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Visual Representation in Mathematics

Add to favoritesby Ian Matheson and Nancy Hutchinson

Mathematics is a subject that deals with abstract ideas in order to solve

problems. Information can be represented with numbers, words, and other types
of symbols. Representing information with symbols can be a difficult practice for
students to understand and eventually begin to use themselves. Information is
often represented visually in mathematics as a method of organizing, extending,
or replacing other methods of presentation. Visual representation in mathematics
involves creating and forming models that reflect mathematical information (van
Garderen & Montague, 2003).

Although there are a number of problem solving strategies that students use in
mathematics, good problem solvers usually construct a representation of the
problem to help them comprehend it (van Garderen & Montague, 2003).
Individuals with learning disabilities (LDs) can have an especially challenging
experience solving problems in math, and research suggests that their use of
visual representation strategies differs from their typically-achieving peers in
frequency of use (Montague, 1997), type of visual representations used (van
Garderen & Montague, 2003), and quality of visual representations (van
Garderen, Scheuermann, & Jackson, 2012b). Creating a visual representation to
solve a problem in mathematics is a process that involves processing the
information in the problem, selecting important information, and identifying the
goal of the problem. It may come as no surprise to those familiar with LDs, that
students with LDs struggle with visual representation in mathematics because
they typically have difficulties processing information (Swanson, Lussier, &
Orosco, 2013).

Visual representation is an important skill because higher-level math and science

courses increasingly draw on visualization and spatial reasoning skills to solve
problems (Zhang, Ding, Stegall, & Mo, 2012). Additionally, it is simply another
strategy that students can use when they are thinking of the best way to answer
a problem in mathematics.

The Importance of Explicit Instruction

Perhaps the most consistent message in the literature about visual
representation in mathematics is that it needs to be explicitly taught to students.
Representing information visually is not a skill that comes naturally to students,
and so it must be taught and practiced. When first introducing a new skill to
students, it is important to model the skill in order for them to see how it is used
followed by opportunity for students to try it themselves.

The concrete-representational-abstract (CRA) approach to instructing students is

a method of explicit instruction that is supported by research as being effective
for students with learning disabilities (Doabler, Fien, Nelson-Walker, & Baker,
2012; Mancl, Miller, & Kennedy, 2012). The concrete level involves the use of
objects to represent mathematical information (e.g., counters, cubes). The
representational level involves the drawing of pictures to represent the objects
that were used in the previous level, and the abstract level replaces pictures of
objects with mathematical symbols and numbers.
Scaffolding is another approach to teaching visual representation to students with
LDs that is supported by research (van Garderen, Scheuermann, & Jackson,
2012a). Scaffolding involves the use of temporary supports during the learning
process as needed by the student. Providing a student with an incomplete
diagram and having them finish it and then use it to solve a problem is an
example of a scaffolding technique.

Click here to read a summary entitled "Explicit Instruction: A Teaching Strategy in

Reading, Writing, and Mathematics for Students with Learning Disabilities,
by Jean Roger Alphonse and Raymond Leblanc.

Types of Visual Representation

When you are talking about visual representation in mathematics, you may be
talking about representing information on a page with a diagram or chart, or
representing information in your head with an image. Fortunately, researchers
have focussed on helping students improve their visual representation both
externally (e.g., van Garderen, 2007) and internally (e.g., Zhang et al., 2012).
Developing both external and internal visual representation strategies is
important for students as both help support student learning in mathematics for
different types of problems.

In addition to the distinction between internal and external visual representations,

researchers have also outlined differences in visual imagery based on the
purpose. Pictorial imagery is used for representing the visual appearance of
objects or information. Schematic imagery is used for representing the spatial
relationships between objects or information. While both can be used to help
students learn and solve problems in mathematics, schematic imagery is more
effective as a method for supporting problem solving. Students with LDs are
more likely to use pictorial imagery when solving problems in math (van
Garderen & Montague, 2003).
External Visual Representation
Representing visual information in mathematics externally can be done in a
number of ways. While it is possible to represent one set of information using a
range of different visuals, students are usually taught that certain types of visual
representations are better for certain types of information. Diagrams and graphic
organizers are two types of external visual representations that are used in
mathematics, and both are supported by research for use with students with LDs.
This is a type of visual representation that can be modelled to students as it is
something that can be seen on a page or on the board at the front of the class.


Diagrams are visual displays that use the important information in mathematical
problems. They are typically used to demonstrate how the important information
is related, and can be used to organize information as well as to compute the
answer to a problem. A common type of diagram might be a drawing that a
student creates to represent the objects within a word problem. Individuals with
LDs may have a poorer understanding of what a diagram is, as well as when and
how to use it (van Garderen et al., 2012b).

