Data visualization and educational efficiency

Posted on 01/12/2013 by


Can data visualization be used in the classroom? I recently stumbled on some research suggesting that presenting information visually may have significant benefits over text-based materials.
The BBC reports that interpreting visual data requires fewer cognitive resources than reading texts.

The results showed that when tasks were presented visually rather than using traditional text-based software applications, individuals used around 20% less cognitive resources. In other words, their brains were working a lot less hard.

Now, I am not so sure about what the BBC reports next:

As a result, they performed more efficiently, and could remember more of the information when asked later. Working in groups, they used 10% less mental resources.

I am always a little cautious about using terms like “efficiency” when it comes to the classroom—it is impossible to flatten all of the different needs and learning styles in a single classroom to a single notion of ‘efficient’ learning. Saying that, though, if the brain can process information better, then it may be retained better too—something that as a math teacher I frequently struggle with. Furthermore, I like bringing in data to the classroom, especially regarding educational or income inequalities. This tends to foster good debate in class, but sometimes the sheer amount of data can be overwhelming. As the director of the fantastic Tableau Software  notes,

“[Visualization] can help you make sense of data – I think that’s actually quite fundamental especially as the amount of data that is collected every single day is growing exponentially. I think we’re collecting more data in the last year than has ever been created in history.

If we can tap into the flexibility of the brain to interpret visual information, then maybe we can prepare students more for a data-driven future.