By: Kristin Hunter-Thomson
The blank stare…
You have supported and facilitated your students through their experiments, they have collected the data, and you feel like you are on a roll. And then the momentum comes to a halt when you ask them what graph they should use. Some start to stress and guess at what the “right” answer is that you are looking for, some look away in hopes that someone else will answer for them, and others just stare blankly.
Sound familiar? Let’s overcome that blank stare!
Teaching Graph Choice
When working with data, what graph we use is dependent upon, at the broadest sense, three factors:
- what question we are asking of our data,
- what data we have, and
- who we are communicating to with our data.
These are all interconnected. You can think of it kind of like those good old four-legged school desks. If one is off, or worse missing, the whole desk won’t work the way it is designed to function.
But what do desks have to do with getting our students to stop blankly staring at us? We have to make sure we are teaching them not only all four aspects of data visualization (question, data, visualization type, and who) but also how they relate and connect to one another.
All too often, for very understandable reasons (aka lack of time), we forget that our students as data novices do not make these connections on their own. So, let’s take a step back for a moment and think about how we can get them there.
Take a different approach to teaching graphs
Tip 1: Teach them the question not the chart
Rather than teaching your students how to execute each graph type first, teach them what kinds of questions we ask with data. Or put another way, rather than asking them “what graph type should we use?” think about asking them “what is it that we are trying to show/investigate/look at with these data?” This flips the conversation to be about the process not the product. After all, the data visualization is just the visual product to help you better interpret and analyze your data.
Then consider using resources like those provided below to help them make the connection from question/process to what graph type they may want to use:
Tip 2: Expose them to a range of choices, not “the” choice
To reinforce that what graph you use is dependent upon the three other interconnected items, we need to start presenting our students with choices of graphs to use rather than just the one graph to make. They will learn that there are a range of graphs you can use to look at for example relationships, and how which one you pick is dependent on the question you are asking, the data you have, and who you are communicating to with the data. They gain the skills over time (and as a heads up it takes a long time to get this one) that every designer of a graph has had to make the same choice. There is no “right” answer, as long as you can support your decision with reason.
Check out resources like those provided below to help your students build these skills:
Enjoy building those data literacy skills and let us know how it goes!