Conceptualizing and Communicating Data with Multimodal Learning

This week we will be looking at helping students interpret and communicate data through multimodal learning.



In “Writing, Visualizing, and Research Reports,” Penny Kinnear describes how she developed and implemented a third year writing course through combining mediational and multimodal learning. Following Lev Vygotsky’s social constructivism, Kinnear proposes that tools and signs mediate our experiences. Within this two-fold theoretical framework, meaning-making is the result of sifting the original thought through the communicative tools (such as language or visual vocabulary) that the writer or speaker has access to. The writer’s original thought is separate from, and must always be translated into, words through these tools. Paralleling writing-to-learn, Kinnear even sees the revision process as mediational since the first draft mediates the writers own understanding of the project.

This mediational understanding of learning is also relational. The individual may use language to create a textual artifact, but that very language is perpetually co-created. Consequently, writing in any mode is a “socially meaningful activity” that relies on the social context of the writer. Within such social contexts, different modes are often used to facilitate meaning-making. Kinnear notes that even though the current academic system prioritizes written reports, visual elements were part of literacy education and are part of students’ everyday lives as consumers.

Kinnear’s main learning objective for students was to practice conceptualizing and communicating data. As a final project in her course, students would create an academic version of the data and an “alternative version” that was directed toward a non-academic audience. To accomplish her learning objectives, she underwent activities to read data for patterns that could be rendered as concepts.

For one of the in-class activities, students designed mind maps based on their data. As part of the context set, Kinnear’s co-teacher made sure to distinguish the mind map exercise from collage projects that students may have more experience with. While collages aspire toward operating aesthetically as pictures, mind maps visualize relationships between ideas. These mind maps enabled some students to reconceptualize the ways they approached their research, even opening up new possibilities for research questions. However, other students merely re-presented their data or academic writing in rhetorically effective ways without using the exercise as a chance for re-vision.

Kinnear ends by considering why the alternative reports were someone below expectations and suggesting opportunities for future research. For most of the alternative reports, students adopted journalistic genres, such as newspaper articles. She notes that the students may not have developed their visual vocabulary as much as their verbal, which seems to be the consequence of the priority given to academic genres in higher education. Ultimately, a multimodal pedagogy, according to Kinnear, assists student writers in reflecting on their own research process and understanding how they can adapt it to different genres and contexts.

Single Frame of Learning Theory Mind Map

Click for Sample Mind Map

Pedagogical Application

Kinnear notes our pedagogy on teaching “students to produce visuals and the underlying criteria for making those kinds of decisions has not developed in the same way students were and are taught how to make rhetorical decisions about their writing.” As consumers of visual rhetoric, students may still not be ready to think rhetorically when designing a multimodal project without training. The following lesson offers rhetorical analysis of document design as a way to help students build their visual vocabulary (through recognizing the effective choices of others) and unite it to their preexisting familiarity with design principles as consumers.

Context Set: Now that we’ve refreshed ourselves on the five principles of design, it’s your turn to be tertiary readers. You are going to evaluate the effectiveness of documents that other people have designed.

Voting Activity: Have a selection of documents on a PowerPoint, two per slide. With each slide, students will vote for the better designed document. For each document, volunteers will explain their choice with at least one of the principles of design as evidence.

Context Set: We’ve seen how design decisions can support or hinder readability. Now we’re going to examine larger documents in our project groups. As you look over these documents in your teams, keep in mind that each one is intended to enable its users to complete a task. This means that for each one there is a primary reader who takes action and a context of use.

Document Design Analysis: Choosing from one of the manuals provided (I used an auto manual, a cook book, and a game rulebook), students will evaluate the design decisions of the authors in light of the document’s context of use and primary readers. By the end of the activity, each group will describe the book to the others in mini-presentations.

Discussion Questions

  1. Kinnear proposes that “images, symbols, diagrams, and pictures along with text could be additional mediational means students might use to make sense of their research data.” How would you incorporate multimodal strategies specifically to assist students in interpreting data? How would your pedagogical decisions differ (or remain the same) across disciplines, such as English majors working with evidence from texts or a social science major engaging in quantifiable research?
  2. Kinnear seems to contrast mind maps that produced aesthetically pleasing presentations unfavorably to those that led to further re-visioning of the research question. What learning goals would you design for this exercise? What would be your feedback for a writer who produced an impressive project but didn’t seem to benefit from the writing-to-learn aspect of the exercise?
  3. According to Jay Lemke, “Hypermodality is more than muti-modality in just the way hypertext is more than plain text. It is not simply that we juxtapose images, text, and sound; we design multiple interconnection among them, both potential and explicit.” How would you design lessons and assessments to nudge students toward hypermodality?

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