Skip to the main content
Your browser is out of date! Update your browser to view this website correctly
Update my browser
Spaces homeSpaces home
EN Decorative Icon

Maximizing Learning with Visual Thinking Strategies (VTS) and Digital Portfolios

Thinking visually with digital portfolios
Griffin Jaeger
August 20, 2020

Picture yourself in an art gallery.

You walk the aisles and appreciate the pieces you see.

You stumble upon a piece that you are unfamiliar with the meaning behind. You attempt to understand the intention, or the story connected to it.

You converse with your spouse or friends about what you see, how it makes you feel, and what it makes you think.

Again, picture yourself scrolling through your Instagram feed, seeing photography in the local newspaper, reading an illustrated or photographic novel. The same thought process is connected.

We are constantly observing and interpreting the art that surrounds us.

With the introduction of hybrid or remote learning, educators are looking for more and more ways to engage students and get them exercising their brains, on and off-camera.

What are many teachers resorting to? The answer might surprise you, art.

More specifically, visual thinking strategies.

What are visual thinking strategies?

At its core, visual thinking strategies, or VTS, is a teaching method using a combination of visual cues and your student’s prior knowledge. The USF Academy for teaching and learning defines the method as “a teaching method that improves critical thinking skills through teacher-facilitated discussions of visual images.”

The process is quite simple.

You, the teacher will showcase an image to your class, without any context as to what it is, or what it symbolizes. Then, your students will take a closer look at it before engaging and conversing with one another. They will work through an educated discussion, discussing and building off of each other’s ideas.

“Most often, the first thing to [get cut] in a portfolio, as a result of time, is the reflection. The reflection piece is so important, yet it's often the first thing to go, either in that it’s not there or more likely, it's not rich. If you have something in a portfolio and it's just an image, writing, or math, where is the student's voice?” said Laura Heyes, in her webinar Using Digital Portfolios to Support the Documentation of Knowledge.

Visual thinking strategies push students to integrate their voice into their portfolio through reflection, documenting their knowledge and learning process as they progress in their education.

Visual thinking strategies emphasize the importance of art in learning and education.

"Art is the essential first discussion topic because it enables students to use existing visual and cognitive skills to develop confidence and experience, learning to use what they already know to figure out what they don't; they are then prepared to explore other complex subject matter alone and with peers."


Visual Understanding in Education (VUE) is a nonprofit organization that researches aesthetic and cognitive development in interaction with art. To coincide with their research and findings, VUE develops student facilitated programs designed to improve cognitive development in education in the United States as well as Eastern Europe. They are most widely known for the Visual Thinking Strategies curriculum.

According to VUE, student-led learning like VTS is shown to improve a student’s ability to focus, reflect, and ask questions. These three skills form the toolbox a student needs to critically think.

Want to read more about VTS? Check out "Visual Thinking Strategies: Understanding the Basics"

Each question you ask your students through visual thinking strategies encourages students to work on a 21st-century competency.

You may ask students questions like:

What is happening here?

To open up the conversation and encourage students to better their storytelling skills, rather than simply viewing an artifact.

What do you see? What may lead us to think that?

To encourage students to support the points and opinions they raise with concrete evidence, and to use fact and logic within an argument.

What else can we find?

Urging students to always look for more than what is at face value, teaching them to be thorough and thoughtful in their research and discussion.

And from there, the students take the reigns.

Why does it work?

Visual thinking strategies emphasize student-driven learning

Rather than you (the instructor) disseminating information and knowledge, your students will present their thought processes, both independently and in collaboration with their classmates. As the ATLE states, this method is “learner-driven”.

All contributions and ideas are accepted and discussed, as there are no correct answers given. Every student's thoughts are acknowledged and respected, allowing them to feel heard.

VTS fosters critical thinking skills

As students work on their problem-solving skills and creativity, they take control of their learning, using their prior knowledge. Through facilitating these conversations and guiding your students through their thought process, you will have the pleasure of seeing those lightbulb moments shine through!

