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Bridges and barriers to developing visual literacy in UK undergraduates

Bartram, Jacqueline A.


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Dr Jacqui Bartram
Academic and Library Specialist (Visual Literacy)



Today’s communication is multimedia and visually-rich. However, there is a possibility that many students leave university without the visual literacy they need to understand the multifaceted role that visuals can play in such messages or to create such messages themselves. This study had three main aims: first, to find out if that possibility was real; second, to try to understand why; and third, to identify what could be done about it.
Within the UK education system generic and interdisciplinary skills are primarily developed within disciplinary frameworks. To obtain a general picture of where skills relating to working with visual materials may be developed within specific subject areas, an institutional case study was undertaken where the module specifications for all undergraduate academic programmes were analysed to audit the opportunities for students to develop aspects of visual literacy. This process also identified a suitable selection of academic staff who were interviewed to help identify potential barriers to widening those opportunities and bridges for overcoming many of these barriers.
The audit of module specifications found that students studying the majority of degrees at the institution do not appear to get the opportunities they need to be fully visually literate. For many, only critical skills or creative skills are developed rather than both. For some, the visuals used or created are highly technical and not particularly transferable to other situations which may be an issue when careers paths are increasingly unpredictable and society beyond employment is more visually oriented. Comparing the audit results with the requirements of subject benchmark statements (QAA, 2020b) and the UK Quality Code for Higher Education (QAA, 2014b) indicates that the ability to use visuals when communicating with different audiences, especially non-specialists, may be implied within these statements and therefore not given the prominence it deserves in many degree programmes.
Several barriers to developing visual literacy were identified. In line with the pragmatic research approach, these were classified by their level of surmountability. In addition, several bridges were identified, which can be used to overcome at least the more resolvable barriers. Two main recommendations were made: the provision of a range of assessment rubrics to facilitate the adoption of more visually-rich multimodal assignments and more specific wording in some subject benchmark statements to ensure programme designers also see the need to include these in order to develop the skills needed to communicate disciplinary knowledge and more in today’s visual society.


Bartram, J. A. (2021). Bridges and barriers to developing visual literacy in UK undergraduates. (Thesis). University of Hull. Retrieved from

Thesis Type Thesis
Deposit Date Nov 12, 2021
Publicly Available Date Feb 24, 2023
Keywords Education
Public URL
Additional Information Department of Educational Studies, The University of Hull
Award Date Mar 1, 2021


Thesis (4.3 Mb)

Copyright Statement
© 2021 Bartram, Jacqueline A. All rights reserved. No part of this publication may be reproduced without the written permission of the copyright holder.

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