2018). Inducing self-explanation: A meta-analysis.

  4. [4]

    Bruf, D., & Picard D. (2016) Digital Timelines. Vanderbilt University Center for Teaching. Retrieved from:

  5. [5]

    McCulloch, G. (2019). Because Internet: Understanding the new rules of language. Riverhead Books.

  6. [6]

    Bobek, E., & Tversky, B. (2016). Creating visual explanations improves learning. Cognitive Research: Principles and Implications, 1(1), 27.