The human hand was made to draw. Researchers and practical experts (not artists) agree that drawing is a fundamental component of the learning and communication experience.
Most of us stopped improving our drawing skills after compulsory art classes wrapped up in high school. We left the concept of ‘drawing as art’ to the professionals and hobbyists with talent.
However, each of us has continued drawing in small ways.
- We doodle in the margins.
- We draw out instructions.
- We sketch business process diagrams on a whiteboard.
These drawings are part of our human experience, and each one is a method of teaching ourselves or teaching others.
None of us, however, consider those examples ‘art forms’- because they are not. But it is drawing. The line between art and ‘drawing as communication’ invokes fear, apologies, and requests for help from ‘the pros’.
I say that it’s OK to draw! – And many other people- researchers and practitioners say this too!
Let’s start with the research:
The Powerful Influence of Drawing on Memory
In a 2016 University of Waterloo study and in this 2018 follow up The Surprisingly Powerful Influence of Drawing on Memory, researchers led by Dr. Myra Fernandes propose that drawing improves memory by “promoting the integration of elaborative, pictorial, and motor codes- facilitating the creation of context-rich representation.”
In comparison to other memorization tools (mnemonic techniques) like visualization, writing, and image tracing, the study definitively shows that drawing was the best option for memorizing words, textbook definitions, and individual pictures.
It comes down to how many loops of thinking, how many places in the brain, and how many input/output paths it takes to definitively ENCODE information into our brains.
This profound finding illuminates the multi-encoding model. We can absorb information by simply listening, seeing images, or reading words, but drawing brings out a multi-modal reinforcement that forces our brain to use that input in a new way. Drawing involves the imagination and forces our brains to create a mental image of a subject or idea in our brains.
Measureable Gains in Performance.
Outlined below exhibits the extra value that drawing provides the learner – note the drawing box with its ‘mind-centric’ efforts of image building – known by the researchers as the elaborative and pictorial encodings.
Picturing to Understand – A practical case study
In 2005, Felice Frankel was the Principal Investigator at MIT in connecting the act of drawing with the understanding of complex scientific concepts. Her background in the physical sciences as a Senior Research Fellow differs from those of psychology and cognitive researchers- but she enlisted their help when she created the Picturing to Learn project- an initiative that forced students to draw out their understanding of scientific concepts.
Picturing to Learn earned two National Science Foundation grants and involved workshops, the occasional pairing with designers, and then the use of drawing in day-to-day curriculum.
The results of the program forced participants to have full clarity of the details of various topics. Drawing forces complete understanding it seems- and when drawing fails- it is apparent that the drawing creator is missing something. Being able to imagine a concept in the mind’s eye is a key component of understanding. A student quote taken from the picturingtolearn.org website:
When I became responsible for teaching others … through drawing … I really had to understand the science and learned a great deal from the process.” — Mariana Shnayderman, MIT student, 2003
Ms. Frankel continues to value imagery in scientific circles and has authored gorgeous photo books and instructive guides to scientific diagrams.
Drawing should be recategorized as a symbolic tool
Professor D.B. Dowd of the Washington University in St Louis continues the strain of understanding from Ms. Frankel in his book Stick Figures. “If practiced in the service of inquiry and understanding, drawing does enforce modesty…You quickly discover how little you know.” He also states that “Drawing makes us slow down, be patient, pay attention…”
As I am, the good Professor Dowd is a critic of putting all drawings in a box labeled as “art”, and seeing them graded according to the creator’s proficiency and skill. Centuries of institutionalized art review have confined drawing into an “aesthetic cage”. But, Dowd has said – “If you take a step back, and define drawing as symbolic mark-making, it’s obvious that all human beings draw. Diagrams, maps, doodles, smiley faces: These are all drawings!”
Study: Doodling itself blocks daydreaming, and is an effective learning aid
In a study published in 2009, What Does Doodling Do? – in Applied Cognitive Psychology by Jackie Andrade, we learn that the act of free-form doodling itself increases the learning capacity of the doodler/listener. In this experiment, a dull phone call was prepared for a set of 40 participants. Half of the participants were asked to doodle (fill in predefined shapes) during the 150-second phone call. A surprise test was given regarding the content of the phone call. The results? Doodlers recalled 29% more information on the test regarding that call than the non-doodlers.
