Offerdahl and Arneson look at textbook while sitting beside monitor with visuals on screen. Erika Offerdahl (left) with post-doctoral researcher Jessie Arneson. (Photo by Henry Moore, Jr., College of Veterinary Medicine)

By Marcia Hill Gossard, College of Veterinary Medicine

Students who study molecular biosciences can’t actually see what they are learning.

“We can never see with our eyes the things we study,” says Erika Offerdahl, a biochemist and associate professor in the WSU School of Molecular Biosciences. “It is hard to directly see beyond the subcellular level, so as students we learn through representation.”

Symbols, such as chemical formulas or schematic drawings that use arrows to show a chemical reaction are just two examples of this type of visual learning. Information also can be conveyed through graphs, cartoons or other artist renderings, or through realistic images such as a micrograph photo of a cell taken through a microscope.

Offerdahl and postdoctoral researcher Jessie Arneson wondered how undergraduate students develop the visual literacy skills needed to understand these representations and create them on their own. “No one had clearly defined what scientific visual literacy is,” says Offerdahl. “Verbal and quantitative literacy have been more well defined.”

In their research, they are asking how visual literacy is taught in the molecular life science and if students are being tested on visual material. To do that, they look at course examinations from biochemistry classes. They found that most exams have written questions, but very few images.

“Assessments in courses are mostly verbal. Graphs, realistic images like microscopy pictures of cells and schematics aren’t used very often,” says Offerdahl. “This is problematic because our exams implicitly communicate to students what is important. If we don’t require our students to use real scientific images, we’re not communicating their importance in the class or for the discipline.”

She and her colleagues not only research how visual learning is taught to students, but whether students need different skills to understand or replicate different types of representations. In other words, what visual thinking skills do students need to be visually literate and understand a graphic representation versus a schematic model?

“My job as a science instructor is to help develop the visual literacy skills in my students that will allow them to generate, make sense of, and use visual representations,” she says. “This is true for my science majors and nonmajors.”

Ultimately, by understanding the most effective ways to learn and retain visual literacy skills, their research could help improve student education in many STEM disciplines.

“The big picture of our research is helping our students develop visual literacy skills,” she says. “This means that they must be able to understand information from a scientific representation, translate between different types of visual representations, and synthesize them to communicate their findings with their colleagues.”

But for Offerdahl, learning visual literacy extends beyond the classroom. Many of her students go on to become doctors or pharmacists, rather than academic researchers, so they will need to know how to communicate well with their patients. And scientists play an important role in society, she says, so there is a need for them to better communicate their scientific research.

“In a world awash with data, the public sees visual images and may not be able to make sense of them, particularly on social media,” she says. “How scientists can best communicate to each other and to the public will help improve understanding that makes a real difference in people’s lives.”