Designing a Twist on Active Learning Strategies

Asian woman pointing out information on a laptop during a College of DuPage Poster SessionLast week, I shared a series of active learning strategies focused on design principles, related to a research poster project that students are working on this month. That activity inspired me to consider how I could rethink active learning strategies to discuss design and visual rhetoric.

The result is my new versions of three activities, suited for analysis of a visual document design or a visual artifact (such as a poster). For each task, I explain how the original learning task is used, and then I follow with the prompt that I created for my twist on the strategy.

Active Learning Tasks

Muddiest and Clearest Points

Original: Muddiest-point and clearest-point tasks ask students to reflect on recent information from the class and identify the relevant ideas or concepts. The muddiest point is the idea or concept that the student understands least while the clearest point is the idea or concept that the student understands most fully.

The Twist: Examine the image or document and identify the muddiest point and the clearest point in the visual design. For the muddiest point, identify the place in the visual where the image, the text, or other aspects are hardest to identify and understand. It might be a place where the image is blurred, faded, overexposed, or in shadows. It could be a place where an element is small, cropped off or otherwise incomplete. Once you identify the muddiest point, consider what it contributes to the overall image or document and why it is minimized in comparison to other aspects of the image or document.

For the clearest point, look for the opposite place, where the image, the text, or other aspect is clearest and easiest to identify and understand. It might be a place that it larger, sharply focused, brighter, or highlighted in some way. Once you identify the clearest point, consider what it contributes to the overall image or document and why it stands out so clearly in comparison to the other aspects of the image or document.

Four Corners

Original: This active learning strategy relies on the physical layout of the classroom. The teacher sets up a station—with a discussion topic, problem to solve, or issue to debate—in each of the room’s four corners. Students are divided into four groups and rotate through the stations, or they visit only one station and then share the corner’s discussion with the full class.

The Twist: Focus on the four corners of the image or document you are examining. Label them as Top-Left, Top-Right, Bottom-Right, and Bottom-Left. Think about what appears in each corner—text, color, drawings, photographs, shadows, and so forth. In addition to considering what appears in each corner, reflect on aspects such as the size of the elements. Take into account how the content of the four corners relates to the rest of the image or document and how the corners relate to one another. After your analysis of the four corners, hypothesize what the corners contribute to the overall visual design.

Background Knowledge Probe

Original: Background knowledge tasks can take various forms, from freewriting about a previous lesson or experience to a scavenger hunt. The teacher either asks a question that will trigger students to recall prior knowledge about the topic, or the teacher can set up situations that require prior knowledge to complete a task. This strategy tells the teacher what students already know, so she can avoid reviewing information unnecessarily. Further, it helps students recall concepts and ideas that a new lesson will draw upon.

The Twist: Take the idea of a background knowledge probe literally. Examine the image or document, and focus on the background of the design. How does the background differ from the rest of the image or document? Does it complement the foreground? Does it provide a contrast? Is it a simple, blank canvas, or does it add information to the message? Based on your examination of the image or document, explain how the background contributes to the overall visual.

Final Thoughts

Like the active learning strategies that I shared last week, the three active learning strategies above ask students to look at the design of an image or document from different perspectives. By focusing on a specific area of the visual message, students isolate how the various parts of the visual contribute to its overall message.

Do you use active learning strategies in the classroom? How do you ask students to examine the way that visual design contributes to a message? If you have classroom activities to share, I would love to hear from you. Please leave a comment below to tell me about your strategies.

Image credit: See Writing Differently 2018 7 by COD Newsroom on Flickr, used under a CC BY 2.0 license.

This post originally published on the Bedford Bits blog.

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