Helping Students Make Sense of Graphs: An Experimental Trial of SmartGraphs Software


Graphs are commonly used in science, mathematics, and social sciences to convey important concepts; yet students at all ages demonstrate difficulties interpreting graphs. This paper reports on an experimental study of free, Web-based software called SmartGraphs that is specifically designed to help students overcome their misconceptions regarding graphs. SmartGraphs allows students to interact with graphs and provides hints and scaffolding to help students, if they need help. SmartGraphs activities can be authored to be useful in teaching and learning a variety of topics that use graphs (such as slope, velocity, half-life, and global warming). A 2-year experimental study in physical science classrooms was conducted with dozens of teachers and thousands of students. In the first year, teachers were randomly assigned to experimental or control conditions. Data show that students of teachers who use SmartGraphs as a supplement to normal instruction make greater gains understanding graphs than control students studying the same content using the same textbooks, but without SmartGraphs. Additionally, teachers believe that the SmartGraphs activities help students meet learning goals in the physical science course, and a great majority reported they would use the activities with students again. In the second year of the study, several specific variations of SmartGraphs were researched to help determine what makes SmartGraphs effective.

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This research was conducted under National Science Foundation Grant No. DRL-0918522, awarded to the Concord Consortium (Carolyn Staudt, PI). Any opinions, findings, and conclusions or recommendations expressed in this paper are those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect the views of the National Science Foundation.

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Correspondence to Andrew Zucker.


Appendix 1

SmartGraphs’ Learning Goals for the Physical Science Motion Unit

Understand Direction of Motion

  1. 1.

    Determine direction of motion from a position–time graph.

  2. 2.

    Determine direction of motion from a velocity–time graph.

  3. 3.

    Distinguish between speed and velocity when reading a velocity–time graph.

Understand Rate of Change

  1. 4.

    Identify constant, positive, negative, and 0 rates of change in position with respect to time from a position–time graph.

  2. 5.

    Identify constant, positive, negative, and 0 rates of change from a velocity–time graph.

  3. 6.

    Estimate and predict through interpolation and extrapolation, an object’s speed in different time intervals on a position–time graph.

  4. 7.

    Estimate, predict, and determine an object’s average speed over a given time interval on a position–time graph.

  5. 8.

    Interpret and compare position or velocity of an object from two graphs showing different rates of change, as well as interpreting the intersection of the two graphs in real context.

Extend Learning to Graphs Other Than Motion of Objects, e.g., Temperature, Money, and Algebra

  1. 9.

    Interpret characteristics (rate of change, etc.) such as above in new contexts.

Appendix 2

Two Sample Test Items

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Zucker, A., Kay, R. & Staudt, C. Helping Students Make Sense of Graphs: An Experimental Trial of SmartGraphs Software. J Sci Educ Technol 23, 441–457 (2014).

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  • Computers
  • Software
  • Physical science
  • Motion
  • Scaffolding
  • Graphs