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Academic literacies
| Developing a digital student | Developing notemaking and reflective learning | IBL & PBL: problems and projects | Promoting dicussion
Promoting reading | Reading List | Resources | Simulations and role plays | Visual and creative strategies
Writing - mastering 'skills' | Writing - Writing in the Disciplines/Writing across the Curriculum



Visual and Creative Strategies

We have found that building in creative and visual strategies helps students to develop different types of thinking, communicating and exploring the academic world. In our practice we have used the activities below to develop student analytical and critical thinking, voice and self-expression. Developing visual literacy is also fundamental to developing digital literacies in our students. The digital age is information rich and highly visual, so if for no other reason, we suggest that you embed some of the activities below in to any subject module – at any level – to help support the increasing sophistication of students’ visual literacies.

This section contains activities on the following:

  • Collage
  • Observation/visual skills
  • Draw to Learn
  • Art Projects
  • Art for Learning
  • Art for Commentary and Research
  • The visual essay
  • Creative Cabinets
  • Visual Notes

1: Collage: to glue or stick…
Collage is a really useful activity to initiate some visual practices work. Quite often students are reluctant to just draw or to try to express their thinking through drawing – it is something lost. The collage allows students to express themselves visually without opening themselves up to personal ‘attack’.

Tip: If using collage – give a quick introduction to the what, why and how of collage – and have newspapers, magazines, scissors and glue for students to use.


  • Each student to produce collage self-portrait using torn pieces of magazine or newspaper. The collage can be a literal representation as in a black and white or colour portrait photograph – or it can be more of an abstract, surreal representation.
  • Each student to produce ‘first thoughts’ on an essay, project or dissertation via collage
  • Students to produce collage summary of a whole course – or part way through a course
  • Encourage students to utilise visual methods in their Research Projects. (We did this by setting first year students the task of researching the academic practices/attitudes of other students.)

Analytical and critical thinking:
Require students to reflect on their collages in writing – this develops both analytical and critical thinking – and writing to learn.
Ask students to write an Artist Statement for their collage:

  1. Explain your process (medium and technique).  How was it made?  Which art materials and approaches did you use and why?
  2. Describe the idea behind your artwork.  What story or message does it get across?  What does it mean to you?
  3. Why did you create it?  What are your reasons for creating that specific art piece?  What do you want your audience to feel and think while observing it?

2: Developing observation skills and visual communication: Out of class exercise:
Set the students the task of exploring the University as a place of learning. Get them to make field notes and pictures – ready for a poster presentation in succeeding weeks. This develops their observation, analytical and communication skills. If undertaken in small groups, interpersonal skills also developed.

How we did it:

Explore the University in pairs as ‘participant observers’ (look this phrase up and think about it) – for Poster Presentation
Explore the University’s different ‘learning spaces’: formal and informal.
Make ‘field notes’, sketches and pictures
You are exploring the University as a site - and as many sites - of learning.
You are looking at learning spaces and learning activities.
You are looking at the different actions of and interactions between people as they set about the business of being students, learners, academics and researchers.
Note what sorts of learning is happening around the University. Where – why – how is it happening? Make notes and (with permission) take pictures.
Reflect on your field notes and produce individual posters capturing what you have discovered ready to make a poster presentation (remember your collage work!!).
Remember to reflect on this day in your Module blog.

3: Draw to Learn: We draw to think, explore, communicate, understand, experiment, reflect. But most of us do not draw. This disables our creativity and arguably hinders our participation in a Digital World. We have compiled a range of quick drawing activities to embed in any session just to encourage students to communicate more visually – and have PPT resources to seed individual lessons.


  • Blind or foot drawing – get students to draw without paying attention to representational accuracy. Have them look at a person or an object and draw that without looking at the paper hey are drawing upon (blind drawing) – or by holding the pen with their toes. Make this loud and fun and engaging. Allow laughter and the sharing of the pictures. Discuss why this is a liberatory practice.
  • One-minute drawings – put up an A-Z of topics – give students five minutes to draw five things. This is quick and about channelling the drawing – rather than being imprisoned by the idea of producing perfect likenesses
  • Five minute drawings – as above – but allowing a little more time.
  • Draw a process: Think of a set of processes or systems relevant to your subject (the learning cycle – the water cycle – the reflective cycle – the research process – writing an essay …). Each student has to draw the process using as few words as possible. Get students to display and discuss their drawings – in pairs or small groups.
  • Academic Pictionary: get the students to call out key theories or concepts relevant to the subject. Each student has to choose and draw one using NO WORDS – other students have to guess… Discussion can include the suggestion that such drawing is used to make notes more useful and memorable – and if necessary de-bunking misunderstandings.
  • Require students to nominate an original Journal article – or book chapter – relevant to their course and with special reference perhaps to an assignment. Each student has to present the article in a new, visual format: comic book; infogram; poster [presentation].


