In our media-saturated culture, images are everywhere: billboards on the freeway; posters at the bus stop; paintings on museum walls; photos shared through our friends’ social media accounts. It’s nearly impossible to imagine a day going by without encountering several images.

Given the pace of life today, it’s very easy for many of us to take these images at face value, without pausing to consider the deeper message that the image is intended to communicate. However, it’s important to think critically about images as we encounter them in the world around us, so that we can grasp those meanings and use that information in a wise and appropriate manner.

For this reason, it’s imperative that today’s students learn how to apply their critical thinking skills as they consider the true message conveyed by all sorts of images: advertisements, artistic photographs, infographics, silly memes… and more. If you’re hoping to build students’ skills in this arena, you may want to share some tips that will help them engage in the process with care and skill.

Three steps that will help students think critically about images

These guidelines, paraphrased from Randall VanderMey, Verne Meyer, John Van Rys, and Patrick Sebranek’s The College Writer: A Guide to Thinking, Writing, and Researching, Fifth Edition can help students give more thoughtful consideration to the messages they encounter in visual media.

1. Actively view the image.

As a first step, you’ll want to record your primary observations about the image and its creator.

1. Take in the entire image. Note which features draw you in immediately. Think about the colors used, the content displayed in the image, and the overall layout of the design.

2. Next, look at the image more closely. Examine the major elements at the forefront of the image, as well as the smaller or less prominent details. Take note of the ways that all aspects of the image interrelate.

3. Ask yourself all the questions you can about the image: Who created it? What is the subject of the image, and why might have it been created? What was used to create the image? Who is its intended audience… and why are you looking at it?  How do all these factors connect to one another, as well as the greater context in which the image appears?

4. Seek to better understand the purpose of the image. What thoughts, emotions, or reactions is it intended to prompt or provoke? Potential purposes may be entertainment, illustration, persuasion, education… or perhaps it has multiple purposes.

2. Interpret the image.

Per the authors of The College Writer, “Interpreting means figuring out what the image or design is meant to do, say, or show” (VanderMey et al., 12). Consider the interrelationship among:

  • The designer or creator of the image… as well as others who may have been involved in its creation (e.g., the person who commissioned the work)
  • The message that the image is supposed to convey, and the main purpose (or purposes) of the image
  • The medium used by the creator (e.g., paint, digital photography, ink, mixed media) and any changes, edits, or modifications that may have been made
  • The intended viewer of the image (and your thoughts about how he or she might react to it)
  • The context of the image: where it first appeared (e.g., a book or newspaper), where it appears now… and what this information might tell you about how and why it’s being used

3. Evaluate the image.

According to the authors, when you evaluate an image, you’re “assess[ing] its quality, truthfulness, and value” (VanderMey et al., 14). Consider such questions as:

  • What is the purpose of the image? Does its creator (or user) want it to entertain, persuade, or inform the viewer? Is it meant to reveal, explain, or illustrate a concept, or merely decorate a page?
  • What is the quality of the image? Who created the image, and does this have a bearing on its authority or quality? Is it drawn with skill, or does it look hastily put together? Is all information clear, or is something being obscured? Are all data points represented accurately, or does it seem like something’s missing or inaccurate? Does the image look altered in any way?
  • What is the value of the image? Does it help you gain a better understanding of an idea, concept, or message? Is it appealing? What might experts—or your friends and classmates—say about it?

By taking the time to actively view, interpret, and evaluate images, students will hone their critical thinking skills, and they’ll be wiser consumers of the photos, illustrations, and graphics they see on a regular basis. (VanderMey et al., 10-13)


How do you encourage students to think critically about images and other media? Have you adopted certain activities that help them hone this valuable skill? Share your insights in the comments.


Reference: VanderMey, Randall, Verne Meyer, John Van Rys, and Patrick Sebranek. 2015. The College Writer: A Guide to Thinking, Writing, and Researching, 5e. Boston, MA: Cengage Learning.