Figure of the Day (Version 1.0)
By Arietta Fleming-Davies and Jeremy M Wojdak
Math anxiety can prevent students from engaging with and solving problems even when they have the requisite knowledge or skills. Interpreting graphs in particular can be difficult for many students because understanding visual data is not a formulaic process - there isn’t a single set of steps that always work, like there might be for solving a quadratic equation.
“Figure of the Day” is a clever approach to help students learn to interpret graphs that avoids inducing anxiety in students by establishing from the outset that students will not have all the information necessary to be 100% correct. Graphs are presented without axes labels or legends, and interpretation is turned into a puzzle, where any observation about the data is potentially helpful. What results is that students look much more carefully at all the details of a graph - the colors, sizes, shapes, arrangement, magnitude, and try to piece together a story. This is exactly what experienced scientists do, much more often than starting with a figure legend, for example. Different students will notice different features, and the value of multiple student voices is often really evident - small groups or a class can together often uncover the meaning of a graph even without the axes labels!
Figure of the Day can be used at the beginning of each class period, taking 5 minutes or less. Professional scientists didn’t learn how to interpret data in an afternoon, but instead from reading 100s of papers. Students need the same repetition. Figures in the collection are roughly ordered by difficulty. The notes section for each figure gives the instructor some ideas for potential student responses or interesting features of the graphs. Also see our collection of community-contributed Figures of the Day on various biology and quantitative themes, and please contribute your own favorite figure!
This activity could be used in any course where comfort with quantitative skills is important.
Fleming-Davies, A., Wojdak, J. M. (2018). Figure of the Day. BIOMAAP: Biology Student Math Attitudes and Anxiety Program, QUBES Educational Resources. doi:10.25334/Q4M13D