A selection of polaroids on a wooden table


Using Photographs as a Discussion Prompt in Teaching

‘One picture is worth ten thousand words’ Chinese proverb

In this blog post we share how we used photographs to prompt discussions in our teaching, in two different contexts. We then offer ideas and points to consider if you want to incorporate this approach into your own teaching.

What we did

Lady: Photographs served two distinct but related aims during my lecture to a small group of student nurses (levels 6 and 7). The primary intent was as an ice-breaker activity in which students could share a brief personal narrative illustrated by a photograph of their choice. Some narratives went further to include students’ concerns and lack of confidence regarding the module assessments. The results of this activity helped me get to know my students and their self-efficacy through the lens of a photograph, which was especially useful given that this was my first meeting with them.

The second reason was more process oriented; it allowed students to reflect on the question, ‘how and why did I select this image’. The session’s topic – steps for conducting a systematic literature review – modelled this introspective procedure. Students brainstormed to discern any links between their photo selection process and the literature review process. For instance, students discussed how the bunch of photographs could be seen as the literature available on a particular topic; how their identities could be linked to the research topic and how they might have generated an instinctive inclusion or exclusion criteria to make the final decision. While this was a fairly simplistic approach of teaching the literature review process, it piqued students’ interest and sparked discussion. Students were able to feed off each other’s creativity and inductive reasoning abilities as they brainstormed solutions to the activity.

This method of incorporating photographs worked well with the rest of the lecture and allowed my students and I to refer to different aspects of the activity at various points in the lecture. It also tapped into students’ critical thinking skills and allowed them to process an abstract topic in more visually and mentally stimulating manner.

Catherine: I have used the same set of photos over a few years in many teaching, training and professional development settings. As the images are generic, they work well as prompts for a wide variety of discussion questions where the aim is to encourage the exploring of perceptions. Most recently, I used them with a cohort of PhD students on the level 7 Professional Practice in T&L in HE module as an introductory icebreaker activity prior to their initial teaching experiences.

This was the first time the students had met as a cohort so I wanted to introduce a discussion in a way that they would feel comfortable in contributing their thoughts to each other. Using photos enabled them to articulate and explore their responses to the prompt question ‘what does effective teaching mean to you’. Rather than just offering a list of skills, students offered more personal responses by talking about why they had selected a particular image and what it represented to them.

Early teaching experiences can disproportionately influence an emerging sense of teaching self-efficacy (Greer et al, 2016). Using the photos provided an opportunity to give reassurance about some of their concerns about starting to teach whilst also enabling the exploration of some of the students’ feelings about what effective teaching would look like in their context.

Why photos?

Photos have been used in scholarly activity for various reasons. In qualitative research, photo-elicitation and autophotography are methodologies that use photos as data or to elicit information (Glaw et al., 2017). The premise for using photos in education stems from the growing interest in supporting inclusion in learning, as it can give insight into wider cultural perceptions (Harrison, 2002) and enable individual students to contribute their own perceptions and interpretations. The use of photographs in teaching rests on the premise that these visual aids—along with the interpretations we place on them, the feelings they elicit, and the information they reveal—can facilitate student learning and facilitate better communication. When used appropriately in teaching, photos can encourage independent learning and build student confidence and engagement (Krausse et al, 2010; Schell et al, 2009). Confident students can be more excited to learn, speak in class, ask for help and be ready to absorb material.

Using photos to generate reflection can be a safer space for a more open discussion, one where there are no right or wrong answers, where students can bring their personal experiences into the classroom and where value is placed on thinking as a process. It can shift the power dynamic between students and teachers and allow students to develop self-awareness (one of the University of Hull’s key competencies) as they explore issues through their own lens but also see and appreciate how others have viewed the same topic through different lenses.

What might you need to consider if using this approach?


  • Plan how photos might be used in the classroom. For instance, as a group activity or individual activity.
  • Ensure the photo activity is appropriately linked to learning outcomes or competencies to prevent confusion among students.
  • Clearly explain the purpose of the activity, including how students are expected to use photos.


  • Using physical photographs followed by a discussion is a technique that is visual, auditory and kinaesthetic which can be appealing for different student approaches. However, as with any teaching activity, be aware that it might not work for everyone.
  • You will need to consider how students with visual impairments can contribute. For example, you can have a set of images online with AltText which students can select from instead of selecting a physical photograph.

The size of the class

  • In our experience, this approach works particularly well with small groups (up to 30 students) and in 1-1 settings such as Personal Supervision or dissertation support.
  • In a large group, using physical photographs might not work as well but you could instead use images on a digital platform e.g. by asking students to search for their own image then share and comment on it on Padlet, or by sharing a set of images for students to select and comment on.

Selecting photos

  • Provide a large and diverse collection of photographs.
  • You may have your own photographs to use, but if you are using generic images, use open-source image websites such as Unsplash or Pixabay and acknowledge sources where possible (e.g. add the source to the back of the photograph).
  • Use broad search terms relating to your area. We wanted quite generic images that would prompt reflection and discussion so based our search on nouns (such as ‘connections’, ‘nature’), adjectives (such as ‘happy’, ‘challenging’) and verbs (such as ‘learning’, ‘achieving’, ‘leading’).
  • For ice-breaking or student support type activities, using these generic images is advisable. In other types of sessions, you could use deliberately provocative photos to spark discussion on challenging issues, but these should always come with a content warning.

Other ideas for using photos in teaching

  • Collecting feedback from students about a session (or assessments). Students can use simple photos (e.g. emojis to provide feedback at the end of a lesson).
  • Photos can be used in personal supervision or mentorship. In this case students may be asked to select a photo that describes their experiences whether positive or negative.
  • Photos can also be used as an ice breaker activity in online teaching.


Glaw, X., Inder, K., Kable, A. & Hazelton, M. (2017) Visual methodologies in qualitative research: Autophotography and photo elicitation applied to mental health research. International journal of qualitative methods, 16(1).

Greer, D.A., Cathcart, A. & Neale, L. (2016) Helping doctoral students teach: transitioning to early career academia through cognitive apprenticeship. Higher Education Research & Development, 35(4), 712-726.

Harrison, B. (2002) Seeing health and illness worlds - using visual methodologies in a sociology of health and illness: A methodological review. Sociology of Health and Illness, 24(6), 856-872.

Krauss, D.A., Salame, I.I. & Goodwyn, L.N. (2010) Using Photographs as case studies to promote active learning in Biology. Journal of College Science Teaching, 40(1), 72-76.

Schell, K., Freguson, A., Hamoline, R., Shea, J. & Thomas-MacLean, R. (2009) Photovoice as a teaching tool: learning by doing with visual methods. International Journal of Teaching and Learning in Higher Education, 21, 340-352.

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