Wednesday, April 15, 2015

Tables Help Students Recognize Patterns

One of the things our Anatomy & Physiology books are known and loved for is their extensive set summary tables. Although students quickly discover how useful they are, I'm not sure many A&P professors give them much thought.  But as an A&P author, I have to give them a lot of thought—and I want to share a few of my thoughts about these tables that may surprise you!

Tables help students construct a conceptual framework.
Sometimes, beginning students are so overwhelmed with details that they have a hard time seeing how it all fits together into a whole idea. Summary tables bring details together in a way that assists learners in starting their own cognitive scaffold for new facts and ideas. Those of us who already appreciate "the big picture," often forget how critical it is for newbies to properly build their understanding in steps.

Tables serve as a handy reference tool.
Students often use their textbooks for "raiding" specific facts, rather than reading whole sections.  For example, when learning the bones and markings of the skeleton, summary tables can quickly and effectively give a pithy description of illustrated structures in the textbook. As professors, we often forget how much the beginner relies on such tools to get started in learning.

Tables help students recognize patterns.
Many of the tables in an A&P textbook are not meant to be memorized.  Instead, they are used to compare and contrast ideas in a visual way that is difficult to do in the text narrative.  This moves students beyond "just the facts" to how those facts can be applied in understanding human structure and function.  In a table, patterns become obvious and critical thinking starts to "click" in the minds of readers. We instructors, who have already had our "aha" moments with these topics, sometimes don't appreciate how helpful a carefully arranged table can be in producing such moments.

Tables must be easily readable.
This may seem too obvious a fact to mention here. However, I've found that well-prepared teachers can easily read and understand even a horribly formatted, vaguely written table. Students who are just learning the concepts often get lost as they go across a row and don't know enough to figure out where they are supposed to look next.  Which brings me to my final, and perhaps most important, point . . .

Effective tables are carefully designed.
This is what makes a table easily readable—thoughtful design. In the latest revision of Anatomy & Physiology, effective table design is a major focus.  Having experimented in previous editions, I collaborated with our designer, editors, and previous students, to find a format that is both "readable" and "raidable."  I'll list a few things we did to make that happen in a moment.  But first, I also want to mention that I also put a lot of work into making sure that content that lends itself to a summary table is put into a table in way that complements and supports the text narrative.  That is, the table content is not simply a re-hash of the text—it is a thoughtful rearrangement of concepts to add more depth to student learning.

Table design features that promote effective learning in Anatomy & Physiology:

  • Background screens
    • Different shades of color behind different rows of each table helps the brain quickly see logical groupings of concepts.  
    • The color of the screens is apparent, but not too bright or too saturated to distract the brain from the content
  • Rules (borders)
    • White horizontal rules are just visible enough that they (along with the color screens) subtly guide the reader's eye across rows
    • Vertical rules help the reader clearly distinguish columns and cells so that it is clear how the concepts are organized in the table
  • Fonts
    • Font sizing allows tables of a compact size—which allows ease of seeing patterns in the whole—but is still big enough for easy reading
    • Intentional use of boldface and italic headings within the more complex table help clarify the organization of ideas—thus reducing the cognitive load of understanding table content
    • The occasional use of color fonts helps highlight conceptual patterns
      • For example, the book's color code can be applied in tables related to blood vessels (oxygenated red and deoxy blue) or nerves (afferent blue and efferent red)
  • Illustrations
    • Judicious use of small, embedded or nearby sketches help students more clearly "see" the concepts listed in a table
    • This is a careful balancing act, because tables with overly large illustrations, too many illustrations, or very complex illustrations can reduce the effectiveness of a table
There is lot more to what goes into designing each table in Anatomy & Physiology to make it an effective learning tool.  But this post is already almost too much to read in one sitting, eh? In later posts, I'll be calling attention to particular tables—especially those new to the latest edition—to give examples of how effective they are for deep student learning.

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