Distinctions can be made between pictorial diagrams and schematic diagrams.

An example of a pictorial diagram would be a drawing of the important objects
within a word problem, while a schematic diagram would be a drawing that
includes the spatial relationships between the objects. As mentioned earlier,
schematic diagrams are more useful for students and typically result in more
success with problem solving (van Garderen & Montague, 2003).

A tree diagram is a method of representing independent events or conditions

related to an action, and it is often used to teach students probability theory. This
type of diagram might be used to teach students about probability through coin
flipping or through drawing from a deck of cards. It is considered a powerful
method of teaching probability in math, and is a great example of a visual
representation that is a diagram (Kolloffel, Eysink, de Jong, & Wilhelm, 2009).
A number line is another type of diagram that is being used increasingly by
mathematicians (Gersten et al., 2009). A number line consists of a straight line
that has equally spaced numbers along it on points, and can be easily drawn by
students for use when solving problems. Number lines are often used for the
teaching of integers, as well as for simple addition and subtraction problems, as
they provide students with a visual that they can touch to keep track of their

In a study conducted by van Garderen (2007), the researcher examined the

effectiveness of a three-phase instructional strategy for teaching students with
LDs to use diagrams in mathematics:

The first phase involved explicit instruction about what diagrams are, as
well as how and when they are used.

The second phase connected the use of diagrams to one-step word

problems, where students created diagrams that represented the
information that they knew and the information that they did not know.

The third phase was focussed on two-step word problems which have
more than one unknown piece of information, and students used diagrams
to determine the ultimate goal of the problem, as well as the secondary
pieces of information that they would need to find in order to compute the
ultimate goal.

Teaching students with LDs to use diagrams with this sequence of explicit
instruction resulted in improved performance, satisfaction of the students, and
students were also more likely to use diagrams with other types of problems.

A graphic organizer is another type of external visual representation that is often

used in mathematics. There are many types of graphic organizers andeach have
situations that they are best used for. While graphic organizers are often thought
of simply as organizational tools, they can be used to make rapid inferences to
solve different types of problems. Research supports the idea that students with
language disorders may benefit from learning and instruction using nonverbal
information such as a graphic organizer (Ives, 2007). Additionally, the use of
graphic organizers to support learning has been found to improve the
comprehension of facts and text for students with LDs at all ages (Dexter &
Hughes, 2011), as well as enhancing conceptual understanding in mathematics
(Ives, 2007). Four main types of graphic organizers can be used in mathematics:
a semantic map, a semantic feature analysis, a syntactic/semantic feature
analysis, and a visual display.

A semantic map is one type of graphic organizer that can be used to support
learning in mathematics. This type of graphic organizer is mainly used to relate
conceptual information, and could be used to support conceptual learning in
mathematics. One example might be to use a semantic map to help young
students who are learning to classify shapes into different categories. While
shapes might be the main heading, students might organize shapes into further
sub-heading such as round, symmetrical, right-angle, etc.

A semantic feature analysis is another type of graphic organizer. This graphic

organizer is characterized by a matrix format, where features or characteristics of
objects or concepts are displayed. A semantic feature analysis might be used to
compare shapes in geometry, where comparisons could be made between
number of sides, vertices, types of angles, etc.

A syntactic/semantic feature analysis is similar to the semantic feature analysis,

but sentences are added in to help students identify specific features about each
object. An example sentence that might follow the matrix is A ________ has the
most sides of all of the shapes we have looked at.

Finally, a visual display is a type of graphic organizer that can be used in

mathematics for displaying spatial relationships very clearly. Visual displays can
be used for a number of different purposes. One might make comparisons
between objects or concepts using a Venn diagram, or display information
temporally using a timeline to compute the answer to a word problem.

Though each type of graphic organizer can be used for learning mathematics by
individuals with LDs, the differences in their design suggest that they may be
best used in specific situations. Semantic maps andSemantic feature
analyses are considered to be better for recalling facts though they are more
difficult to understand and to learn how to use (Dexter & Hughes,
2011). Syntactic/semantic feature analyses and visual displays are considered to
be more efficient for making computations to solve problems, and for recalling
the information within these types of graphic organizers (Dexter & Hughes,
2011). The advantages to each type of graphic organizer suggest that initial
instruction of a mathematical concept may be best with more complicated
graphic organizers, and that independent review and studying could be done with
less complicated graphic organizers to improve recall of information for students
with LDs (Dexter & Hughes, 2011).

