Publish at October 12 2015 Updated November 03 2021

Graphic Comprehension, the Great Unknown

The Profusion of New Forms of Visualization Reopens the Debate on Human Understanding of Graphics

"Visual" is booming in the media, because of its educational benefits. Graphic representations are generally accepted as an immediate means of communication, which transcends linguistic, geographical, and even cultural barriers.

Despite important work on graphic comprehension (cf. J. Bertin, E. Tufte) the profusion of new forms of visualization revives the debate on the human capacity to understand the messages conveyed by images.

Mr. Ashraf's thesis "Categorization of graphics by teachers and students" takes up these interrogations and inscribes them in a comparative approach.

Scope of Study

After illustrating the diversity of treatment of graphic comprehension in curricula (particularly highlighted in the United States and Australia), the author focuses on two country-cases: France and Pakistan.

The quantitative analysis shows French textbooks characterized by a variety of visual elements and more extensive use of color, in contrast to Pakistani textbooks that are rather black and white, with tables as a recurrent visual form. This disparity is a likely consequence of unequal levels of national expenditure on education. The abundance of French graphics does not, however, translate into greater familiarity with these tools.

The "Field" Investigations

The researcher tested ten teachers (from both countries) of two disciplines that presuppose the use of graphics in teaching: geography and physics. Confronted with the same set of examples, the teachers were confident in the students' ability to understand the most common forms "already seen before" (maps, tables, curves, etc.), but became much more skeptical when faced with hybrid forms, combining several types of visual elements. No common glossary emerges when asked to categorize these graphics.

The same considerations appear on the learners' side. A sample of 50 graphs, extracted from high school textbooks and international press titles, was tested on twenty Master's degree students in Education Sciences at the University of Grenoble.

Objective: through a method of sorting the charts, construct groups by association.
A third of the images were considered "difficult to understand and categorize" and, again, the hybrid was a source of misunderstanding.


Given the evolution of media communication towards increasingly complex images, the results of this thesis inevitably call for further research in the field.

They also confirm the desirability:

  1. of better training (including teachers) in data visualization, such as the MOOCs offered on the platform (see in particular the work of A. Cairo on his blog The functional art).
  2. from a better match between intended purposes and graphic solutions, such as the excellent resource "Which graphic is right for you?" and the decision-making tool "Slide chooser", a very good starting point for any graphic urge.

Illustration: Zelig-/Foter


Muhammad Ashraf.Teacher and student categorization of graphics into graphical genres. Education Sciences. Grenoble Alpes University (2014)

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