Curricular Uses of Visual Materials: A Research-Driven Process for Improving Institutional Sources of Curricular Support

by Andrea Lisa Nixon, Heather Tompkins, and Paula Lackie , Carleton College

The Curricular Uses of Visual Materials study began with case studies centered on sample support-intensive assignments that incorporated work with visual materials. Based on the findings of these case studies, three survey instruments were designed to examine initial findings in the context of the larger community. In the end, the study was intended to help members of the Carleton community improve institutional sources of support available to students and faculty members. This project’s ongoing aims are to align institutional forms of support with current and emerging curricular needs, and to mitigate the procedural overhead and assumption of deep institutional knowledge previously required of faculty members and students in creating and matriculating through such a curriculum.

Like many liberal arts colleges, Carleton College has a vibrant, ever-evolving curriculum that draws upon interdisciplinary initiatives in areas such as quantitative reasoning, ethical inquiry, spatial analysis, and in visual modes of expression. One characteristic these initiatives share is that they prompt faculty members to work across disciplines as they develop programs, courses, and assignments. In cases in which these initiatives prompt students and faculty members to engage in support-intensive projects, it is critical for the success of these initiatives that academic support professionals similarly work across organizational boundaries to consider ways of more effectively providing curricular support. This is particularly true where assignments draw on resources and expertise that have historically been provided by disparate areas of the college. This National Institute for Technology in Liberal Education (NITLE) case study describes one institution’s experiences engaging in such boundary-spanning discussions based on a research study that explores the ways in which contemporary students and faculty members engage Carleton’s campus as they work on assignments that incorporate visual materials. These discussions and the findings of the research study are the basis of a new coordinated support model at Carleton College.

Visualizing the Liberal Arts is a multifaceted initiative that, at its core, is intended to support the development of a curriculum designed to prompt students to express ideas visually or to use visual forms of evidence in argumentation. In the planning process that led to this initiative, a steering committee comprised of faculty members, academic support professionals, and administrators discussed institutional forms of support critical for incorporating “visual literacy” and understandings of visual culture essential outcomes of the contemporary liberal arts curriculum.1 The steering committee ultimately distilled the relationship between institutional forms of support and the curriculum by noting that creative collaborations between faculty and staff members in the development of assignments are the points at which the curriculum meets the support structure of the College. This focus at the level of individual assignments served to frame the present study and associated discussions.

Project Overview
Carleton’s Curricular Uses of Visual Materials study was a yearlong project designed to answer the question: Are the sources of support that the College provides well suited to the work demanded of students and faculty as they make curricular use of visual materials? This project was funded by a generous planning grant from the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation and involved the work of both a steering committee and a research group that worked in tandem. The former examined best practices in providing support for visual materials at a variety of institutional types (e.g. universities, museums, movie studios, and animation studios) and discussed ways in which these practices might align with curricular support needs at Carleton. The latter group framed the research study and generated research questions in sync with the discussions of the steering committee. During steering committee retreats, members of the research group presented their findings and incorporated suggestions and insights from the steering committee into the research design.

Figure 1: Curricular uses of visual materials project overview


The study itself was roughly divided into two parts. The ethnographic portion of the study was comprised of a series of four case studies. The research group decided that it was important to root the research study in observations of the ways in which students and faculty members create, carry out, and complete assignments that incorporate visual materials. As described in the full report these case studies featured assignments that involved creating a film short, making group presentations, writing a film analysis, and science writing. Students participating in the study took photographs of the resources, equipment, and locations they used while completing the assignments; kept logs of their work sessions; and then were interviewed about their experiences by student researchers. Academic support professionals (a reference librarian and an academic technologist) interviewed four faculty members while they were grading student assignments. The four case studies resulted in rich descriptions of the ways in which both students and faculty members members worked.

The second half of the study was comprised of a series of three surveys–one each for faculty, students and staff–designed to examine the findings of the case studies in the larger community. The faculty survey measured the degree to which faculty members create assignments requiring students to interpret, create, and present visual materials, and the forms of curricular support needed for these assignments. The staff and student surveys were not limited to questions about visual materials but instead related to curricular activities more broadly. The survey of staff members inventoried the types of curricular support available either directly to students or provided in coordination with faculty members, and recorded their involvement in that process. The forms of curricular support identified in this survey were derived from the cases studies as well as concurrent accreditation and curriculum redesign efforts underway at the College.

