Sindhu Mathai (Graduated 2011)



My area of research can be broadly summed up as:

The visual and verbal as modes to express understanding of two human
body systems among middle school students.

During the course of my dissertation work, we investigated how middle
school students express understanding of two human body systems
through diagrams and text: spontaneously and when presented with
constraints. Students were asked to respond to different
questionnaires on the digestive and respiratory systems which tested
their basic knowledge, visualisation and comprehension of text and
diagrams. We developed coding schemes to analyse content knowledge
(structure and function) through text and diagrammatic responses.
'Visualisation' was measured through specific questions which required
structure-function relationships to be made and required
transformational reasoning.

We found that students tend to prefer expression through text: a more
familiar and accessible medium. Students who performed well had good
scores in both visual and verbal modes. There was greater correlation
between visualisation and text scores rather then diagram scores. This
was possible since most visualisation questions did not require
diagrams to be drawn and therefore responses could be verbal. There
was a strong influence of prior content knowledge on ability to

The results draw from a long and rich oral tradition in India. Visual
thinking and use of diagrams is invariably a product of schooling.
However, pedagogical practices do not address this lacuna. Written
content in textbooks does not refer to or interweave diagrammatic
content. Since comprehension of visuals is not intuitive, explicit
instructions on diagram comprehension should form part of the
curriculum. This study also points to a more meaningful understanding
of diagrams through the scoring rubrics which help to interpret a
student's line drawing by analysing its meaningful units.


Mathai, S and Ramadas, J (2009). Visuals and Visualisation of Human
Body Systems. In International Journal of Science Education, Visual
and Spatial Modes in Science Learning, 31 (3), pp: 431-458.

Ramadas, J and Mathai, S (2008). Book Review. Visualization in Science
Education. John K. Gilbert (Ed.), 2005
Dodrecht: Springer. International Journal of Science Education 30
(15), pp: 2091-2096

Mathai, S and Ramadas, J (2007). Visualising structure and function of
the digestive system. Abstract for Gordon Research Conference on
Visualization in Science and Education, Bryant University, RI, USA.

Mathai, S (2007). Visual Thinking in the Classroom: Insights from the
research literature. In Natarajan, C and Choksi, B (Eds.) Proceedings
of the Conference epiSTEME-2, Homi Bhabha Centre for Science
Education, Mumbai: Macmillan.

Mathai, S and Ramadas, J (2006). The visual and verbal as modes to
express understanding of the human body, In Barker-Plummer, D, Cox, R.
and Swoboda N. (Eds.) Diagrammatic Representation and Inference,
Diagrams 2006, LNAI 4045, pp: 173-175. Berlin: Springer-Verlag

Mathai, S and Ramadas, J (2004). Putting Imagery back into Learning:
The Case of Drawings in Human Physiology, Proceedings of the
Conference epiSTEME-1, Homi Bhabha Centre for Science Education,

Ramadas, J, Kawalkar, AM, Mathai, S (2004). Small Science Class 1 & 2

Teacher's Book (English), Mumbai: Oxford University Press.





The broad area of my research is the role of visualisation and drawings as tools to understand human anatomy and physiology at the middle-school level. My thesis advisor is Prof. Jayashree Ramadas. We are investigating this less popular mode (atleast in Indian schools) of expression and communication from students’ verbal (written, spoken) and drawn responses. Students responded to three separate questionnaires on the digestive, respiratory and circulatory systems.

Our research is motivated by several factors. Biology is a visually rich discipline with two unique but closely inter-linked aspects: structure and function. Effective comprehension of the working of the human body should consist of an integrated understanding of structure and function. Such understanding is facilitated by the formation of a dynamic mental model which integrates the two aspects and incorporates both visual or depictive and verbal or logical, sequential understanding. In our attempts to understand and facilitate the formation of such mental models among students, we have drawn from literature on visuospatial reasoning, visual imagery, philosophy, psychology, neuroscience, and artificial intelligence. Implications for pedagogical practice are also being developed.

I have given the following seminars mainly as part of various graduate courses at HBCSE. The date of presentation is given within brackets.

  • Physiological basis of Memory (10 December 2002).

  • Cultural Influences on Memory (16 December 2002).

  • Ethnographic Research (February 2003).

  • Report of experiment (replication of classic experiment): Wertheimer, M. (1923). Laws of Organisation in Perceptual Forms (29 April 2003).

  • Summary of Chapter 2 “Meaning and Meaningful Learning” from Ausubel, D. P. et. al. (1978). Educational Psychology: A Cognitive View. New York: Holt, Rinehart and Winston. pp. 1-253 (March 2003).

  • Summary of the article: Smith, E. E; “Concepts and Induction” from: Posner, M. I. (ed.) (1989), Foundations of Cognitive Science, Cambridge, Massachusetts: Bradford. pp. 469-526 (April 2003).

  • Presentation of experiment done as part of the course “Cognitive Structures and Conceptual Change in Science” (29 July 2003).

  • Presentation for Atomic Energy Central School students: The Physiology of the Nervous System (26 December 2002)

  • Presentation for school teachers on Alternative Conceptions in Biology: 'Children's Ideas about Life' and 'Photosynthesis' (26 July 2003)

  • Summary of Chapter 2 “Drawings as patterns” from Goodnow, J. (1977). Children's Drawing. London: Open books.

  • Summary of Chapter 6 “Child as Notator” from Karmiloff-Smith, A. (1995). Beyond Modularity: A Developmental Perspective on Cognitive Science. Massachusetts: Bradford Books, MIT Press.

  • Summary of a few chapters from the PhD thesis of Brooks, M: Drawing to learn. The University of New England, Australia. Source:

  • Presentation of the article: C, Maureen (1998), Drawings of people by Australian Aboriginal Children: the intermixing of Cultural Styles, NSEAD (1 December 2003)

  • Summary of the chapter: Bremner, G. (1999). “Children's Drawings and the evolution of Art”. From Andrew, L. and Peters, R. C. (Eds.) Handbook of Human Symbolic Evolution. Oxford: Blackwell Pub. Ltd.

  • Presentation of the article: Diamond, Adele (1991); Neuropsychological Insights into the Meaning of Object Concept Development. From Susan Carey and Rochel Gelman, The Epigenesis of Mind, Essays on Biology and Cognition, New Jersey: Lawrence Erlbaum Associates (15 October 2003)

  • Report of experiment: The Balance Task: Siegler's Rule Assessment Approach (4 December 2003)

  • Learning Webs (based on Ivan llich’s work) (11 December 2003)

  • Summary of the article: “The Prehistory of Written language”. From: Vygotsky, L. (1930). Mind in Society: The Development of Higher Psychological Processes (April 2005).

  • Summary of the article by Tversky, B. (2005). “Functional Significance of Visuospatial Representations”. From: Shah, P. and Miyake, A. (Eds.) The Cambridge Handbook of Visuospatial Thinking. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press. (20 May 2005).

  • Summary of the chapter: Reisberg, D. and Heuer, F. (2005). Visuospatial images. In Shah, P. and Miyake, A. (Eds.), The Cambridge Handbook of Visuospatial Reasoning. New York: Cambridge University Press. 35-80 (6 September 2005).

  • Summary of Chapter 8: Seeing with the Mind's eye. From: Pylyshyn, Z. (2003). Seeing and Visualizing: It's not what you think. Cambridge, MA (28 October 2005)

  • Mixed Method Designs (research methodology) (8 November 2005).

  • Summary of the paper: Guerin, F., Ska, B. and Belleville, S (1999). Cognitive processing of drawing abilities. Brain and Cognition, 40, 464-478 (22 November 2005).

Thesis advisor: