Video: Derek Bruff Talks Visual Learning Tools

Students learn on different timelines and from different sources, which has increased the focus on individual learning styles. The potential for such a wide variety of styles can leave instructors feeling overwhelmed by the prospect of creating unique learning experiences for every student in their classrooms.

But fundamentally, human brains learn in similar ways, a point that Derek Bruff emphasized in an interview with ACUE last month.

“Our brains are wired to work verbally and visually, and when those two input streams are working together, we learn better,” said Bruff, who is director of Vanderbilt University’s Center for Teaching. “We are, in fact, all verbal and visual learners.”

Bruff, who is also a senior lecturer in Vanderbilt’s Department of Mathematics, discussed a range of teaching topics for ACUE’s Course in Effective Teaching Practices. One of those topics included the use of concept maps and visualization strategies to support student learning.

For decades, lecture-style teaching has catered to the notion that college students learn best as verbal learners. But there are limitations to what students can learn solely from hearing words and reading text, especially when it comes to making connections between key concepts. That’s where concept maps, concept circles, flowcharts, and other visualization tools in the classroom come in.

Concept circles, for example, help people understand the intricacies of relationships by seeing them spatially. To the left, a concept circle shows the different ingredients that distinguish the many different coffee-based drinks available at a typical coffee shop.

“That’s the point of concept maps and visual tools,” Bruff said. “We may not think of ourselves as visual learners—we may have to work a little harder to develop some of our visual learning skills and vocabulary—but this is actually a way to reach all students.” Bruff added an important caveat: people with vision or hearing impairments are limited in learning those functions.

Members of the ACUE Community had a chance to ask Bruff questions, too. They asked about introducing concept maps to new students and how to integrate them into lessons for students whose first language isn’t English, and they asked about the long-term career benefits of visual learning skills.

Read more here from ACUE’s interview with Bruff, which has been edited and condensed for clarity:

For students who are not well versed in concept maps, what does an instructor need to do prior to assigning them the task of creating a concept map? (NJ Professor)

It’s often helpful to supply students with an example first, or have them create a concept map on a topic that’s not related to course material.

For example, how do you think about making sandwiches? The ingredients, the process? You could create a fairly simple concept map that illustrates the idea and its nodes and connections.

Another approach is to actually give students the concepts.

You could say “Here are the twelve things that need to be in the concept map. You decide where they go.”

You could put the more important concepts at the top of the page and the less important ones at the bottom, or allow students to arrange them and label the relationships, and you could give them a piece to start with.


Experts structure their knowledge differently than novices do. How do you use concepts to help students, or novices, to think more like experts or to see how others structure their knowledge differently? (UNC-CH Professor)

Concept maps can be a nice tool to help students start with their knowledge of a discipline and to try to enhance and build upon that.

So you might have students start to create a concept map, then have them compare it to a peer’s concept map. Odds are that student two has identified a slightly different set of concepts or has seen a few relationships that student one didn’t identify. By comparing and contrasting, even peer to peer, students can start to develop and enhance their own concept maps.

Then, as the expert in the discipline, you show them your concept map. Have them identify what they missed. If you want to go a little further, you might have a colleague create another concept map using that same material, showing that two experts also are generally going to have slightly different concept maps. That compare-and-contrast can be interesting for students to see. Often students think that there is a right answer to everything, that you’re the expert and you’ve got all the knowledge and they have to do what you’re doing. But our fields usually aren’t so cut and dry.


Some concept mapping software forces all of the concepts to branch out like a tree and doesn’t allow more netlike joins. Does this help or hinder their conceptualization? (Mira)

Some concept mapping software forces all concepts to branch out like a tree and doesn’t allow for more netlike joins, and they don’t have any kinds of loops in them. In general, I think you’re going to find that can be limiting.

To really capture the richness of connections among ideas, you have to be able to have loops and have to be able to cross branches. Some concept mapping software will enable that. It’s more complex to use the software and handle the concept maps, but it’s a little more flexible in terms of what it can represent.


How can visual tools be integrated into classrooms that serve students who are learning English as a second language? (Lourdes Albo-Beyda)

Supplementing text-based or verbal understandings of ideas and their relationships with visual tools and concept maps provides a set of tools that students whose first language isn’t English can use to help wrap their mind around the material. If we are entirely dependent on text and words, then sometimes those students have to work a little bit harder to catch up and engage.

All of us learn well when we encounter information through words and pictures. But if the words are in a language that we’re not fluent with, then pictures become much more important.

I do think that some of these visual tools are a way to make our classrooms a bit more inclusive and a bit more welcoming to students with various backgrounds.

Be careful when your visual tools involve doodles or photos or images as a way of representing ideas and concepts. There’s a whole other level of visual literacy that can be involved. When you and I look at a photo, we’re going to see different things. What we think of as a nice visual metaphor might not work for students from different backgrounds if they don’t have the same kind of cultural hooks to hang it on.


How can visual learning be used so that it is relevant to particular career pathways? (Lourdes Albo-Beyda)

One of the things that can be really powerful about visual tools is that they’re used as a way to communicate ideas.

Certainly they can be useful for helping students form their own ideas. Once they have a story, once they have a plan, once they have a pitch, some visual tools can help them communicate that to others in ways that they can understand and believe in, or fund, or hire.

So I think there’s an element to these visual tools that students can use as they go forward in their professional careers. When we talk about students having terrible PowerPoint skills, maybe part of that is because they don’t have a lot of visual tools to bring to a blank slide in a PowerPoint. Having a concept map, or a flowchart, or a timeline can provide a bit of visual structure that students can leverage in communication as they move forward.

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