The student survey prompted students to identify where and when they chose to work, from whom they get assistance in completing assignments, and the characteristics of places in which they work. The survey asked students to reflect on the process they go through in completing an assignment that was familiar to them given their course of study as well as one they found challenging. The student survey was administered to sufficient sample size so that comparisons could be made across class years, assignment types, and majors.

Research Process Discoveries: Students and Academic Support Professionals as Critical Members of the Research Team
The research team associated with this study included two administrators, five student researchers and ten academic support professionals reporting to different academic departments and support units on campus. We noted a number of direct benefits derived from including individuals from these diverse perspectives in the process of designing, carrying out, and analyzing the case studies in particular.

The techniques employed in carrying out and analyzing the case studies were adapted from Foster and Gibbons’ model for the photo surveys and location logs that student participants completed.2Student researchers pretested these exercises enabling the larger research group to significantly redesign both exercises so that they were better suited for Carleton. In particular, the redesign of the location logs allowed the research team to map student work sessions and think spatially about the ways in which Carleton students engage the campus while working on assignments. As noted below, the spatial analysis resulted in one of the most important findings of the study.

Each case study was analyzed by a group comprised of:

  • a student researcher with a deep understanding of the case through transcribing and coding all interviews,
  • two academic support professionals not previously a part of the study but who, in the course of their duties, provided support to people creating or completing assignments that incorporate visual materials,
  • an academic support professional who was part of the research group, and
  • the project lead who was trained as a higher education researcher.

Members of the case analysis teams engaged the case study materials and were able to draw on rich and diverse understandings of the forms of institutional support available at the college. These analysis sessions ultimately resulted in recommendations for improvements to institutional sources of support that were rooted in deep institutional knowledge and incorporated the insights of individuals who both rely upon and provide institutional forms of support.3 This approach to analyzing cases resulted in more nuanced recommendations than if a single researcher had conducted the analysis and in a final research project in which support units on campus are invested.4

Research-Based Discoveries: Institutional Culture, Student Acculturation, and Working Across Boundaries
As noted earlier, the point of this research project was to learn about the ways in which forms of institutional support can be better aligned with the evolving curriculum at Carleton. Findings critical for designing a more effective curricular support model fall into three categories relating to elements of institutional culture, the process of student acculturation as it relates to seeking curricular support, and the importance of facilitating work across organizational boundaries. The following list of findings include the most significant ones in terms of improving institutional forms of curricular support (a full list is available in our research report).

Institutional Culture
There were two important findings of the study related to the existing culture of the institution that have bearing on the ways in which students seek out and academic support professionals communicate about curricular support. Findings relating to the culture at Carleton came out of analyses of the case studies. In this context, the analysis groups worked from photographs taken by student participants as they worked on their assignments (e.g. study spaces, tools or technologies used, or something that frustrated them while working on the assignment); logs of the student work sessions; and transcripts of the interviews between student researchers and student participants discussing student experiences with assignments and materials used. In particular, the analysis groups discussed forms of support available to students as well as the barriers students experienced in working on their assignments. This led to two distinct findings:

  • It is important for curricular support to be perceived as a resource for all students, not just for students who are struggling. In positive terms, this means conveying to students that working with academic support professionals or trained students in support centers is a natural part of joining an academic community rather than a sign of academic weakness. This is a communication strategy applicable to any support unit or academic support professional working within an academic department.
  • Rather than adding to the prodigious number of communication channels on campus, members of the analysis groups identified techniques for tapping into established lines of communication at the college. Across the analysis groups it was clear that support organizations should consider using regularly occurring events and existing lines of communication. This exercise was particularly effective in analysis groups where the discussions included strategies employed across divisions of the college and from both student and staff perspectives. This resulted in a list of communication strategies that was greater than any one person or support unit had previously employed. For instance, analysis group members from the dean of students’ division brought detailed understanding of the schedule and formal process of student orientation while others from the dean of the college division brought detailed understanding of the schedules and processes of academic departments. Candid insights from the team members who were current students helped to bring a “reality check” to the assumptions of staff members.

Student Acculturation
Study findings relating to student acculturation refer to differences in the ways students reported seeking help with assignments based on their class year. In the first half of the study the research group used GIS to map the work sessions of the student participants in the case studies in an effort to identify patterns in types of buildings and times of day during which in which students chose to work on their assignments. The research group then decided to design the student survey in such a way as to identify the places and times in which Carleton students chose to work on assignments associated with their major or course of study in the case of first year students. The associated survey analysis resulted in the most important finding of the study in terms of providing information about how to improve institutional sources of support across the college.

