Multimodal Mondays: Observations and Inferences

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Headshot-of-Kim-Haimes-Korn.jpgToday’s guest blogger is Kim Haimes-Korn, a Professor of English and Digital Writing at Kennesaw State University. Kim’s teaching philosophy encourages dynamic learning and critical digital literacies and focuses on students’ powers to create their own knowledge through language and various “acts of composition.” She likes to have fun every day, return to nature when things get too crazy, and think deeply about way too many things. She loves teaching. It has helped her understand the value of amazing relationships and boundless creativity. You can reach Kim at or visit her website: Acts of Composition



In my classes, I have always recognized the importance of observation and inference as students move back and forth between narration and exposition as they write. This is even more important for digital writers as they learn to read and render situations through multimodal composing. Observation and inference are generally practiced in scientific or social science settings to understand evidence, predict behavior, and generate conclusions, but students benefit from this understanding in composition classes as well.

Click to view Observation and Inference Activity slide show.Click to view Observation and Inference Activity slide show.According to Key Differences, observation is “the act of carefully watching a person or object when something is happening.” Observation generally involves the senses and objective perceptions of what is presented. It is hands-on, in-the-present and requires “[attentive] monitoring of the subject under study.”

Inference making is “termed as an act of deriving rational conclusion from known facts or circumstances.” It is generally subjective and involves making assumptions based on observations and often involves secondhand information. This is where we theorize, guess, and make connections. Since inference making is subjective, we often find that we can make many inferences based on a single observation. In a common example, we can observe that the grass is wet (senses) but we can make multiple inferences such as: it rained, sprinklers were on, it is in a flood zone, or a dog recently stopped by (among others). Or, we might notice that someone has a lot of food in their refrigerator and make the inference that they are a good cook or preparing for a vacation or that they are really hungry. Basically, these assumptions could all theoretically be true based on what we observe in front of us but could also generate alternate inferences that could be considered true too.

In this assignment, I ask students to understand and apply the concepts of observation and inference and immerse themselves in a place where they take images of their observations and generate plausible inferences. They set up a visual, double-entry journal of sorts in which they include their images (observations) along with inferences to make meaningful connections. We then create a collaborative slide show to share their ideas through multimodal examples.




Steps to the Assignment

  1. Help students define the terms observation and inference (see Key Differences article as a starting place).
  2. Once I have shared working definitions, I show the class a collection of my own images for an observation and inference making activity in which they call out inferences to practice this cognitive process. I encourage multiple responses to demonstrate the theoretical nature of inference making and ask students to cite evidence from their observations that lead to their conclusions.
  3. Next, I challenge students to find a location (outside of class on their own) to collect observations in the form of images (usually around 20). I encourage them to use their senses and get specific as they take pictures of objects, landmarks, people, buildings, landscapes, and other things that involve sensory observation.
  4. Then they choose 10 images and create a page in which they include the image (observation) and a short paragraph describing their inferences (meaning, assumption, idea). I also ask them to include an overview statement in which they speak to some of their connections and ideas (observations and inferences).  
  5. Once back in class together, each student chooses a strong example from their collection and submits the image and an explanation of their inference to a collaborative Google slide show. (This should just take a few minutes if they are prepared ahead of time.)
  6. We share and review them as a class and talk about examples.


Reflections on the Activity

A humorous example of how inferences can change with context.A humorous example of how inferences can change with context.I use this activity to get students to understand that the concepts of observation and inference- making are forever present in our lives and in processing our worlds. As digital storytellers, content creators, and writers, we recreate these experiences for our audiences through moving back and forth between observation and inference. I generally have students complete this activity early in the term as it creates a foundation for curation and creation in all the projects throughout the semester and sets the tone for critical reading, writing, and multimodal composition.

About the Author
Andrea A. Lunsford is the former director of the Program in Writing and Rhetoric at Stanford University and teaches at the Bread Loaf School of English. A past chair of CCCC, she has won the major publication awards in both the CCCC and MLA. For Bedford/St. Martin's, she is the author of The St. Martin's Handbook, The Everyday Writer and EasyWriter; The Presence of Others and Everything's an Argument with John Ruszkiewicz; and Everything's an Argument with Readings with John Ruszkiewicz and Keith Walters. She has never met a student she didn’t like—and she is excited about the possibilities for writers in the “literacy revolution” brought about by today’s technology. In addition to Andrea’s regular blog posts inspired by her teaching, reading, and traveling, her “Multimodal Mondays” posts offer ideas for introducing low-stakes multimodal assignments to the composition classroom.