When I first asked students to generate a word cloud for academic purposes, many seemed perplexed: could word clouds really have an academic application? My answer is absolutely. While most students know word clouds as fun and entertaining ways to highlight and share frequently used words from social media posts, those same graphic organizers can provide students with visual representations of key words used and concepts discussed—and their importance—in their essays.
Word clouds, though far from mainstream, are not new to academia. One of my colleagues, Nicole Pfannenstiel, who introduced me to the idea of incorporating word clouds into the classroom, has used them for years as self-assessment tools in her rhetoric courses. When I did further research, I found that Duke University’s Thompson Writing Program advocates the self-assessment capabilities of word clouds. They work by providing a “quick and easy picture” of key words and word-frequency (Using Tag Clouds in Academic Writing). Along those lines, DePaolo and Wilkinson (2014) of Indiana State University write in TechTrends that word clouds can condense large amounts of data, therefore presenting a holistic picture to help the user understand, comprehend, and assess the work (p. 39). In my case, word clouds serve as helpful self-assessment tools in an interdisciplinary writing course.
I use word clouds to help students produce thesis-driven research papers about a variety of disciplinary topics. By thesis driven, I mean more than just a paper with an effective thesis statement; I mean a paper that reinforces the thesis throughout: the organization, topic sentences, evidence and analysis, closing sentences, transitions, and the conclusion all connect to support the thesis. By auto-generating and analyzing their word clouds, students can see what is (and is not) emphasized in their paper as a whole, and how effectively these words reinforce and support their thesis.
For example, a student writing her final research paper on capsaicin for pain relief, copy and pasted her text into the Tagul word cloud generator, coming up with this visual representation. While this autogenerated word cloud contained several of her key terms and ideas, it did not adequately emphasize the importance of several important concepts. The student also noted that the design was not relevant to her topic.
Once students see the auto-generated word cloud, they then revise the word cloud to better reflect their thesis (let’s call this their “ideal” word cloud). The idea is that students make revisions to their drafts accordingly by emphasizing key words in their introduction, topic and closing sentences, transitions, and conclusion, thus producing a more strongly thesis-driven document. Students can then continue the word cloud auto-generate/essay revision process until the auto-generated word cloud closely resembles their ideal word cloud. This emphasizes to students the fluidity of the writing process to students. My hope is that this process will result in effective thesis-driven papers.
In her revised or “ideal” word cloud, the student emphasized additional key ideas, such as pepper, pain, relief, alleviate, reduce, and TRPV1. She changed the shape and color scheme of the word cloud to better reflect her topic.
After creating her ideal word cloud, the student then made revisions to her paper, making sure to emphasize the key words and concepts missing from her first autogenerated word cloud. Her second auto-generated word cloud post-revision, in which she pre-selected the design and color, closely resembled her ideal word cloud.
In my classroom, word clouds have become a fun, yet helpful means of producing thesis-driven papers, where students learn to self-assess and revise their content. The “fun” element engages students: they have an opportunity to express themselves artistically by creating their ideal word cloud, consequently introducing and emphasizing the importance of design*. The word cloud becomes a puzzle of sorts as students work through revising their papers to reflect key words and concepts to better fit their ideal word cloud. Ultimately, word clouds provide a productive approach to the revision process, helping students focus on content adjustments instead of only punctuation and grammatical errors.
*There is much to discuss about design, and this will be elaborated upon in a future post.
DePaolo, C. & Wilkinson, K. (2014). Get your head into the clouds: Using word clouds for analyzing qualitative assessment data. Techtrends, 58(3). 38-44. doi: 10.1007/s11528-014-0750-9
Thompson Writing Program. Using tag clouds in academic writing. (n.d). . Retrieved fromhttp://twp.duke.edu/uploads/media_items/tag-clouds.original.pdf.