  • Discuss: role of drawing in teaching and learning – and to seed creative thinking in [your subject]…
  • In groups: build a collage that reflects on all that we have learned so far on the course – link to Module assignments. Show collages and discuss. Think: What other uses are there for collages in teaching, learning and research?

4: Art Project: Require students to research an artist, an art movement or a particular work of art – and consider how they might use what they have learned in their studying now – and their professional life  in the future – for three-minute presentation – or for some sort of end of course ‘performance’.

How: See In this blog we reflected on our engagement with Penn State’s MOOC: Introduction to Art: Concepts and Techniques. Each week we also considered how we might use what we had learned in our own practice and our own professional development. You might consider portrait painting; fantastic art (for Surrealism, Dadaism see; photography and documentary photography; Mail Art; Installation Art; Arts and crafts… Choose something that excites and inspires you – use that energy!

Extension: Free write on the role of drawing and art in teaching and learning and/or consider the role of creativity in [your subject]. Construct a possible paragraph on the value of drawing and/or art and/or creativity for [your subject], remembering the paragraph questions:

  1. What is this paragraph about?
  2. What exactly is that?
  3. What is your argument (in relation to the question as a whole)?
  4. What is the evidence? What does it mean?
  5. So what? (Please make a point that relates back to the question as a whole.)

Peer review paragraphs.

5: Art for learning: Alternative ways of prompting reflective learning
Correspondence with memory: The Mail Art movement… and producing an envelope of memories. 


  • Students to produce a Memory Envelope on a key moment in their lives – and to share with the class. This helps to bed students into a group – and it helps us as tutors get to know our students
  • Students to produce memory envelopes of the module or course – or as part of preparing for their assignments. Start half way through a course - students can produce multiple ‘inserts’ to put into the envelope as they realise the significance of particular lectures/seminars/reading
  • Guidance for students: Cut out an envelope shape then decorate it to bring your particular memory alive. Create some form of ‘insert’ to go into the envelope and that will further elaborate the memory or experience.
  • Discuss the role of reflection and memory in learning. Consider the different ways that we can encourage active and meaningful reflection. See

Write to Learn: Students to write an artist’s statement for their Mail Art:

  1. Explain your process (medium and technique).  How was it made?  Which art materials and approaches did you use and why?
  2. Describe the idea behind your artwork.  What story or message does it get across?  What does it mean to you?
  3. Why did you create it?  What are your reasons for creating that specific art piece?  What do you want your audience to feel and think while observing it?
  4. Plus/minus: Peer review of statements; post to learning blog with weekly session reflection.

6: Art for commentary or research
Installation Art: (See Installation can involve large or small scale ‘installations’ in a landscape that either complement, comment upon or counterpoint the environment. If harnessing artistic processes, think about setting an Installation Challenge: Get students to produce removable installations – around the University or the local environment – that comment upon the space in a way relevant to your subject.

Notes to students might say:

  • Explore the area in and around the University. Create a small installation that adds to or comments upon that space (but that is removable).
  • Photograph the installation and upload a picture of it to your blog
  • Remove installation
  • Write and post an Artist’s statement.

Tips for students:

7: The visual essay versus written essay
Rather than setting writing-only essays – set the challenge for students of producing a visual essay for one of your modules.
To prepare, explore a visual essay relevant to your topic (we have Ray Land’s PPT/visual essay on threshold concepts to share). Discuss both the content – and the form of its delivery.
The - Set that visual essay rather than a purely text-based essay for one of your assignments.

8: Creative Cabinets:
Cabinets of Curiosities are constructed as either a record and/or as a commentary upon a theme or a topic. See:

These can be linked to visual practices and memory - and can be seeded by getting students to create a Cabinet of the module – or as preparation for an essay.
If using visual practices as part of developing digital literacies specifically, this can facilitate discussion of the web as a curating system… It can be linked to education/courses/modules/textbooks – as curating systems. (See Jim Pettiward’s article on curation:


9. Visual Notes
As well as the non-linear, illustrated notes recommended in the Reading and Notemaking section – a great exercise is to get students individually or in groups to turn an academic article into an illustrated comic book page. Just see what a quick Google serach of Visual Notes unleashes: