Want to learn something better? Draw it

When you’re trying to learn, do something with your new knowledge, such as summarising it or explaining it to someone else. This deepens your memories and helps integrate what you’ve learned with what you already knew. A new study has tested the benefits of another beneficial learning activity – drawing.

Annett Schmeck and her team asked 48 German school-kids (average age 14) to read a 850-word passage about the biology of influenza, broken down into seven paragraphs. This was an unfamiliar topic to the teens, and they knew they were going to be tested on the content afterwards.

Crucially, half the pupils were asked to produce a drawing for each of the paragraphs, to depict visually the content of the paragraphs. They were assisted by a basic background image of a cell (or similar), and a legend showing basic components their drawing should include, such as an antibody. The other pupils only had the text to study and they acted as a control group. All participating pupils worked at their own pace.

There were two tests on the scientific text: a multi-choice comprehension test, and a drawing test that involved drawing key concepts from the text. The group who’d produced drawings while they were learning out-performed the control group on both the multiple-choice (scoring 61 per cent correct on average vs. 44 per cent) and the drawing test (scoring 52 per cent on average vs. 28 per cent).

This first experiment has some obvious limitations that Schmeck and her team sought to address in a follow-up involving 168 more pupils (average age 14). Most importantly, the researchers showed that drawing each paragraph of the to-be-learned text led to superior test performance (63 per cent correct on multiple choice, on average), even when compared to a condition in which pupils were instead provided with drawings produced by the author of the scientific text  (53 per cent correct). The better the pupils’ drawings, the more successful they were in the tests afterwards.

The researchers said that drawing has this benefit for learning because it “encourages learners to engage in generative cognitive processing during learning such as organising the relevant information into a coherent structure, and integrating it with relevant prior knowledge from long-term memory.”

The results come with a number of caveats – the study material in this research was scientific and involved a causal chain of events. It’s not clear if drawing will also help people learn other kinds of content. Moreover, the tests took place right after the learning phase, so it’s not known if the benefits of drawing will be long-lasting. Also, it’s worth noting that this research looked at assisted drawing – that is, the pupils were given a background image to draw upon and told what graphic elements to include. The researchers concluded: “drawing during learning appears to be a potentially powerful strategy for improving students’ learning from scientific text when certain boundaries and prerequisites are taken into account.”

_________________________________ ResearchBlogging.org

Schmeck, A., Mayer, R., Opfermann, M., Pfeiffer, V., & Leutner, D. (2014). Drawing pictures during learning from scientific text: testing the generative drawing effect and the prognostic drawing effect Contemporary Educational Psychology, 39 (4), 275-286 DOI: 10.1016/j.cedpsych.2014.07.003

further reading
How to study
The Digest guide to … studying

Post written by Christian Jarrett (@psych_writer) for the BPS Research Digest.

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