There were distinct patterns in the ways in which Carleton students reported seeking support for challenging assignments by class year, as outlined in Figure 2 below. (For a full interpretation of these findings, consult the full research report.)

figure2_larger_font_50_percent.jpgFigure 2: Percentage of students seeking assistance for challenging assignments

In essence, first- and second-year students were more likely than their junior and senior counterparts to report seeking support from other students. While faculty members clearly play very strong roles in supporting students as they work on challenging assignments across the board, seniors are twice as likely (56%) than first-year students (27%) to report seeking help from their professors on these assignments. This comes from an institution where students traditionally report very favorable satisfaction levels in their relationships with faculty members.

Particularly in the case of first-year students, students themselves play a strong role as providing sources of curricular support. First-year students are more likely to report seeking help from other students than seniors in terms of teaching assistants or prefects by 18% and students working at academic support centers by 12%. Thirty-one percent of students in their sophomore year reported not seeking help at all, the highest rate among all class years. Finally seniors were 5% more likely to report seeking help from other majors in their course of study.

The research group accounts for these differences in these response rates through a theory of acculturation. Early in their careers, Carleton students appear to be more comfortable going to other students for assistance. This may be a function of student reticence in approaching faculty with questions early on in their college career. As students become acclimated to their majors they increasingly report going to their course professors, other faculty members, and majors in the department for help. As noted below, it is important to re-administer the student survey so that the theory of student acculturation can be examined in the light of longitudinal data.

In terms of informing the ways in which Carleton provides institutional forms of support, academic support professionals who supervise prefects, teaching assistants, or students working in academic support centers would do well to give careful consideration to the ways in which they engage with students in their first and second years. Furthermore, it is important to consider the multifaceted approaches to providing curricular support to students. What kinds of support are best provided by faculty, academic support professionals, other staff members, student workers, and students advanced in a particular area of study? Once this is clarified, faculty members will be in a better position to identify sources of support for their students. Academic support professionals and support units can examine these data and, by their own measure and in coordination with others, determine how best to provide resources and support on campus.

Working Across Boundaries
The final category of research findings relates to the importance of working across organizational boundaries. Assignments that prompt students to create, interpret or present visual materials can be support intensive in nature. Students may be prompted to work with spatial data, search for images, use video editing software, or use visual materials as evidence in argumentation for the first time. Frequently, support associated with these activities is variously housed in academic departments and a range of support units. One of the driving principles behind our year-long project was that creating or completing assignments that incorporate visual materials are complicated enough in their own right and the act of seeking help should not necessitate deep understandings of the organizational structure of the college. In short, it should not be difficult to find help. The following recommendations are intended to reduce the barriers members of the community experienced while working with support-intensive assignments in general and visual materials in particular:

  • Students and faculty members should not be required to have an understanding of the duties of specific support units in order to locate potential sources of support. Even if the College were able to produce a flawless description of support resources, that alone would not be sufficient. Academic support professionals need to have a clear understanding of the range of curricular support available so that they can provide expert reference when consulting with students or faculty members. Given the disparate sources of support, communication is a major issue both in terms of identifying relevant resources and sources of support for students and faculty as well as in providing expert reference among academic support professionals.
  • In cases in which faculty members create support-intensive assignments, it is critical to coordinate support efforts through a team-based approach where assignments rely on expertise and resources that span organizational units. While this team-based support structure may only be warranted for a small percentage of courses, potential benefits of this coordination include: 1. reducing redundant meetings and duplicate efforts through working together in the process of planning a support-intensive assignment, 2. lowering overhead for students and faculty members in carrying out, and completing the assignment, and 3. providing increased exposure among academic support professionals about the types of support each provides. In the last case, increased coordination around support-intensive assignments functions to further develop the expert-reference network on campus.

The recommendations to further coordinate curricular support on campus and the accompanying campus-wide discussions have afforded members of the Carleton community opportunities to consider ways in which students and faculty members choose to engage the campus as they engage in support-intensive work. This is a fundamentally different approach from assessing the efficacy of a specific support unit on campus. The recommendations and associated conversations are intended to provide academic support professionals and support units with useful data that will allow each professional or support unit to determine how best to engage the campus and coordinate efforts across campus.

