Representation Construction Approach

Constructing Representations to Learn in Science

Scientists use a range of visual forms including drawing, modeling, and graphical work to imagine new relations, test ideas and elaborate knowledge. This is increasingly true, given the digital means now available to construct elaborate maps, simulations, graphs, or enhanced photographs. There is abundant evidence that these visual tools are not simply passive communication devices, but actively shape how we build knowledge in science. 

Students in school are exposed to many of these images in textbooks or on the internet and learning how to interpret these is an important part of science education. However, it is rare that students are encouraged or supported to create their own visual forms to develop and show understanding. Over the last decade the Deakin STEM Education team has been actively exploring an inquiry approach to teaching and learning science in which students actively construct representations as a central aspect of learning. This includes drawing, such as sketching cells seen through a microscope, inventing a way to show a scientific phenomenon (e.g. evaporation), or constructing a line graph from a table of values. It also includes 3D modeling, role-play, and digital animations.

The team has worked with academics from a range of universities – La Trobe, Monash, Wollongong, UTS – in a number of Australian Research Council projects, with the Academy of Technological Sciences and Engineering, and with the Victorian DET, to establish and further explore the approach, to deliver professional development across Victoria to secondary and specialist primary teachers, and to explore the extension to digital platforms. We have developed units in a number of topics at years 5-8 including astronomy, substances, forces, geology, adaptation, heat and light and energy, and properties of materials, and currently we are working with a number of schools to extend these resources to further topics, to investigate digital representations, and to refine how we approach work with teachers including through the use of video reflection techniques.

The core principles of this guided inquiry approach are:

  1. Students inquire into phenomena and develop explanations through actively constructing and evaluating representations
  2. Teachers guide explicit discussion of representations – their adequacy and their partial nature – such that students develop ‘meta-representational competence’.
  3. Students are challenged and supported to reason through a process of mapping between representations and perceptual experiences/ hands on exploration.
  4. Formative and summative assessment is embedded in the process, as students and teachers focus on the adequacy, and coordination of representations.

On an internationally recognized test on astronomy we have found that students following the approach have twice the learning gains claimed for other approaches. Further, teachers comment on the quality of discussions that occur, and the sophistication of student thinking evidenced in their work. This seems to be true both for academic students, and for lower achieving students who are engaged by the active nature of the approach. We argue that the gains that flow from this particular approach to inquiry are:

  • Students are motivated when they actively draw and explore ideas
  • Constructing visual representations is a core literacy of science that deepens understanding of how explanations are developed and problems solved
  • Reasoning in science always occurs through multiple and multi-modal representations, each acting to constrain and focus thinking
  • Communicating through representations requires students to make their thinking explicit, providing opportunities to exchange and clarify meanings.

Currently, the team is working with small groups of teachers in a number of schools, involving workshops, supporting teaching teams through provision of planning resources, and planning and review meetings. Increasingly we are including digital resources in our work, and are embarking on projects that link multi-modal image construction with textual literacy, and that enrich mathematics and science learning through interdisciplinary representational work.  


Other resources to check out:

2 presentations from Professor Russell Tytler – Deakin University

Click here for presentation

An additional presentation that exemplifies the sequencing of different modal representations to support learning.

Papers to review (these are final copies of the published paper – due to copyright laws)

Hubber, P., Tytler, R., & Chittleborough, G. (2017). Representation Construction: A Guided Inquiry Approach for Science Education. In R. Jorgensen & K. Larkin (Eds.), STEM Education in the Junior Secondary School (pp. 57-87). Dordrecht, The Netherlands: Springer.

Tytler, R., Haslam, F., Prain, V., & Hubber, P. (2009). An explicit representational focus for teaching and learning about animals in the environment. Teaching Science 55(4), 21-27.

Carolan, J., Prain, V., & Waldrip, B. (2008). Using representations for teaching and learning in science. Teaching Science, 54 (1), 18-23.

Ainsworth, S., Prain, V., & Tytler, R. (2011). Drawing to learn in science. Science, 333 (26 August), 1096-1097.

Hubber, P., & Tytler, R. (2017). Enacting a representation construction approach to teaching and learning astronomy. In D. Treagust, R. Duit, & H. Fischer (Eds.), Multiple representations in Physics Education (pp. 139-161). London: Springer.

Tytler, R., Peterson, S. & Prain, V. (2006). Picturing evaporation: Learning science literacy through a particle representation. Teaching Science, the Journal of the Australian Science Teachers Association, 52(1), 12-17. (Awarded “most valuable paper” for 2006)