I learned how to draw from being bored in school. I would doodle on the margins of my paper. – Kevin Nealon
What is a doodle? According to the OED it’s to “scribble absent-mindedly” and the important part of that is the absence of mind when you’re doodling. But does it help – will you learn better if you doodle in class.
The answer, according to research by Meade, Wammes and Fernandes (2019) is no. If you absent-mindedly draw whatever comes to mind you’ll remember less of whatever you’re supposed to be learning. If you do a structured drawing – something that is like shading a shape – it has no effect. Writing stuff down does help you remember it. Drawing what you’re listening to has a significant effect on memory.
Why does drawing something help us remember it better. Meade et. al. argue that it isn’t fully explained by two theories in use – one that there are Levels of Processing (LOPs) and drawing is at a deeper level, or a Picture Superiority Effect (PSE) which essentially says pictures are better at helping you remember things.
These explanations hang on the idea that you have “attentional resources” – a certain amount of capacity to pay attention to things. If something like drawing random pictures takes up your attention you have less left for the task at hand. If you’re drawing what you’re supposed to be learning in addition to writing about it then you’re concentrating attentional resources – so you should remember it better.
Another explanation is that you’re using more parts of your mind and body when you’re drawing and writing than if you just listened without doing anything. You see, move your hands and draw and get semantic meaning from words – so there’s more going on and that leaves more traces in your brain – sort of like stamping in the idea again and again and again.
If you’re into this world of visual thinking and have read the Sketchnote handbook you’re nodding along and agreeing with this research. An art teacher, Andrew Katz (Katz, 1997), describes how he used to doodle in class and ended up with a bunch of sketches rather than useful notes. He realised that it would make sense to draw what he was listening to instead, killing two birds with one stone. He could enjoy drawing but also get the lesson content in the process. He talked about how this created a shift in his approach to making notes and led to him keeping visual journals.
Now, for a student or a researcher this is interesting stuff. If you haven’t come across this world of visual thinking it may seem strange – why would you put that much effort into drawing and notetaking when you could just read the textbook? The point is that research is showing clear benefits of combining these skills – drawing and writing – for the work we do, whether that’s studying, researching or trying to understand situations in the workplace.
Drawing what you hear can be a learning and productivity superpower. Maybe more people should try it out.
Katz, J.A. (1997), “Visual notetaking, drawing on my doodling past”, School Arts, Vol 97, Issue 1.
Meade, M.E., Wammes, D.J., and Fernandes, M.A. (2019), “Comparing the influence of doodling, drawing and writing at encoding on memory”, Canadian Journal of Experimental Psychology, Vol. 73, No. 1, pp 28-36