Potential Relevance for Other Institutions
There are two potential ways in which the work associated with the Curricular Uses of Visual Materials study might be of use to other institutions. The first relates to the ways in which evidence-based discussions about institutional sources of support may be framed at an institutional level while working within existing organizational structures. The second relates to ways in which other institutions may conduct educational research into support needs of students and faculty members.

Framing Institution-Level Discussions About Curricular Support
At its core this project is based on the fundamental idea that sources of curricular support implied in assignments that incorporate visual materials come from multiple places within the institution and are beyond the scope of any single organizational unit. The four case studies included in our study illustrate this situation insofar as they implied support or instruction in the areas of video editing, audio-video equipment checkout and use, effective techniques for searching within image databases, scanning and manipulation of images, designing slides for effective presentations, effective practices in public speaking, ways of accessing video collections, effective use of visual forms of evidence in writing assignments, map making and the incorporation of spatial data, effective uses of high-end scientific information resources, tutoring in science writing, peer editing, uses of a wiki for a group writing assignment, and academic accommodations. This range of activities in this list clearly demonstrates that structural measures, e.g. shifts in reporting lines, are insufficient to meet the support needs implied by the Visualizing the Liberal Arts initiative, let alone all of the interdisciplinary initiatives at the college.

Rather, the Curricular Uses of Visual Materials study has been used on campus to prompt discussions among academic support professionals and leaders of support units in understanding the ways students and faculty members engage the campus, support units, and experience barriers as they work on assignments that incorporate visual materials. These discussions have resulted in:

  • support units considering how they might adjust the ways they provide support and train student workers in light of the likely role that acculturation plays in the ways that students seek help,
  • discussions among academic support professionals and across support units about ways of coordinating efforts associated with support-intensive assignments and courses,
  • coordinated efforts to mitigate any negative connotations associated with students seeking support by limiting uses of the word “support” in communications with students and shifting to strategies that emphasize that being a member of an academic community means engaging with people with expertise complementary to one’s own, and
  • identifying areas of duplicate or complementary efforts to provide support in order to ensure that academic support professionals give consistent advice and, where possible, to balance the load of requests for support.

This evidence-driven approach to framing conversations about institutional forms of support may be a useful model for other institutions. These ongoing conversations provide the basis for design and refinement of Carleton College’s coordinated support model.

Opportunities for Conducting Similar Research Projects
Other institutions considering conducting similar research projects may benefit from Carleton’s project in a couple of ways. Schools or individual researchers interested in conducting ethnographic research that incorporate students on the research team should consult the full study report that contains the research group’s adaptations of Foster and Gibbons‘ techniques.5 Additionally, the authors would also be happy to share our methods for training student researchers.

The greatest potential use of this research study for other contexts lies in the use of the student survey. Recently renamed as the Student Engagement with Curricular Support Survey, the student survey was designed to gather information about assignments that students encounter in their major, or in the case of students who have not yet declared a major, in their course of study to date. It was designed to gather information about the ways in which students work on assignments that are both familiar and challenging to them and is not limited to assignments that incorporate visual materials. Carleton College will be administering the student survey again to examine the theory of acculturation and its relation to ways in which students seek assistance with challenging assignments. Research to date supports claims about differences that existed by class years among Carleton students during the year in which the survey was administered. Longitudinal data will allow the researchers to test this theory. Having data from other institutions would provide the means to examine this phenomena in other contexts. The authors welcome contacts from institutions or researcher interested in discussing further uses of this survey.

1. The authors use the phrase “academic support professionals” to refer to roles such as running writing centers, tutoring programs as well as slide librarians, reference and instruction librarians and academic technologists. People in these roles may report through academic departments or support units at the college and they are charged with providing institutional forms of curricular support. [return to text]
2. Nancy Fried Foster and Susan Gibbons, Studying Students: The Undergraduate Research Project at the University of Rochester (Chicago: Association of College and Research Libraries, 2007), [return to text]
3. A. Nixon, H. Tompkins, and P. Lackie, Curricular Uses of Visual Materials:A Mixed-Method Institutional Study (Northfield, MN: Carleton College, Dean of the College Office, 2008). [return to text]
4. Here institutional support includes support provided by staff members in academic departments (e.g. with expertise in video editing or slide librarianship) or support units including but not limited to the language center, writing center, library, information technology, and the academic support center. [return to text]
5. Foster and Gibbons, Studying Students. [return to text]