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Diagrams and charts are important because they present information visually. The adage “a picture is worth a thousand words” applies when it comes diagrams and charts. This handout provide a few hints on understanding information visually.


  • Don’t skip over diagrams and graphs when reading!
  • These visual aids provide summaries or can illustrate a complex process; understanding how to read them is a very efficient way to learn material.
  • When tackling diagrams or graphs, pay attention to:
    • Captions: What clues about the illustration can you gain from the general description?
    • Labels: Can you define or describe the items labeled? If not, reread the text.
    • Directionality: Are there arrows, numbers or letters that orient the illustration?
  • The Big Picture: Do you notice any trends in data? Can you draw conclusions about relationships among items on a diagram?


Review the two examples provided. By answering the questions for each, you’ll see how much information can be gleaned from diagrams and graphs.

A diagram depicting the balance of incoming and outgoing radiation from the earth.
Graph 1 Questions:

  • What information does this diagram provide?
  • How do the arrows help illustrate the process depicted in the diagram?
  • How do the colors of the arrows and the text help organize the facts?


A bar graph depicting profit and loss by quarter for three different products over the course of a year.
Graph 2 Questions:

  • What information does this graph provide?
  • Note the labels in the X and Y Axis, as well as the location of the “Profit Target” line.
  • What does this graph tell you about the performance of the three products over the course of a year?


Studying with diagrams and graphs

  • Start assigned readings by first reviewing any visual aids provided. This will lay the foundation for understanding the meat of your reading.
  • Review them again right before class. This will help prepare you for lecture.
  • After you have completed a reading assignment, create a visual representation that demonstrates your understanding. This active learning strategy is an effective way to transfer your new learning to your long-term memory.

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You may reproduce it for non-commercial use if you use the entire handout and attribute the source: The Learning Center, University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill

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