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Study: Prettier Charts Can Be Harder for Students to Read

Graphics are often intended to engage children in learning otherwise dry material, such as data on a chart. Yet new research from Ohio State University suggests increasing charts' artistic appeal can interfere with students' ability to comprehend the information they represent.

The findings come as educators and publishers grapple with ways to implement new Common Core State Standards on literacy. The common core calls for students to comprehend and connect information from visual elements, including charts, maps, and multimedia, in addition to understanding stories and informational texts. This echoes calls for students to comprehend graphics in the common core math standards and separate next-generation science standards.

In a study published in the May issue of the Journal of Educational Psychology, kindergarten and elementary teachers told Ohio State psychology researchers Jennifer A. Kaminski and Vladimir M. Sloutsky that they believed charts that represented information using visually appealing graphics, such as stacks of shoes or flowers, would be more effective for teaching young students how to read charts. All of the 16 teachers interviewed said they would prefer to teach using more visually appealing charts.

In a separate series of four experiments, the researchers taught 122 middle-class 6- to 8-year-old students how to read basic bar charts. Some of the charts used solid bars of one or multiple colors; others depicted the same information using stacks of countable cartoon objects. While the students were first being taught to read the charts, the number of objects stacked in each bar equaled the number of items on the y-axis of the data set. For example, a chart depicting five shoes lost in May and eight lost in April would have five shoe icons in the May stack and eight in the April stack.

After the initial training, students were tested with new charts, in which the number of stacked objects did not always equal the y-axis. It became quickly apparent that students attempted to count stacks rather than properly read the chart data. All of the 1st and 2nd graders and three out of four kindergartners who had learned to read solid-bar charts accurately read the new charts. By contrast, of those who had learned to read charts using countable stacks, 90 percent of kindergartners, more than 70 percent of 1st graders and 30 percent of 2nd graders incorrectly read the new charts by counting stacks.

Moreover, when both groups of students were tested using yet another set of bar charts that used patterns of stripes and dots, students who had initially learned to read charts of stacked items performed significantly worse at reading the charts than those who had learned on more basic bars.

"Those who design material need to consider the possibility that inclusion of extraneous perceptual information may divert attention from the to-be-learned information," the authors concluded. More troubling, the researchers noted that students' misconceptions may not be noticeable at first, because very basic charts that use graphics often do stack pictures in equal number to the x- or y-axis, but could surface later when students are called to interpret more complex charts.

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