University of Minnesota
interdisciplinary studies of writing
center for writing

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Publications abstract: Evaluating Students' Ability to Integrate Written and Visual Communication

walter atriumPhilip J. Gersmehl, Geography
Catherine M. Lockwood, Research Assistant

We are developing criteria for assessing writing skills of students and the applicability of written assignments in an introductory level geography course (US & Canada). This course usually has an enrollment of 175 to 250 students per quarter. Our proposal has two elements of research: 1) to determine ways to present instructions so that students clearly understand how to meld spatial ideas and graphical methods into their written arguments; and 2) to measure the degree to which students are able to integrate written and graphic text.

Graphics are a powerful means of communicating ideas that text alone may not adequately convey. Graphics, in the context of geography, are more than simple illustrations. Geography combines written text with graphic text to explain spatial relationships. One of the most effective ways to portray spatial data is with maps (a graphic language with its own conventional symbols, grammatical rules, and semantic overtones).

Several alternative instructions that build upon three previous projects were prepared and tested winter quarter 1993. These course projects are intended to develop an understanding of graphic text, along with the ability to read, analyze, and then explain map patterns through clear, concise written language. The instructions for the first project were a two-page handout. No formal explanation of the instructions was given, but examples and references to project elements were given in several lectures. The second project also included a two-page handout, supplemented by a poster exhibit. The display showed examples of effective integration of text and writing, proper use of color and cartographic techniques, and acceptable ways to calculate and adjust data sets. Students were given a two-page set of written instructions plus a thirty-minute formal classroom explanation for the third project.

We developed forms to assess student performance in five specific areas: research, writing style, selection and description of analytical tools, integration of maps and other graphic texts, and bibliographic skills. Because of class size, a set of criteria and standards for uniform grading by teaching assistants was developed and tested. We are now evaluating the effectiveness of these criteria and student response to these projects.

Preliminary evaluation of student work and method of instructions suggest that written instructions should be reinforced with some formal classroom explanation. The visual presentation enhanced student performance. Additional graphic displays would benefit students as well as aid the professor and teaching assistants with visual examples of project components.

Based on the original objectives and preliminary findings of our research, we expect two outcomes: 1) students will develop a graphic vocabulary and a set of skills that can be used in other courses or applied fields; and 2) students will gain an alternative perspective on writing techniques (i.e. integration of graphic text and written text).