The Potential for Data Visualization in Education

Posted on 10/22/2011 by

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I have been spending my free time during the last couple of days putting together a paper for an upcoming e-learning conference in Austin, TX (Society for Information Technology & Teacher Education).  The theme, which at least I find potentially very interesting, is using data visualization in education, both for teaching and assessment.

A colleague and I have been using various online tools–from wikispaces to Facebook apps–to supplement our classes and teaching strategies for some time, but a few weeks ago I got the idea to incorporate some data visualization into my classroom.  I keep track of student data, such as attendance and grades, in a spreadsheet on google docs.  One day, two students asked in close proximity whether they, ‘got an attendance grade.’  I told them that they did, but I realized that I also intuitively knew that if they came to class, they would also perform better on their assignments.  So while my students were taking a quiz, I quickly cobbled together a scatterplot and line of best fit of their grades vs. attendance, and threw it up on the projector.

(Note that this isn’t the exact graph I used; I just don’t want to publish actual student data)

Students were pretty interested and asked a few questions about their progress, so I showed them another chart from the beginning of the year (smaller sample, fewer points, but same idea). The reaction was awesome.  Even though this is an English class, I think it worked really well to get students invested in the idea that they have to be actively present to get a good grade.  Numerous students started coming to my office hours after that demonstration, and it has become sort of a weekly ritual to look at our classroom progress.

This relates pretty well to my general theme that a visual can tell a story much better than just numbers (or, for that matter, telling students) can.  From our proposal:

Visualization tools provide a platform for student and instructor engagement, an opportunity to gain insight into the nature of a problem and discover a new understanding of a specific problem. In theory, visual resources enhance cognition by expanding human working memory, representing large amounts of data in a condensed space, and enhancing the recognition of patterns (Card et.al).

I hope that in the next few days I can talk a little more about what I have been finding in the field of data visualization and data mining in education.

Stuart Card, “Information visualization,” in A. Sears and J.A. Jacko (eds.), The Human-Computer Interaction Handbook: Fundamentals, Evolving Technologies, and Emerging Applications, Lawrence Erlbaum Assoc Inc, 2007.

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