It is important to remember that explicit instruction is necessary for both diagrams

and graphic organizers. This instruction should highlight the purpose of each type
of external visual representation, as well as when and how to use
them. Diagrams are effective for students with LDs as they can help highlight
essential information and leave out information that is not necessary for solving a
problem. Thiscan simplify the problem-solving process (Kolloffel et al.,
2009). Graphic organizers may be a great support for students with LDs because
they take some of the organizational pressure off these individuals who may
have difficulty sorting through information and seeing the relationships between
different mathematical objects or concepts (Ives, 2007). Both types of external
visual representations can be easily modelled for students as educators can
physically construct them and explain their thinking as they do so in front of

Internal Visual Representation

While external visual representation can be easy to model and teach explicitly to
students, internal visual representation is not as easy to show students as it is a
mental exercise. A visual schematic representation involves the creation or recall
of visual imagery to represent information. Students are often asked to visualize
the problem in order to better understand it and solve it. This can be a difficult
task for students and it should not be assumed that this is a skill that all students
already possess. To create a mental picture when solving a word problem in
math, students must combine information from the problem with their prior
knowledge of the topic. While students cannot see the mental images that their
teachers create, it is still possible to walk students through the process of
creating the mental image as a verbal model, or even to draw images of what
they are seeing in their head to make it more explicit.

One strategy that teachers can use to support their students with LDs in creating
internal visual representations is known as visual-chunking representation.
Chunking is the practice of combining bits of information that are related in some
way in order to reduce the overall amount of information for easier processing.
For students with LDs, a reduction in the amount of information to be processed
can make exercises such as math problem solving much easier. A group of
researchers examined one method of visual-chunking for students with difficulties
in math, where students were working with geometric shapes and
transformations (Zhang et al., 2012). One group received series of nets of
geometric shapes, while another group received the same nets, though sections
had been shaded or chunked in an effort to see if it made a difference in their
transformations. The group that received the visual-chunking support performed
better than the other group, and found the exercise to be easier when provided
with the visual-chunking support (Zhang et al., 2012).

A group of researchers (Krawec, Huang, Montague, Kressler, Melia de Alba,

2012) developed an intervention to support students with LDs as they solve
problems in mathematics. The intervention was aimed at explicitly instructing
students about the cognitive processes that proficient problem solvers use in
math, including visualization. The intervention was delivered by teachers who
were trained to follow a sequence of instruction that included teaching visualizing
to the students. The intervention involved the teachers thinking aloud as they
progressed through the stages of the problem solving process. Students who
were a part of the intervention reported using more strategies when solving
problems in math, including the strategy of visualizing the problem (Krawec et al.,

Visual schematic representations have been shown to be effective for individuals

with specific difficulties in math, which can include LDs (Swanson et al., 2013).
Instructing students about how to create internal visual representations can be
difficult as it does not easily lend itself to explicit instructional techniques. Despite
this challenge, teachers can still support the development of this skill by creating
diagrams of their mental images as well as by thinking aloud as they are
visualizing while problem solving.

The use of visual representation during instruction and learning tends to be an
effective practice across a number of subjects, including mathematics (Gersten
et al., 2009). While using visual representation alone as a teaching method does
produce significant learning improvements for students in mathematics, these
improvements are even greater when other teaching methods are used as well
(Gersten et al., 2009). Having students represent mathematical information
verbally and in written form along with visual representation is encouraged. For
students with LD, both receiving instruction and solving problems in a number of
ways will help support their deeper understanding of concepts and operations in
mathematics (Suh & Moyer, 2007).

The importance of using explicit instruction to teach students how to make visual
representations cannot be overstated. The CRA method is an example of an
effective sequence of explicitly instructing students with LD to use visual
representation as a step towards the use of mathematical symbols exclusively
(Mancl et al., 2012). There are many types of diagrams (Kolloffel et al., 2009) and
graphic organizers (Dexter & Hughes, 2011) that can be effectively used support
students with LD in mathematics. While internal visual representation can be
difficult to model, strategies do exist that can support students with LD as they
develop this skill (Zhang et al., 2012). Educators are encouraged to use a
combination of external and internal visual representation strategies in their
instruction to students in the interest of helping students develop both types of

Click here to read a summary entitled "Concrete Representational Abstract:

An Instructional Strategy for Math", by Kathryn Garforth and Linda Siegel.

Additional Resource
The following LD@school summary provide strategies for students from
Kindergarten to grade 6 who use concrete materials.

