Do I have to draw you a picture?
I love the podcast 99% Invisible, which looks at the design of everything from buildings to flags, to coins, even election ballots. Let's face it: the butterfly ballot design for the 2000 presidential election in Florida was fairly consequential. Design matters.
If I had the money I would love to hire designers for all of my course materials. There are just so many ways my stuff could be better, smarter and more effective at eliminating the confusion and white noise that forever surround teaching and learning.
But even if you're not a designer (and I'm certainly not), thinking visually can increase the clarity and effectiveness of assignment instructions and performance expectations. Case in point: I like title pages on student papers. Everything about a paper is part of its rhetoric: the title, the white space, the subheads, the pagination. So it frustrates me when students don't put thought into a title and instead write something like "Paper 3." Good titles reinforce the thesis and can pull a shaggy piece of writing a bit more into focus.
But for years my students would forget to make title pages. It didn't matter how many times I reminded them. After I started getting visual on the assignment instructions, it finally made a difference:
Citation is another bugaboo that a good diagram can help to clear up on assignment instructions, especially if they're citing unfamiliar genres like poetry or Shakespeare:
As I said, my design skills are pretty crude. It's mostly arrows and flow charts, but don't underestimate the value of arrows and charts to help to break down complex tasks into more concrete steps. My students, for example, often fail to answer all of an essay prompt. I used to think they were avoiding the harder parts, but I've come to believe it's far more likely that they are exhibiting "field dependence," a tendency to fixate on individual pieces of data rather than the whole (i.e., not seeing the forest for the trees). Good critical thinkers tend to be more field independent and getting visual can help students to improve this ability.
Below is an in-class exercise that breaks out the components of an essay prompt into the thinking skills needed to answer it well. I ask students to use colored pencils to code different kinds of skills (e.g., comparison, summary, analysis, etc.).
Here's a piece that I need to make more visual, but it's a great exercise for promoting field independence. It's just a bingo board made up of quotes and ideas taken from the first two semester of our honors programs. In groups students have to work out a path with string and pins that moves from top to bottom by explaining a coherent, articulable connection or disconnection between adjacent authors or ideas. For example, Virginia Woolf argued women needed a room of their own and Descartes isolated himself in a room to analyze the self, while Emerson noted that he was never alone even when he was in his room reading. To be truly alone he needed to go into nature... Walt Whitman...
I suppose I could just use the authors' mugs for this game, but it really drives home the idea that I want them to construct and support their own connections rather than spit back the connections I mentioned in class.
My ideal syllabus would be a menu with lots of pictures of the entrees. My ideal set of instructions for an assignment would be a small graphic novel or a comic book. You know, here's a student sitting at a desk and getting the assignment. Next panel, the alarm going off and they remember something's due. Next panel, they're screaming at a library computer screen and the helpful reference librarian walks up...
For a long time, too, I wanted to make a short, funny animated film that I could show before handing out course evaluations forms. It's my hunch that students don't fully understand how important evaluations are to us and the institution. They may not even understand where the evaluations end up. I don't have any animation skills, so I settled for, alas, PowerPoint. Still, even this tired old presentation technology did a better job of explaining the process than me delivering the same information as I passed out the sheets and number two pencils.