Carnegie Mellon University

Problems in Picturing Text

Author: Philippa Benson
Degree: Ph.D. in Rhetoric, Carnegie Mellon University, 1994

In this study, fifteen experts from three disciplines (five designers, five editors, and five biologists) worked on diagnosing and solving problems in three text/illustration (T/I) combinations. Fourteen first year college biology students also interpreted the combinations. Participants gave think-aloud protocols while working with the combinations, which were all from science texts and included poorly written text, confusing illustrations, and mismatched information between text and illustrations. The study was designed to explore the problem-solving strategies of experts as they revised visual and verbal information and to compare their interpretations to those of student readers. The study's purpose was to characterize the problem-solving strategies of experts and to shed light on the sources of problems in T/I combinations, which are both widespread and have a potentially significant negative impact on the educational effectiveness of textbooks.

The results of the study indicate that, despite differences, the experts from the different disciplines worked in some similar ways. All the experts gave others revising the T/I combinations as much attention as they gave to students and were also primarily concerned with students' lack of prior knowledge and motivation. None of the experts in this study were able to predict the misinterpretations that students had of the T/I combinations. In addition, many of the experts did not detect many of the problems in the combinations. These results indicate that one of the sources of the problems in T/I combinations may be due to the lack of consensus among expert authors as well as to a lack of direct feedback from readers. Problems may slip through the cracks for two reasons. First, consensus about problems in T/I combinations may be difficult to achieve because collaborating experts rarely have the opportunity to meet face-to-face. Second, isolated expert authors may be positioned to advocate their own problem-solving frameworks rather than synthesize their perspectives with those of others. The results of the study suggest that practical changes in publishing practices may be useful. In addition, the results have implications for evolving notions of audience and for the concept of "visual" literacy.