Click here to read a summary entitled"Using Straws to Help Students

Understand the Principle of Tens", by Nicole Lauzon.

Other Resource
Click here to access the Cited Research Center website, Center for
Implementing Technology in Education: Multimedia Technologies.

Dexter, D. D., & Hughes, C. A. (2011). Graphic organizers and students with
learning disabilities: A meta-analysis. Learning Disability Quarterly, 34, 51-72.

Doabler, C. T., Fien, H., Nelson-Walker, N. J., & Baker, S. K. (2012). Evaluating
three elementary mathematics programs for presence of eight research-based
instructional design principles. Learning Disability Quarterly, 35, 200-211.
Gersten, R., Chard, D. J., Jayanthi, M., Baker, S. K., Morphy, P., & Flojo, J.
(2009). Mathematics instruction for students with learning disabilities: A meta-
analysis of instructional components. Review of Educational Research, 79, 1202-

Ives, B. (2007). Graphics organizers applied to secondary algebra instruction for

students with learning disorders. Learning Disabilities Research & Practice, 22,

Kolloffel, B., Eysink, T. H., de Jong, T., & Wilhelm, P. (2009). The effects of
representational format on learning combinatorics from an interactive computer
simulation. Instructional Science, 37, 503-517.

Krawec, J., Huang, J., Montague, M., Kressler, B., Melia de Alba, A. (2012). The
effects of cognitive strategy instruction on knowledge of math problem-solving
processes of middle school students with learning disabilities. Learning
Disabilities Quarterly, 36, 80-92.

Mancl, D. B., Miller, S. P., & Kennedy, M. (2012). Using the concrete-
representational-abstract sequence with integrated strategy instruction to teach
subtraction with regrouping to students with learning disabilities.Learning
Disabilities Research & Practice, 27, 152-166.

Montague, M. (1997). Cognitive strategy instruction in mathematics for students

with learning disabilities.Journal of Learning Disabilities, 30, 164177.

Suh, J., & Moyer, P. S. (2007). Developing students representational fluency

using virtual and physical algebra balances. Journal of Computers in
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Swanson, H. L., Lussier, C., & Orosco, M. (2013). Effects of cognitive strategy
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van Garderen, D. (2007). Teaching students with LD to use diagrams to solve

mathematical word problems.Journal of Learning Disabilities, 40, 540-553.

van Garderen, D., & Montague, M. (2003). Visual-spatial representation,

mathematical problem solving, and students of varying abilities. Learning
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van Garderen, D., Scheuermann, A., & Jackson, C. (2012a). Developing

representational ability in mathematics for students with learning disabilities: A
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van Garderen, D., Scheuermann, A., & Jackson, C. (2012b). Examining how
students with diverse abilities use diagrams to solve mathematics word
problems. Learning Disabilities Quarterly, 36, 145-160.

Zhang, D., Ding, Y., Stegall, J., & Mo, L. (2012). The effect of visual-chunking-
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Searches were conducted of the literature for content appropriate for this topic
that was published in scientific journals and other academic sources. The search
included online database searches (ERIC, PsycINFO, Queens Summons, and
Google Scholar). The gathered materials were checked for relevance by
analysing data in this hierarchical order: (a) titles; (b) abstracts; (c) method; and
(d) entire text.
Relevant journals archives were also hand-searched between issues from 2010
and the most recent issues. These journals included Learning Disability
Quarterly, Journal of Learning Disabilities, and Learning Disabilities Research &

Ian Matheson is entering his second year in the PhD program in Education at
Queen's University with a focus in Learning and Cognition. Ian has spent the last
two years working as an occasional teacher with the Limestone District School
Board where he is certified with the OCT as an elementary school teacher. He is
currently involved with the Continuing Teacher Education Centre at Queen's
University where he is an instructor for an Additional Qualifications course.

Nancy L. Hutchinson is a professor of Cognitive Studies in the Faculty of

Education at Queens University. Her research has focused on teaching students
with learning disabilities (e.g., math and career development) and on enhancing
workplace learning and co-operative education for students with disabilities and
those at risk of dropping out of school. In the past five years, in addition to her
research on transition out of school, Nancy has worked with a collaborative
research group involving researchers from Ontario, Quebec, and Nova Scotia on
transition into school of children with severe disabilities. She teaches courses on
inclusive education in the preservice teacher education program as well as
doctoral seminars on social cognition and masters courses on topics including
learning disabilities, inclusion, and qualitative research. She has published six
editions of a textbook on teaching students with disabilities in the regular
classroom and two editions of a companion casebook.