Exploring Middle School Students' Representational Competence in Science: Development and Verification of a Framework for Learning with Visual Representations

University of Victoria, Canada

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Scientific knowledge is constructed and communicated through a range of forms in addition to verbal language. Maps, graphs, charts, diagrams, formulae, models, and drawings are just some of the ways in which science concepts can be represented. Representational competence—an aspect of visual literacy that focuses on the ability to interpret, transform, and produce visual representations—is a key component of science literacy and an essential part of science reading and writing. To date, however, most research has examined learning from representations rather than learning with representations.

This dissertation consisted of three distinct projects that were related by a common focus on learning from visual representations as an important aspect of scientific literacy. The first project was the development of an exploratory framework that is proposed for use in investigations of students constructing and interpreting multimedia texts. The exploratory framework, which integrates cognition, metacognition, semiotics, and systemic functional linguistics, could eventually result in a model that might be used to guide classroom practice, leading to improved visual literacy, better comprehension of science concepts, and enhanced science literacy because it emphasizes distinct aspects of learning with representations that can be addressed though explicit instruction.

The second project was a metasynthesis of the research that was previously conducted as part of the Explicit Literacy Instruction Embedded in Middle School Science project (Pacific CRYSTAL, http://www.educ.uvic.ca/pacificcrystal). Five overarching themes emerged from this case-to-case synthesis: the engaging and effective nature of multimedia genres, opportunities for differentiated instruction using multimodal strategies, opportunities for assessment, an emphasis on visual representations, and the robustness of some multimodal literacy strategies across content areas.

The third project was a mixed-methods verification study that was conducted to refine and validate the theoretical framework. This study examined middle school students' representational competence and focused on students' creation of visual representations such as labelled diagrams, a form of representation commonly found in science information texts and textbooks. An analysis of the 31 Grade 6 participants' representations and semistructured interviews revealed five themes, each of which supports one or more dimensions of the exploratory framework: participants' use of color, participants' choice of representation (form and function), participants' method of planning for representing, participants' knowledge of conventions, and participants' selection of information to represent. Together, the results of these three projects highlight the need for further research on learning with rather than learning from representations.


representational competence, science education, visual representations, diagrams


Tippett, C. D. (2011). Exploring middle school students' representational competence in science: Development and verification of a framework for learning with visual representations (Doctoral dissertation). University of Victoria, Victoria, British Columbia, Canada. Retrieved from http://hdl.handle.net/1828/3250 


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