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(Online) Figure of the Week: Skills for Interpreting Comparative Genomics Figures

Author(s): Robert E Furrow

University of California, Davis

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This resource is an adaptation of the QUBES Figure of the Day module by Flemming-Davis and Wodjak (2018), with the structure of the activity based on a newer adaptation by Raisa Hernández-Pacheco (2020). The goal of this module is to provide a repeated student activity that helps students learn to interpret scientific figures in a low-stakes environment. By offering “incomplete” figures that don’t include full axes, captions, and legends, students are free to propose a creative diversity of potential interpretations of the figure. With no single correct answer, students can focus without anxiety on the process of how you use the structure and information types within a figure to put together a potential interpretation. 

This module was implemented during Spring 2020, in a class that was fully online due to shelter-in-place restrictions to reduce COVID-19 transmission. The course was a CURE (course-based research experience) focused on comparative genomic analyses of novel genomes generated from student-cultured salt-living microbes. Because we wanted to build classroom cohesion, we adapted this module to be a fun, low-stakes weekly online forum post. We specifically developed this adaptation using the Universal Design for Learning guidelines from CAST, aiming to optimize this module for this online learning environment and for the diversity of students in the class.


Instead of an in-class activity, this version is designed to be an asynchronous online discussion, to build the student comfort with figures but also to build a friendly classroom climate. Each week, a figure is presented as a post on a discussion forum (the initial implementation was using the Q&A forum website Piazza, with each post as an instructor note). The figures are designed to align with data and figure types that the students will analyze and generate in the upcoming week of class. These figure types include scatterplots, heatmaps, and dendrograms.

During the next week’s synchronous online lab session, instructors summarized student posts, shared the figure with more complete axes/legends, and typically had students generate similar figures related to the course data (see the partial course website for examples of data and analyses performed during lab).

This adaptation also explicitly using the Universal Design for Learning framework to make the activity accessible to all students. There are many potential checkpoints to consider; we focused on making only a few small “plus-ones” -- small adaptations of Figure of the Day to align with specific UDL checkpoints. Below we outline four examples of the alignment between this Figure of the Week module and the UDL guidelines.


Checkpoint 7.3 - Minimize threats and distractions

The discussion is designed to be low stakes and fun, creating a safe space for people to share ideas that might feel silly or unpolished. The discussion is also a structured routine; the prompt and task are the same each week to make the assignment a predictable part of each week’s coursework. To emphasize the low stakes, the discussion prompt explicitly states “This is not a test. It's a chance to get comfortable reading figures and making weird predictions about what you think the data are. In real life, quantitative thinking is creative and flexible, and skills such as quickly interpreting figures take a lot of practice to master.” 


Checkpoint 8.3 - Foster collaboration and community 

Because the online forum-based implementation is based on collective knowledge generation, it can help foster collaboration and discussion among students. The prompt clearly defines the rules for how a student can engage, and it leads to students collectively building incrementally greater understanding with each new student comment. 


Checkpoint 3.2 - Highlight patterns, critical features, big ideas, and relationships

By tying the figure types directly to the data we will be looking at in the following week, this provides an opportunity for students to slowly and systematically dissect the figure, understanding the key elements. When students later visualize their own data in the course, instructions explicitly prompt students to draw upon their understanding of the Figure of the Week to help them interpret these new data.


Checkpoint 3.3 - Guide information processing and visualization

The addressing of this UDL checkpoint is not unique to this Figure of the Week adaptation, but is fundamental to all Figure of the Day/Week modules. The interpretation of a figure is a very high-dimensional task -- there are axes, legends, colors, data types, and a wide diversity of potential patterns to process, even before a student can attempt to connect the figure to a potential biological insight. The initial figure each week is displayed without full legends and axes, and is potentially zoomed in only on a small part of the full, original figure. This scaffolds the process of figure interpretation, allowing students to engage first with fundamental features of the axes, colors, and data types being displayed before trying to interpret the meaning of labels and their units.

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