Graph Literacy

Graph literacy is the ability to identify the important features of a wide variety of graphs and relate those features to the context of the graphs—in other words, to increase students' understanding of the meaning of graphs.

Graph literacy is emphasized in both the Common Core State Standards for Mathematics and the Next Generation Science Standards. For example, the math standards suggest that by the eighth grade, students should learn about lines of best fit and what they mean.

The project's primary goals are to:

  • Develop and pilot test three to six free computer-based instructional activities that improve student graph comprehension, aimed especially at science students in grades 7 and 8, and
  • Develop a pilot assessment instrument focusing on students' comprehension of graphs.

The activities and the assessment instrument will be pilot tested in Maine, and then made available to others. We will build on the work of the ongoing SmartGraphs project.

Principal Investigators

Carolyn Staudt
Andrew Zucker

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This material is based upon work supported by the National Science Foundation under Grant No. DRL-1256490. Any opinions, findings, and conclusions or recommendations expressed in this material are those of the author(s) and do not necessarily reflect the views of the National Science Foundation.

During the first year, 2012-2013, we will conduct formative research trials in a small number of Maine classrooms. During the second year, 2013-2014, we plan to conduct an experimental trial of several graph literacy activities. For that study, a group of 10 teachers will be randomly split into experimental and control groups. A pre- and post-test focusing on graph literacy will be used to measure student outcomes.

In this pilot project, we are focusing especially on students' understanding of scatter plots and line graphs, both of which are widely used in STEM subjects. Click the icon below for a list of the goals and objectives we believe middle school students need to achieve if they are to become graph literate, meaning they are able to "read" and understand a wide variety of graphs. The free online software activities we have developed in this project address six of these objectives. Click on the icon for activities to find links to the web-based activities and accompanying teacher guides.

Students' graph literacy develops as a result of practice based on three steps or cognitive processes. The activities we are developing are each associated with one of these steps:

  1. ► Identify and encode superficial graph features. This "bottom-up" process focuses on features such as the graph title, the axes and their titles, the shapes of the graph(s), and any other visual cues, such as color or grouping.
  2. ► Link superficial graph features to quantitative facts, trends, or other relationships. The second step involves associating visual features with information that might apply to any graph with similar features. For instance, for a rising, straight-line distance-time graph, the viewer might associate "rising" with an increase of the y-value over time, and "straightness" with constant, steady change.
  3. ► Integrate the features and relationships with the context of the graph. When understanding does not come with steps 1 and 2, it requires a more complex process of inference. The general, context-free associations made about the graph in the first two steps must be linked to the specific contextual clues provided by the labels, axes, graph shapes, captions, and any information or knowledge about the context in long-term memory. For example, this step might result in the viewer seeing a graph as a story about Sally walking at a constant speed from home to the bus stop.
  • Equivalent Graphs1.2 Equivalent Graphs
    Students investigate graphs that are equivalent, in the sense that they represent the same data, though they look different because they employ different scales. (Addresses Graph Literacy Objective 1.2: Understand how zooming, panning, stretching, and shrinking do not change the data within a graph.)

    » A Lesson Plan is also available.
  • Interpolation1.3 Interpolation
    In this activity students interpolate between data points in the context of questions involving a train timetable. (Addresses Graph Literacy Objective 1.3: Interpolate between points on a graph.)

    » A Lesson Plan is also available.
  • Independent and Dependent Variables1.4 Independent and Dependent Variables
    For various scenarios students select which of two variables should be considered independent and which dependent, and to explain their choice. (Addresses Graph Literacy Objective 1.4: Determine the dependent and independent variables for display on a graph.)

    » A Lesson Plan is also available.
  • Graphs Tell a Story2.1 Graphs Tell a Story
    Students match a word story to the correct set of graphs involving temperature change over time. (Addresses Graph Literacy Objective 2.1: Identify the overall shape and direction of a line graph, and connect the shape with the real-world meaning.)

    » A Lesson Plan is also available.
  • Hurricane Katrina2.2 Hurricane Katrina
    Students are given graphs relating to Katrina, the hurricane that devastated New Orleans and much of the gulf coast in 2005, and are asked to identify various events, such as the moment when the hurricane made its closest approach to New Orleans. (Addresses Graph Literacy Objective 2.2: Identify the maxima and minima of a graph and interpret their meaning.)

    » A Lesson Plan is also available.
  • Growing Up2.3 Growing Up
    This activity asks students to interpret the slope of sections of a line graph of the height of U.S. girls and boys from ages two to twenty. (Addresses Graph Literacy Objective 2.3: Estimate the slope of a line and describe its real-world meaning.)

    » A Lesson Plan is also available.

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