During boring tasks, cognitive researchers believe that the human brain may take up a secondary thought process -and start daydreaming, this is called a selective blockade. Doodling, however, can act as a thought-blockade blocker, allowing more attention to be placed on the more boring subject matter. It seems doodling acts as a doorstop to keep the information flowing.
My research shows that beneficial effects of secondary tasks, such as doodling, on concentration may offset the effects of selective blockade.” – Andrade.
Sketchnotes – Practical drawing and learning
Our hands are made to use tools – and to draw. Not only do our hands comprise most of the nerve endings of our bodies, but they also comprise the highest numbers of muscles as well. Author and sketchnoter Mike Rohde echoes the concept of drawing blocking out distractions:
When your mind and body are working in tandem, there is little room left for distractions.” -Mike Rohde
Mike Rohde’s The Sketchnote Handbook first published in 2013. The book is a how-to and visual guide to visual note taking -and a personal favorite. Through sketchnoting, Mr. Rohde has popularized his most beloved mantra “Ideas, Not Art”.
A rock star in the sketchnote world, you can find him echoing the first study mentioned above in the second chapter of his book “Why Sketchnote? Because sketchnoting engages your brain in more ways than plain notes can, AND they help you remember more detail.”
Mike is absolutely right in the meaningful way that drawing engages our brains. He applies this learning to the often personal and private world of individual note-taking. Sketchnoting is growing in popularity among teachers- and many are adopting the practice, and sharing with young students.
The salesperson discovers drawing
If proof of drawing as an effective learning and communication tool can be found in the form of increased revenue, we turn to the conference room and whiteboard.
Some sales professionals today decide to phone in the sales calls and rely all to heavily on a slide deck or presentation. Slide reading is a 21st-century business faux pas, and some sales and marketing managers are taking notice and responding.
A practical and revenue-friendly application of drawing is the use of the whiteboard as a sales and collaboration tool. The B2B salesman and his conversion away from Powerpoint and towards the whiteboard are finding success in many sales organizations.
Yanking away slide decks and projectors, and then replacing them with whiteboard markers along with a storyboard/plan, sales staff are being directed to fully understand their products, services, and value propositions. The student quoted above ” When I became responsible for teaching others … through drawing … I really had to understand.. ” starts to make even more sense if it comes from a salesman.
Not only is this methodology proving effective, but it is also doing a better job at engaging clients as well. As soon as a client grabs the marker… the sale is well on its way.
My own learning through drawing epiphany
As a graphic recorder for live events and digital sketchnoter for virtual events, my experience is all about listening and drawing. I listen to a speaker in real-time and draw a representation of the thought for attendees of an event – whether it be a conference, workshop, business meeting, or community gathering.
A friend of mine was interested in a particular discussion in which I participated. I was asked “so, what did he talk about?” regarding a particular speaker. Being that the event was a week in the past, my initial reaction was “I have no idea”. But 3 seconds later, I said: “Wait, no, I drew it!” I verbally recalled what I had drawn in my mind’s eye as I wandered through the process in my head. I was really amazed at the recall enabled by that multi-modal memory.
I talk about drawing and learning in this client video
I drew during a keynote session for AASHE’s 2021 Annual Conference (The Association for the Advancement of Sustainability in Higher Education) I was given the opportunity to talk about WHAT I drew and how it affects me.
Adopting the concept of learning by drawing
We are all students at one point of the day or another. If you are outside of school, studies show that you should be engaged in active learning for one hour every day JUST to stay up to date in your field. Adopt the sketchnoting mantra and draw your way to better understanding.
Drawing for a Living
If you would like to hire me to draw for your organization, or to talk about drawing, please reach out to me directly! My daily life includes Live Illustration for In-Person Events, Virtual Events, and for Strategic Planning Meetings- I love talking about my story, and how creativity is NOT out of reach for any of us!