Making Thinking and Learning Visible Across Modalities

By Terra Gargano, Ph.D.

How can the lessons learned by teaching in virtual spaces serve as a catalyst for reimagining how to make thinking and learning visible across modalities in traditional classrooms?

Over the last two years of building relationships with students online, preparing for online classes, and creating opportunities to actively engage students in virtual spaces, whether we’ve specifically thought about it or not, we spent a considerable amount of time creating opportunities to make thinking and learning visible.  Perhaps you –

  • encouraged students to utilize the chat box, creating a visual narrative thread of student thinking on course concepts and a communal sharing of resources.
  • crafted dynamic lectures, sharing information in a visual way to foster deeper understanding.
  • utilized jam boards for chalk talks, encouraging students to transparently share ideas and collaborate.
  • employed online polling, visualizing student sentiment and establishing a starting point for discussion.
  • reimagined assignments to include infographics, maps, or digital stories, providing a creative space for critical reflection on course concepts beyond the written word.
  • provided video feedback, conversing with students in an organic way about their work and sharing your thought process behind your assessment, answering the question “Why did I get an A-?”.

Unconsciously or consciously, we spent the last several years in virtual spaces making critical decisions about how we made our thinking visible to students and how we crafted spaces for students to answer the question, “what makes you say that?”. As faculty, we’ve strategically thought about the spaces students inhabit and the ways learning takes place through visualization. We’ve been busy.

Visible thinking “aims to integrate the development of students’ thinking with content learning across subject matters.” Visible thinking requires students to think out loud, actively listen to others think out loud, and engage in meaningful discussions to construct knowledge and understanding. Much of our learning is internalized and the thinking routines we employ become automatic. Designing opportunities for students visualize thinking encourages a reexamination of how we construct knowledge, opinions, and assumptions.

Visualization strategies in the classroom intentionally create space for connecting and contextualizing content through layered explorations. One of my favorite visualization approaches is to create a collaborative, interactive, virtual timeline of the course, where students throughout the semester add details or significant events that help our knowledge community collectively explore and contextualize pivotal turning points in our discipline. Through this activity we are able to connect historical and current events, shifts in theoretical perspectives, dynamic developments in the field, and the biography of an idea.

Making thinking visible allows students to focus not only on the product, but to illuminate the journey taken to arrive at a conclusion. Visualizing thinking documents multiple perspectives and thought processes, evokes questions for further exploration, promotes dialogue, and decentralizes classrooms. Visualizing learning requires students to connect to course material through their own experiences and awareness of course concepts and highlight pivotal moments where thinking changes, which encourages further investigation.

As faculty, we can compile a myriad of ways teaching in virtual spaces now informs how we are teaching in traditional classrooms. Before the start of the pandemic, some faculty were certain it was not possible to accomplish the same level of engagement and authentic learning in virtual spaces. Other faculty simply questioned how to adapt and translate what was successful in a campus classroom into a virtual environment. Yet, now it is important to recognize the potential opportunities to continue reflecting on the ways we engaged and visualized learning in virtual spaces to continue those best practices in our traditional classrooms across modalities. As someone who taught in virtual spaces before the pandemic, I am a strong advocate for utilizing technology to connect with students and engage in meaningful conversations, create inclusive and engaging student-centered learning, and build knowledge communities that privilege perspectives far beyond those of traditional classroom walls. What ways did you visualize learning and thinking in your virtual classrooms? What conversations, assignments, instructional approaches, and feedback was grounded in visible learning that you can deploy across modalities?

While we grapple with these questions in relation to our own disciplines, it is important to note that there are approaches that foster visualizing thinking and learning that can be taught. Some students might have more experience with mind mapping, sketch notes, or infographics, yet all students can benefit from purposeful instruction about the ways each can be used to visualize thought processes. Modeling visual thinking, sharing plenty of examples, and elaborating on your decision-making process are ways students can further understand the benefits of visualization in the classroom. Designing opportunities for students to engage in thinking routines that promote visualization allows students to experience the power of individual and collective thought processes.

Consider the following –

  • Open an online chat while you show students a documentary in your class and encourage students to share thoughts or reactions to aspects of the film while it is playing.
  • Show students a Ted Talk and ask them to take notes in the form of a mind map, which can then be shared with the class through a gallery walk to demonstrate the myriad of ways information can be organized.
  • Ask students to answer a central question to the course (what does it mean to be…?) through a creative form that provides the space for students to reveal their thought process and understanding of the course content.
  • Instruct student to create an online, interactive timeline of the course to illuminate a collective evolution of thought, contextualizing turning points, or analyze the ways various media outlets cover an event.

Rethinking the visual aspects of our classrooms is one way we can take what we learned through teaching in virtual spaces to enhance critical thinking and student engagement in our traditional classrooms. Visualizing learning fosters critical thinking, recognizes multiple perspectives, and creates inclusive learning spaces. The potential to learn from our experiences teaching in virtual spaces is immense and the terrains of possibility are vast.

Author Profile

Terra Gargano, Ph.D. is passionate about blurring the lines between online and on-campus learning. She continues to seek out inclusive pedagogies that illuminate how mobility, modality, and meaning coalesce through visualization. She is a Professorial Lecturer in the School of International Service and a previous CTRL Faculty Fellow.   

Additional Resources

For additional information on making thinking visible, please visit Making Learning Visible by Project Zero at Harvard University.

An excellent example of making thinking visible and a conversation about ways to think of visualizing learning can be found in The Purposes of Education : A Conversation Between John Hattie and Steen Nepper Larsen.

Several other noted texts to learn more about making thinking and learning visible are The Power of Making Thinking Visible: Practices to Engage and Empower All Learners; Visible Learning and the Science of How We Learn; and Visible Learning: Feedback.