Connecting the Dots: Visual Learning in an Election Year

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The application of data visualization to present polling data in this year’s election has given Dr. Derek Bruff a renewed appreciation for visual learning. Expanded access to these types of tools, Dr. Bruff says, can be valuable resources for instructors and students as a way to deepen their learning in the classroom. We caught up with Dr. Bruff ahead of this week’s POD Network Conference, where he will discuss ways to use concept maps and other visual learning tools at a session sponsored by ACUE.

Dr. Bruff, director of Vanderbilt University’s Center for Teaching, is an expert consultant for ACUE’s Course in Effective Teaching Practices. He is featured in the module Using Concept Maps and Other Visualization Tools.

On what inspires his work in educational development.

Some folks in this line of work are really drawn to the faculty development piece of it, working with faculty members over time, and helping them grow and develop. I like that, but for me the motivation has been always been the student learning experience. If I can work with instructors, and help them create more meaningful and engaging learning experiences for their students, then I feel I can have a pretty big, but indirect, impact on a lot of students.

I think back to my days as a student in classes that weren’t engaging and didn’t seem relevant. I just kind of slogged through. I had other classes that were interesting and relevant, and class time was used really productively. I want more students to have an experience where they walk into a college classroom and they’re excited to be there and learn. I know what a key role the instructor plays in that, so if I can help instructors adopt teaching practices that engage their students more deeply in the learning process, I know there will be a big impact there.

On his advice for new directors for teaching and learning.

There is a lot of value in consulting one-on-one with instructors and really trying to understand—at the individual level—what teaching looks like for each instructor. What are their goals? What’s easy? What’s challenging? That individual kind of consultation continues to be the kind of bread-and-butter work of my teaching center, and I think that needs to be a big piece of what you do as a teaching center.

The other piece of advice I would offer, and this is one of the things that we’ve had a lot of success with at Vanderbilt, is to reach out to individual departments and try to work with them to figure out what teaching looks like in that department and figure out how you can be helpful to their instructors. You may find that in one department there are a lot of instructors who are struggling to get students talking in class. In another department it might be a completely different need, like trying to organize very large classes. Inclusive teaching and diversity in the classroom comprise another issue with which faculty may be grappling.

So working with individual faculty is an important source of information and context for your job, but you also need to be thinking about how you can partner with a department to meet needs on a broader basis.


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On the importance of teaching digital and informational literacy.

We want to teach our students to think critically, right? On some level, this is why we have colleges and universities. We’re preparing students to leave us and do something interesting and useful with themselves.

So we have an opportunity to help our students become more informed and more reflective and critically thoughtful citizens in our culture. And I think for a lot of students that making those connections helps them see the relevance of the material in the courses they’re taking.

I’m teaching a statistics course right now, and so we’re going to talk about margins of errors in polling and what that means and how we interpret that. Not every topic in stats is going to have such an obvious connection to current events, but I think it’s important to look for those connections because it helps students to be more informed citizens when they leave. It also helps show them the relevance of the material that they’re studying.


More from the ACUE Expert Series: Saundra McGuire: Strategies to Teach Students How to Learn


On what the election year has taught him about visual learning.

This being an election year, I’ve been really enjoying some of the data visualizations that have come out of places like FiveThirtyEight, which does a lot of aggregation of polling data. There are so many interesting examples of data visualization available now, and I think there is a need for students to make sense of those things and develop skills for interpreting various data visualizations and graphics. Part of it comes back to this idea of thinking critically about the news you consume: Some infographics can shed light on a phenomenon, and sometimes they actually hide the story or tell one story at the expense of another.

So this is just a reminder that it’s helpful to have visual tools to consider in our teaching. Sometimes we default to the verbal in many ways, where we think “Let’s tell our students, let’s explain this to them.” Instead, we could think “I wonder if there’s a good visual for this?” Fortunately, there is so much available now that we may not even have to create anything.

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