Draw Pictures to Improve Learning?

In ITNS we included a short section near the start describing good strategies for learning, based on empirical studies. Scattered through the book are reminders and encouragement to use the effective strategies. Now, just as we’re thinking about possible improvements in a second edition, comes this review article:

Fernandes, M. A., Wammes, J. D., & Meade, M. E. (2018). The surprisingly powerful influence
of drawing on memory. Current Directions in Psychological Science, 27, 302–308. DOI:10.1177/0963721418755385

It’s behind a paywall, but here is the abstract:

The surprisingly powerful influence of drawing on memory: Abstract
The colloquialism “a picture is worth a thousand words” has reverberated through the decades, yet there is very little basic cognitive research assessing the merit of drawing as a mnemonic strategy. In our recent research, we explored whether drawing to-be-learned information enhanced memory and found it to be a reliable, replicable means of boosting performance. Specifically, we have shown this technique can be applied to enhance learning of individual words and pictures as well as textbook definitions. In delineating the mechanism of action, we have shown that gains are greater from drawing than other known mnemonic techniques, such as semantic elaboration, visualization, writing, and even tracing to-be-remembered information. We propose that drawing improves memory by promoting the integration of elaborative, pictorial, and motor codes, facilitating creation of a context-rich representation. Importantly, the simplicity of this strategy means it can be used by people with cognitive impairments to enhance memory, with preliminary findings suggesting measurable gains in performance in both normally aging individuals and patients with dementia.

For the original articles that report the drawing-for-learning studies, see the reference list in the review article, or search for publications in 2016 and after by any of the three authors.

A few thoughts
I haven’t read the original articles, and the review doesn’t give values for effect sizes, but the research program–largely published in the last couple of years–takes am impressively broad empirical approach. There are many comparisons of different approaches to encoding, elaboration, and testing of learning. Drawing holds up very well in the great majority of comparisons. There are interesting suggestions, some already tested empirically, as to why drawing is so effective as a learning strategy.

As usual, lots of questions spring to mind. How effective could drawing be for learning statistical concepts? How could it be used along with ESCI simulations? Would it help for ITNS to suggest good ways to draw particular concepts, or should students be encouraged to generate their own representations?

These and similar questions seem to me to align very well with our basic approach in ITNS of emphasising vivid pictorial representations whenever we can. The dances, the cat’s eye picture, the forest plot…

Perhaps we should include drawing as a powerful extra recommended learning strategy, with examples and suggestions included in ITNS at strategic moments?

As usual, your comments and advice are extremely welcome. Happy sketching!


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