Getting Better Diagrams from My Students

After the first assignment in inquiry where they had to both write and a draw in order to explain something, I gave them a list of criteria to help them to distinguish between what I think makes something more “diagram-like” and more “sketch-like”.

My criteria were the following:


  • Might be drawn small, crowded, or scribbly
  • Might only show the “gist” of what happened without much detail
  • Might not include any aides to help someone understanding
  • Might only depict a situation, without really helping to tell a story of how or why


  • Are often drawn spaciously with every mark made with care and deliberation
  • Are often trying to show someone important details
  • Often include aides to help someone understand what’s being shown to them
  • Are aiming to tell a complete story of how or why something happens

In class, I had them look over and discuss the criteria in groups, and then I put diagrams from our homework under the document camera. Groups were asked to discuss what they notice about the diagram for a few minutes–what features of it are more “diagram-like” what features or more “sketch-like”? What’s something we could change about the drawing to make it more “diagram-like”? What’s something in this diagram that you might want to “steal” for your drawings?

For each drawing, after small groups talked, we shared things we noticed as a class. My goal was to press for specificity in what they were seeing in the diagram and to ask for explanations of why they thought what they did. I tried to keep in snappy, but it still took a while, because we repeated this for about 6 or 7 diagrams. At the end, I had students go back to discuss in their groups (and then write in their notebooks) any strategies and ideas they would like to incorporate in their next homework for crafting better diagrams. Things that came up as I walked around included things like

  • Meaningful color-use, not just color for color’s sake
  • Use of labels in diagrams or a key to the side of the diagram
  • Splitting up a big diagram into a series of diagrams
  • Using “inset” diagrams to show detail (e.g., a zoom-in of a city on a state map)
  • Using arrows to depict directionality or numbers to establish the sequence
  • Showing multiple perspectives of the same thing

We’ll see how the homework comes in next week, but I could already tell from students’ notebooks and their whiteboards that it had a big impact.

Leslie Atkins, by the way, has a great peer assessment activity for improving student diagrams that was published in The Physics Teacher recently.



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