A world map highlights countries in shades of blue and green. Canada is highlighted.

How Data Visualization Can Facilitate Active Learning and Undergraduate Research in an Online Class

This assignment describes how a data visualization assignment can aid students in developing research skills in an online course.


This assignment, created in partnership between a faculty member and an academic user experience (UX) designer, was designed for a senior seminar in International and Global Studies at a large, urban, public university with a large commuter student population. Many students elect to take courses online in order to save time and balance busy working lives. All the courses in which the students used this assignment were fully online, in course shells built in the D2L learning management system. A core value of the senior seminar in International and Global Studies class is that students acquire research and writing skills through the creation of a culminating major research paper. Unfortunately, the first time that the class was offered in 2016, students struggled with the research aspect of the project; in particular, students had difficulty identifying a research topic and hypothesis. The UX designer suggested replacing the midterm annotated bibliography with a data visualization project: a high-impact online teaching practice known to increase engagement in undergraduate research (Kuh 2008). In what follows, we explain the initial iteration of the data visualization assignment as well as the revised version that we created based on students’ feedback.

Initial Assignment

We began by reviewing literature related to universal design for learning and high-impact teaching practices, which encourage dynamic presentations and assignments to increase student engagement (Baldwin and Ching 2016; Fink 2003; Kuh 2008). Our collective brainstorming around course outcomes, program outcomes and high-impact online teaching opportunities led us to select a data visualization assignment that would encourage students to think critically about their larger research project early in the quarter. A data visualization is the graphic depiction of numerical data in a manner that allows the viewer to better understand and interpret this information. The assignment would use software freely available to students, meet course objectives, and allow for individual personalization. Our original project asked students to first identify a data source, and then manipulate it in a basic manner to create a map, which they would later embed or share with the final research paper. The map was chosen not only to help students think with a global perspective (since this was an International Studies class), but also because maps can be easy to conceptualize. Students also would write a brief reflection to describe their research process and what they had learned.

Students had three weeks to complete the assignment. In week one, students were given a two-page assignment outline that included an overview of the assignment, a timeline, a grading rubric, and an example map. Sections with additional information included “Dynamic Learning Materials” with links to software and resources for the assignment; “Ask Questions, Get Help, and Help Others” with links on how to ask for help in a class discussion forum; “How-To Media” with a four-part video series that walked the viewer step by step through creating a map; and “Due Dates” with recommended progress dates outlined for each week.

The assignment was scaffolded on a weekly basis with the first three weeks being dedicated to researching data sets on the UN World Drug Report and finding a dataset (a collection of numerical information on a particular issue) that reflected the students’ final research topic. In the first two weeks of the assignment students began working on their map. In the third week of the project students finished creating their map and shared their work with the class to foster a reflective conversation. The class then viewed each other’s work, and discussed what they learned on the discussion board, based on the following prompts:

  • Explain how difficult or easy this assignment was and why.
  • Do you feel that this assignment helped you to prepare to research for your final paper?
  • What advice would you have for someone doing this assignment in the future? Are there any changes that you would suggest to the assignment itself?

The result was a lively discussion about how the data visualization assignment project related to their final project. In addition, students also submitted a self-reflection on their paper, which was shared with the faculty member only.

Revised Assignment

Data were collected from the originally piloted 400-level undergraduate seminar class in International and Global Studies, and from six additional upper-division courses in the same program. The professor then used a similar assignment in other courses (“The US and the World” and “Global Drug Trade”). One key change to the project based on student feedback was the need for more choices in the format of the data visualization; in addition to the map, students requested a chart or timeline format. Students also wanted to explore their own statistical source for the project, as well as to see examples of other students’ projects. With permission, the faculty member put examples of these projects into the course shell. The wording of the handouts and guidelines was adjusted to reflect student concerns.

Reflections on the Assignment

Through reflection, discussion, and public presentations of their visualizations, this assignment increased student engagement in their research. Additionally, some of the projects were visually stunning, which increased student enthusiasm for viewing each other’s projects. Many students also chose to create data visualizations which were meaningful to them in some way, sometimes because of a family connection to the topic. For example, one student whose family came to the US from Iran chose to do a timeline that looked at the history of US–Iranian relations, while a student whose family came from Vietnam sought to better understand Vietnamese trade and migration. A number of students described how the assignment helped them to research their final paper and clarify goals for research, as well as facilitating new skills around technology. Over the course of redesigning the assignment, the professor saw that the students demonstrated higher levels of engagement with their research topics based on their reflections and discussion of the data visualization project. This assignment has become a standard research project in the faculty’s upper division classes.


Baldwin, Sally, and Ching, Yu-Hui. 2017. “Interactive Storytelling: Opportunities for Online Course Design.” TechTrends 61, no. 2: 179–86. https://doi.org/10.1007/s11528-016-0136-2.

Fink, L. Dee. 2003. “A self-directed guide to designing courses for significant learning.” https://www.bu.edu/sph/files/2014/03/www.deefinkandassociates.com_GuidetoCourseDesignAug05.pdf.

Kuh, George. 2008. “High-Impact Educational Practices: What They Are, Who Has Access to Them, and Why They Matter.” AACU Research Publication. https://www.aacu.org/node/4084.

About the Authors

Kari Goin Kono is a usability designer with ten years of experience in online learning and designing digital environments within higher education. She has an extensive research agenda geared towards supporting faculty with inclusive teaching practices within online learning including student voice and co-construction as a practice in equitable curriculum design.

Shawn Smallman is a Professor of International and Global Studies at Portland State University. He has published extensively on Global Health and International Studies. He currently teaches entirely online, and uses both universal design and the negotiated syllabus in his courses.

'How Data Visualization Can Facilitate Active Learning and Undergraduate Research in an Online Class' has 3 comments

  1. August 12, 2022 @ 1:55 am مساج القاهرة

    excellent strategy.


  2. July 8, 2022 @ 1:05 am www.mcdvoice.com

    Discussions can be an excellent strategy for enhancing student motivation, … Will I open the discussion to the entire class or ask students to discuss the …


  3. January 7, 2022 @ 2:21 pm Data Visualizations in the online classroom — Introduction to International & Global Studies

    […] My colleague, Kari Goin Kono, and I just published a short-form article, “How Data Visualization can facilitate Active Learning and Undergraduate Research in an Online class.” Fortunately, the Journal of Interactive Technology and Pedagogy is open-access, so if anyone is interested in reading the paper, you can find it here. Here is an abstract: […]


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