What are good strategies for describing data in a graph as students interpret it?
Sometimes we feel like we present all the right pieces to our students, but they still aren’t able to piece it all together. One important aspect of setting our students up to being more successful in learning how to work with data is to separate the interpretation from the analysis.
As experts these two stages are intermingled in our brains and we easily move back and forth between them as we can selectively determine what components to pay attention to and pull from our broader understanding organized around big concepts. However, our students are novices with data and their science learning, so they cannot do that.
Instead, we need to help them learn how to break the process of making sense of data down into two steps: first to interpret what is on the page, and then second to analyze what that means to them and to other things that they know/are learning about.
Let’s explore the first step through some prompting questions we can use to direct their learning from the data…
- What is going on in the graph?
- Describe it as a grandparent or an older adult whose seeing is not that good. What would you talk about so they can imagine what the data look like in the graph?
- What are the highest and lowest values of the data?
- Does that seem like a wide range of values or a small range of values?
- If it is a wide range of values, does that make you feel confident in saying what the pattern is in the data?
- If it is a small range of values, does that make you feel confident in saying what the pattern is in the data?
- Are there any points that fall far away from most of the points (otherwise called outliers)?
- If so, knowing what you know about the subject matter do their values seem totally impossible to happen naturally? Or could they naturally happen but are just much different than the other data?
- How do the things in the graph compare to one another?
- Do they change in the same direction (meaning as one goes up does the other)?
- Do they change in different directions (meaning as one goes up does the other go down)?
- Are they spread out equally? Or are they clumped altogether in one part of the graph? Or is it something else?
- What kind of pattern do you recognize in the data?
- Is it going up? Going down? Staying the same?
- Is it going up and down and up and down over and over again?
- Are the data all over the place and you don’t see anything that makes sense to you?
You certainly don’t need to ask all of these questions every time your students look at a graph, that would be super time consuming.
The key is that you role model how to ask questions like this and make sure you are asking questions a bit deeper than those that just require students to read specific data points off of the graph.
For example, when you ask them for the maximum and minimum values you think about range of data but they just think about the numerical answer they write down on their activity sheets. We need to help them build the skill of understanding why you are asking them for the maximum and minimum values and how that connects to making sense of the data.
Taking the time to have them really look at what is on the page in the data and then making sure they all are able to get the same general gist from the data, is paramount to them being able to analyze and make sense of it. And what are we using data for it it is not for our students to make sense of it as it relates to the content we are covering?!
Once they have done an initial interpretation of what the data are showing them on the page, then they are ready to think about what it means (aka analyzing it).
See “Strategies for Teaching with Data, Part 4” for effective strategies for getting students to analyze data well to make well supported claims and connect the take away from the data to the content you are covering.
Also, if you are interested in specific prompts by graph type to help your students understand different patterns or ways to read the data, check out our resources on:
- What are dot plots? When & how can I use them?
- What are line graphs? When & how can I use them?
- What are pie charts? When & how can I use them?
- What are bar charts? When & how can I use them?
- What are histograms? When & how can I use them?
- What are box plots? When & how can I use them?
- When & how can I use maps?