Starter Kit: Incorporating Visual Abstracts into Your Classroom

Coming to a lab near you. New! Colorful! Engaging! Visual Abstracts!

As a science teacher, you know the importance of having your students write lab reports. Generally, these lab reports are written in the format of a science journal article with a title, abstract, methods, results, discussion, acknowledgment, and literature cited section. Learning to write lab reports is a key scientific skill. Furthermore, time spent creating a report allows students to independently think about their experiment and process key concepts. At the same time lab reports can be time-consuming and (sometimes) onerous both to write and grade.   

Enter Visual Abstracts. An alternative to the traditional lab reports that can be as refreshing as a breath of spring air and will still help your students understand and communicate their scientific discoveries. In this post, we’ll cover all the basics of visual abstracts from what they are to how to assign them to some useful tips for student creators.

What is a visual abstract?

A visual abstract is an image that communicates the main objectives, methods, results, and conclusions of a scientific study. The goal of a visual abstract is to make the reader aware of a study’s experimental design, hypothesis, and findings in a way that can be quickly processed and shared across multiple platforms.

Can I have an example?

Of course! (Because after all, a picture is worth a thousand words.)

Michael James Oosten, Olimpia Pepe, Stefania Pascale, Silvia Silletti, Albino Maggio. “The role of biostimulants and bioeffectors as alleviators of abiotic stress in crop plants ,” Chemical and Biological Technologies in Agriculture doi:10.1186/s40538-017-0089-5
GatoradeFrost, CC BY-SA 4.0, via Wikimedia Commons
Blatuidi, CC BY-SA 4.0, via Wikimedia Commons

What should I include in a visual abstract?

As you can see from the above examples, visual abstracts vary based on the subject matter and the creator’s imagination. However, there are some general guidelines. Good things to include = a summary of the key question being addressed (i.e., a title), a summary of methods used, a summary of primary outcomes, a visual display of outcomes, and authors.

Five tips for making a killer visual abstract.

  1. Remember that an effective visual abstract has a clear message. Start by creating an outline of your research/experiment using as few words as possible.
  2. Take time to consider the main takeaways of your work. Prioritize these key messages over completeness when designing the visual abstract.
  3. Think like a designer and focus on the user experience. Ask yourself “What would someone glancing at this on Twitter/Instagram etc. want to know about my experiment?”
  4. Make use of online tools. Check out some free templates to help start visually thinking about your work. Stuck? Go back to your outline from tip 1 and identify keywords. Then type them into the noun project icon library for ideas,
  5. Relax. There are many ways to make a Visual Abstract but no “right” way. So use your energy thinking of ways to share the exciting things about your experiment rather than aiming for the perfect picture.   

Three reasons to have visual abstracts in the classroom.

They help students develop important skills: The ability to make a great visual abstract is an excellent skill to teach your student scientists. Published studies with a visual abstract have a much higher readership (as much as 3 times) and many journals are increasingly requesting the submission of a VA alongside a submitted article. More generally creating an understandable and compelling image is a powerful skill for all types of scientific communication.

They engage students: Visual thinking is a great way to learn, process, and retain information. Luckily, this kind of thinking is used frequently in the science classroom from textbook diagrams to experimental observations. At the same time, science learning is still dominated by written assessments. Switching to a visual abstract assessment gives your visual learners a chance to use their go-to skill and challenge all your learners to engage their creative and visual brain muscles. Between colors and the chance for comics, your students will be so wrapped up in the fun of creation that they might not realize the deep learning going on.

They’re a change of pace: So much in science focuses on precision and completeness (two great skills). However, in between precisely executing an experiment and learning so much information some of the creativity of science can get lost in the lab classroom. Visual abstracts keep the learning going but with an equal dose of design and creation. It can also be a nice change of pace for teachers who get to grade something other than a lab report and get to see the diverse creativity of their class.

How to incorporate visual abstracts into your curriculum  

Visual abstracts are a powerful tool for science education. They’re engaging, appealing, time-saving, and fun! At the same time, they develop important skills and help students learn and understand. So how do you incorporate visual abstracts into your classroom? They’re many ways. Here are three that work particularly well.

  1. As an at-home assignment following an experiment. This is the usual realm of the lab report. If your students have already written a lab report or two, dare to switch things up and assign a visual abstract instead, or even give them the choice.
  2. As a group activity following a lab. Creating a group sketch of how an experiment would look as a visual abstract is a great way to get students collaborating and talking about their experiment. Because visual abstracts are open-ended and focus more on key points and less on details, they’re particularly suited for a casual, end-of-class, group project.   
  3. As a bonus assignment anytime. Doing a visual abstract for a major class experiment may seem like a big step, so try a baby step first! Have students read a primary literature article and create a visual abstract for that study as an extra credit assignment.
Shamedk, CC BY-SA 4.0, via Wikimedia Commons
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