While researching a few topics, I stumbled across several article dealing with teaching students to read graphs. This morning, I realized we should be teaching students to interpret graphs because reading simply means literal interpretations while interpreting indicates you are reading it and associating meaning with the graph itself.
I wondered if most high school teachers assume students arrive knowing how to interpret graphs. I've discovered most of my students can sort of read most graphs but if asked to extrapolate meaning, they stutter to a complete stop.
Before looking at ways to teach this topic, it is important to look at the reasons students struggle with this topic.
1. Context - It is important to know how and why a certain graph was created. In other words, what was the question asked which produced the final graph. Without this information, students often struggle with understanding why its interesting or how it relates.
2. Abstraction - Students and teachers often relate to the material differently due to experience. Sometimes students do not understand the mechanics used to create the graph.
3. Active vs Passive - Lecture vs doing it themselves. They are more likely to learn if they are asking questions, working with the data, or discussing it with others.
4. Everyday Tool - Often interpreting graphs is reserved for when students study certain topics rather than seeing it as a tool people use for communication everyday.
It is suggested students be taught to construct the graphs themselves from given data. This provides a context for the whole graph. I remember in high school when we looked at pie charts for someone's monthly spending. I didn't see why I needed to know they spent 30% on rent, 25% on food, etc until I bought my first house.
The loan officer explained our house payment could not be more than 35% of our income or they would not loan us the money. I finally had a context for this type of graph. Without it, most students have no reference and that makes it harder for them to relate to it.
Most of the things I've found designed to teach students to interpret graphs are worksheets where they are actually finding information on the graph but not looking at the whole picture. They don't address questions of why would someone want to create this type of graph? Actually seeing the whole picture. Back to the pie chart and percentages of spending. Aside from giving lending companies a good idea of if you meet certain criteria, one can also determine if there are areas you can cut back on spending so more money is saved.
I think its also important to provide realistic sets of data from NOAA, scientists, the Census Bureau and other places so students can actually create their own graphs and interpret the results because that puts practice into more real life scenarios.
I plan to do more of this next year in classes. Its important to have students draw conclusions based on the information presented. I'll return to this topic later with places you can obtain real data from to use in the classroom.
Let me know what you think. Have a good weekend.