VTS is versatile

With the VTS method, you can have your students converse with any sort of visual cues. It doesn’t necessarily have to be a historical image, or a piece of art.

For instance, you can use mind maps, and have students collaboratively or independently discuss their thought process. Get creative!

VTS puts students with trouble reading and writing on a common ground

It’s important to keep in mind that while one student may excel in a certain subject area or skill, like reading or writing, others may not. This does not mean that one student is smarter, or more intelligent than another. Each one of your students has a different learning style, and that’s perfectly okay! As teachers, we need to recognize the importance of this.

As we modernize our teaching efforts, it is important to move past the traditional grading model in one way or another. After all, your students are more than their grades and their work on paper!

With VTS, the learning process is shown through conversation, putting the majority of students on a level playing ground, while improving their communication and comprehension skills!

VTS helps English language learners

By facilitating a discussion surrounding visual cues through VTS, your students who are new to English will have the chance to listen and learn from their classmates. Their classmates can encourage them and help them explain their thought process.

According to Jennifer Gonzales (Cult of Pedagogy), some of top ways to support ESL students are visual cues, group work and communication. After all, practice makes perfect!

VTS can help students combat social nerves & anxiety

Speaking in front of others, in any scenario can certainly be nerve-wracking. While the good old “imagine everyone in their undies trick” may work for some… it’s not foolproof.

At any age, allowing students to share their thoughts and ideas in front of their classmates may seem daunting to them at first, but as your students gain experience with it, their confidence will start to show through. VTS is collaborative, and through the process of learning, your class will inevitably become more comfortable with each other, and begin to share more insight and ideas without hesitation.

Read more: How to focus on SEL from home

How can you use visual thinking strategies with SpacesEDU (or another digital portfolio tool)?

Through the use of a digital portfolio, you can begin to implement VTS without having to be physically present in the classroom.

Simply create a post in your class with a visual cue or image, along with a few guiding prompts. Then have students respond with their thoughts!

Please note, we'll be showcasing this with the SpacesEDU platform but you can use other digital portfolio tools that enable a class community to go through these same activities.

You can facilitate this discussion in multiple forms

1. Have your students type and respond to one another in the comments section. Their classmates can continue the conversation in this format, each adding their own perspective.

2. Have your students record a video walking you through their thoughts. Classmates can then build off of their responses by creating videos, or responding to their classmates in the comments and adding on to the discussion.

3. Not all students have access to a webcam or feel comfortable filming themselves, that’s perfectly okay! You can have your students record audio recordings.

Their classmates can again, go ahead and continue the conversation through recordings, or as a response in the comments.

Get creative with your visuals to encourage your students to critically think and walk you through their learning process.

You can post images, videos, works of art, mind maps (to be filled in by your students), etc.

In return, you’ll see the true value of student-centered learning, where students work together to come to an answer, or work towards one using their prior knowledge.

So the next time you’re scrolling your Instagram feed, looking at images in books, or walking through that art gallery...think to yourself, how can I make this a learning-centered discussion? What lessons can come out of this?

Whether your visual thinking strategies turn virtual, or you are facilitating in-person discussions, VTS will empower your students and ultimately encourage them to critically think and take charge of their own learning through the world around them.

Left wanting more?

Watch how VTS can be linked to the Common Core Standards:

Griffin Jaeger

Try these next...

Empowering Student Voices in Shaping Competency-Based Learning Pathways

School District 46 uses SpacesEDU to support meaningful core competency reflection and goal-setting

The Role of Digital Portfolios in Social-Emotional Learning (SEL) Part 3: SEL and Family Engagement

The most powerful partner a school district can have to help students succeed? Families. Family engagement plays a pivotal role in student ...

The Role of Digital Portfolios in Social-Emotional Learning (SEL) Part 2: SEL and Student Voice

According to eminent paleontologist Richard Fortey, “A life accumulates a collection: of people, work, and perplexities. We are all our own curators.” ...

linkedin facebook pinterest youtube rss twitter instagram facebook-blank rss-blank linkedin-blank pinterest youtube twitter instagram