Are Public Health Students Learning Visual Communication?

Electronic tablet and paper charts

New research from Michigan Public Health

Olivia Anderson, Sharon Kardia, Kashvi Gupta, and Ella August


As the old saying goes, "A picture is worth a thousand words." This aphorism rings true even in the field of public health. Visual elements like photographs, figures, infographics, and maps are a key method for public health practitioners to spread the word about a plethora of health topics. They help to make compelling arguments about important public health topics and issues, allow us to make complex data understandable, and often attract viewers by making information more visually interesting. But how often is visual communication implemented or even a focus in writing assignments for public health students?

A team of faculty and alumni at the University of Michigan School of Public Health recently investigated this question. After completing a review of public health writing assignments to learn how they aligned with the six recommended characteristics of writing assignments, they wanted to go further in looking at  instructor expectations for including visual elements in writing.

The new study, published in the Journal of Visual Communication in Medicine, emphasizes the need for dedicated instruction for public health students to establish competence in visual communication practices.

“We wondered how frequently public health instructors asked students to include visual elements in their assigned writing,” said Ella August, clinical assistant professor of Epidemiology at Michigan Public Health and author of the study. “So we evaluated a collection of public health writing assignments to get a sense of this. Our earlier analysis didn’t include visual communication, and there is virtually nothing published on incorporating visual elements into public health writing assignments.”

The study found that a visual element was only mentioned in 30 percent (13/44) of the writing assignments in the sample. The type of visual elements mentioned in the particular assignments included tables, figures, charts, graphs, graphics, pictures, maps, and diagrams.

“What was interesting was less than half of assignments that did mention visual elements actually awarded points for the visual element,” August said. Points awarded for visual elements ranged from 5–10 percent of the total writing assignment grade and only two assignments provided explicit criteria about the expectations for the visual element. Only one of the assignments that mentioned visual elements provided both explicit criteria about the visual elements and also awarded points for the visual.

“Visual elements are extremely important to public health,” August emphasized. “They help us communicate new research findings to other researchers, we use them to warn the public about hazards, and to inform policy makers to help them create policies and regulations.”

Based on the findings of the two studies on assigned writing, the researchers recommend several solutions for public health professors and educators to help create effective writing assignments that emphasize visual communication:

  1. Describe the purpose of the writing and the assignment’s learning goals.
  2. Present a real public health problem that must be approached with critical thinking.
  3. Require a document type that is used in the profession rather than a generic one (e.g. a journal article rather than a generic research paper).
  4. Clearly explain the assignment’s expectations and criteria for evaluation.
  5. Identify an audience to whom the assignment should be written.
  6. Allow for a process to support the writing, (e.g. multiple drafts with revisions).
  7. Require students to include a visual element in their writing assignments and assign points to that visual element.

The full analysis can be found in the Journal of Visual Communication in Medicine. Other authors of the research include Olivia Anderson, clinical assistant professor of Nutritional Sciences, Sharon Kardia, associate dean for education, and Kashvi Gupta, alumna of Michigan Public Health.

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