Creating and interpreting visual displays of data is an important component of
quantitative and scientific literacy. We examined a figure-analysis activity called
“Figure of the Day” (FotD) and its impact on undergraduate biology students’
figure creation skills. The treatment FotD activity required that students interpret
a figure with some contextual information missing (e.g., titles, labels, legends).
The control FotD activity required that students interpret a figure with no
missing contextual information. Students in both the treatment and control
groups made significant gains in their figure creation abilities. Bootstrapping of
the Wilcoxon signed-rank effect sizes, r, shows large effect sizes for both the
treatment (r ± SE = 0.708 ± 0.034) and control (r ± SE = 0.688 ± 0.0395)
activities. Students most often reported that the activity’s positive aspects were
increases in their figure interpretation and creation skills. Commonly reported
negative aspects of the activity were that it took too much time and the figures
were confusing. Students in the treatment group more often reported that the
activity was enjoyable. This suggests that regular interaction with figures in the
style of the FotD activity can improve students’ figure creation skills in a
meaningful and enjoyable way.
Key Words: Undergraduate coursework; graph interpretation; graph creation;
scientific literacy; quantitative literacy.
Many undergraduate science courses aim to improve students’
quantitative and scientific literacy, which are skills in which students utilize
mathematical thinking and scientific understanding to make decisions
related to real-world situations (Steen, 2004; Bray Speth et al., 2010;
Gormally et al., 2012). In particular, students must call upon both
quantitative and scientific literacy in order to analyze, interpret, and
create graphs and figures (Shah & Hoeffner, 2002; Bray Speth et al.,
2010). Biology courses and textbooks frequently use figures and other
visual representations of data, biological concepts, and processes in an
effort to aid student learning (Shah & Hoeffner, 2002). Graphs and
figures have a high cognitive load for students because they require
students to think deeply and analyze the visual representation of data
to determine the quantitative relationships between variables (Bowen
et al., 1999; Offerdahl et al., 2017). Creating graphs and figures is also
a challenging activity for students. Choosing the correct type of figure
to display data, scaling the graph axes, and including accurate titles,
labels, and legends are skills that college science students often lack
(McFarland, 2010). Mastering these skills to be able to communicate
clear representations of visual data is a key ability for future scientists
Biology course instructors should be scaffolding students’
interactions with graphs and figures (Offerdahl et al., 2017).
Improving students’ ability to link visual displays of information
with biological concepts and processes requires practice interacting
with figures and graphs. That practice can take many forms. Pedagogical approaches that lead students through the process of scientific inquiry are often promoted as important components of
developing scientific literacy (Wood, 2003; Glazer, 2011).
Inquiry-style activities require students to ask and refine questions,
utilize background information, and make and communicate conclusions (Glazer, 2011). Providing students with inquiry-style
opportunities to practice figure interpretation and creation skills
may thus bolster scientific and quantitative literacy.
Here, we describe an inquiry-style intervention in which undergraduate biology students engage in a challenging and puzzle-like
figure-interpretation activity called “Figure of the Day” (FotD). This
activity responds to the need to provide activities focusing on visual
data that scaffold students’ learning, involve active inquiry, and
incorporate higher levels of thinking than memorization. We report
on the outcome of the activity for students’ figure creation skills and
their perceptions of the activity.
We implemented the FotD activity as part of a pilot research study to
examine its efficacy in improving students’ figure creation skills.
The American Biology Teacher, Vol. 81, No. 5, pp. 317–325, ISSN 0002-7685, electronic ISSN 1938-4211. © 2019 National Association of Biology Teachers. All rights
reserved. Please direct all requests for permission to photocopy or reproduce article content through the University of California Press’s Reprints and Permissions web page,
www.ucpress.edu/journals.php?p=reprints. DOI: https://doi.org/10.1525/abt.2019.81.5.317.
THE AMERICAN BIOLOGY TEACHER THE FIGURE OF THE DAY
L E A R N I N G The Figure of the Day:
A Classroom Activity to Improve
Students’ Figure Creation Skills
• CAITLIN K. KIRBY, ARIETTA FLEMING-DAVIES, PETER J. T. WHITE