The role of visualisation for understanding complex systems
Document TypePhD thesis
CitationCheng, A. (2012). The role of visualisation for understanding complex systems. PhD thesis, Medical Education Unit, Faculty of Medicine, Dentistry, and Health Sciences, The University of Melbourne.
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© 2012 Dr. Ardis Cheng
Understanding complex systems (CSs) is an important skill in science education that is characterised by the ability to interrelate multiple scales of information. Visualisations play a significant role in supporting this cognitive skill by externalising these complex interrelationships into a perceptible form. However, the information at each level of a CS, from the agent (micro) to the aggregate (macro), may be best conveyed using different types of representations, making it difficult for individuals to visually and conceptually link the multiple levels of the system. The aim of this thesis is to investigate how to optimally design visualisations to improve student understanding of CSs. In particular, for CSs in which the physical structure directly influences its behaviour and function, and where changes enacted at a level higher than the agent have implications for all levels of the system. Following a visualisation design system approach, the investigation was divided into two phases. Phase I involved two user studies that examined student-generated external representations (ERs) of a CS to assess their understanding and type of representations they associated with the system. The findings from Phase I were used to formulate a set of preliminary design principles that were applied in Phase II, the instantiation and evaluation of the design principles in functional prototype visualisations. The design principles, and corresponding prototype visualisations, underwent two iterative cycles. Students struggled with the first version of the prototype that integrated the student-generated ERs from Phase I, demonstrating a conceptual disconnect between structural, behavioural, and functional elements within and between the agent and aggregate levels of the system. These student difficulties necessitated a revision of the preliminary design principles, informing changes in the type of ERs and visualisation transition techniques to be used in the second prototype. Student evaluations of this second prototype yielded more positive results with evidence of improved student reasoning of how the CS works. This thesis makes two contributions in visualisation and CSs education: a set of design principles for visualising structure, behaviour and function of a CS based on student mental models, and a proof-of-concept exemplar of the design principles in the form of a novel functional prototype visualisation that helped to improve student reasoning. In addition, this thesis also serves as an example of empirically based design research and illustrates how a cohort’s mental models can be leveraged into effective design.
Keywordscomplex systems education; Structure-Behaviour-Function theory; visualisation design
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