Faculty Focus


Get Visual: A Technique for Improving Student Writing

One of the ongoing challenges for my composition students is the task of narrowing a broad, generalized topic into a more particular, focused topic for a short research essay. To help them develop this skill, I now prescribe a broad topic for everyone to use in the first research essay. Over several class sessions, we work collaboratively to explore the general topic, identify more particular subtopics, and develop research strategies to investigate these subtopics as possible subject matter.

This semester I required all of the students to write about our city, Anderson, Indiana. In addition to all of the other “process” assignments I use to teach my students inquiry, research strategies and drafting techniques, I recently added an art project to the mix. The assignment was simple: create a poster that gives a “face” to the city of Anderson. I told the students to be creative in their design and to represent visually the key discoveries they’ve made about their specialized topics. I also encouraged them to suggest the focus and purpose for their essay through the content or design of the poster. I promised to give each student 30 seconds to offer comments about his or her poster to the class.

In “Design Principles for Visual Communication,” Maneesh Agrawala, Wilmot Li and Floraine Berthouzoz insist that communication through visual images is “fundamental to the process of exploring concepts and disseminating information.” Because I teach writing, I tend to be preoccupied primarily with discovery and communication through language. However, the liberal arts academy in which I teach reminds me that the relationship between the humanities, the sciences and the arts is intimate and profound. “The most effective visualizations capitalize on the human facility for processing visual information, thereby improving comprehension, memory, and inference” (Agrawala, Li and Floraine 60). That’s exactly what I was trying to accomplish with my students: capitalize on their ability to “comprehend” their own discoveries and to communicate those discoveries and rhetorical ambitions to an audience clearly.

The posters students created in response to the assignment were impressive—not in their artistic design but in their clarity. Nearly every student was able to articulate an appropriately narrow focus AND a specific purpose for the essay project. Making the poster seemed to help them identify the key ideas or categories of information they would include in the paper.

Using words, symbols, clip art, photographs and drawings (some very crude, some skillful), the students successfully identified relationships among the bodies of information or ideas they had generated through research and exploratory writing. Many of the students even reflected on their research process in their comments about the poster, using phrases like “I thought X was true about Anderson, but I discovered . . .” or “I think readers would be surprised to learn X about this city . . .” or “My goal for the essay is to persuade readers that . . .” Although I gave specific instructions for the poster, I gave no specific instructions for the commentary. The students’ statements suggested to me that the act of translating ideas and information into a visual “essay” helped them take control of their own writing goals.

For the next essay, I plan to use this poster technique in lieu of a traditional outline. Organizing content visually and symbolically may be just the trick to helping student “comprehend” a logical structure for their arguments.

Reference: Agrawala, Maneesh, Wilmot Li and Floraine Berthouzoz. “Design Principles for Visual Communication.” Communications of the ACM 54.4 (2011): 60-69. Academic Search
Premier. Web. 3 Oct. 2012.

Deborah Miller Fox is professor of composition, creative writing and literature at Anderson University, a liberal arts college in central Indiana.