Paul A. Kirschner & Mirjam Neelen
Learning is a function of the cognitive processing of the information that we attend to. The better and more deeply we cognitively process information, the better and more deeply we learn. We’ve known that for quite a while. How we process information, thus, determines how well, for how long, and how deeply we learn. For example, if you’re multitasking (actually switching between tasks), your thoughts shift from one thing to the next and that makes it extremely hard to learn. Unfortunately (or is it?), we can’t multitask (e.g., Kirschner & De Bruyckere, 2017).
There are of course various ‘levels’ of learning, all the way from next to nothing to really deep. For example, if you just literally repeat information (like grinding out words or numbers or just rereading and marking) you might learn something but only in a shallow way. Although the first – ‘rote learning’ – is important for certain things, like automating multiplication tables, conjugating verbs or recognizing chemical symbols, there’s no deep learning – as in that you can apply what you’ve learned in various contexts – happening. In contrast, when we ‘code’ information in various ways, we learn more strongly and more deeply. One example is double-barrelled learning (dual coding theory by Allan Paivio, see image by Oliver Caviglioli) which promotes learning and remembering because when we learn in this way we integrate words and images. For the second – highlighting – you might remember a few of the things that you highlighted, but most probably that’s it.
There are many ways to effectively process information and thus to promote learning, such as:
- Semantic elaboration – Semantic elaboration is when we rehearse a stimulus representation in words (Taevs et al., 2010). This can be done either out loud or ‘internally’ (sometimes called subvocalisation). For example, you come up with the name of something that you see or even describe it. Like, you see an apple and then say the French word ‘pomme’ aloud or in your head or you might just write it down with a pen or type it on your laptop. In the workplace, you can also use this strategy. For example, when a colleague explains a concept to you, you ‘teach it back’ to them as in “So, if I understand you correctly…”
- Visualisation – Visualisation is when you perceive (hear, see, feel, taste, or even smell) something, and you then visualize it in your own head. For example, when you hear the French word ‘pomme’, you visualise an apple in your head or how it tastes. Or, when your colleague explains a process to you, you visualise the steps, how you would do it, who you’d be working with, and so forth.
- Explanation – Explaining something to yourself or someone else. Here, for example, you might tell someone else that the word ‘pomme’ means apple in French or that ‘pomme du terre’ means apple from the ground. Or, when you have to explain the concept that your colleague first explained to you to a client/stakeholder, you can practice it in advance by explaining it out loud to yourself or to a colleague.
- Conceptualisation – When you conceptualise something you create a conceptual image of that thing. This usually entails creating a more concrete image of an abstract concept. For example, you can create a concept map of something that you’ve heard or seen.
In various studies, Jeffrey Wammes, Myra Fernandes, and Melissa Meade have looked at the effects of drawing and how it influences remembering. There’s a common saying that ‘an image is worth 1000 words’ but the question Wammes and colleagues tried to answer is … does that also go for learning?
The researchers carried out a sequence of remarkable experiments – spread out over several years – to determine to what extent drawing has an impact on what someone needs to remember/learn. They also focused on the question of whether drawing as a learning strategy is reliable and replicable. In other words, does drawing actually improve learning outcomes?
Wammes cum suis discovered that this technique can be used in many ways. It can be used to learn simple words and/or images as well as to learn more meaningful information, such as definitions and concepts.
Their research exposed – step by step – the underlying operating mechanisms of drawing and demonstrated that there are more learning gains from drawing than from other relatively effective techniques, such as elaboration, visualisation, writing, and copying the information at hand.
They also found that drawing something not only worked better for remembering individual elements such as words, but that it also works for remembering more complex things like concepts and definitions. Drawing was more effective than copying something and rereading (verbatim), than verbally explaining something to yourself in your own words, or than writing something down in your own words (i.e., paraphrasing). According to Wammes and his colleagues, the reason that drawing is more effective is that when you draw something, you integrate three types of processing:
- cognitive elaboration,
- pictorial coding, and
- motoric coding (when you draw something you also create a motoric trace in your brain).
By integrating all three, you create a contextually rich representation that facilitates and improves remembering/learning (See the figure here below).
Integrated Components Model of the drawing effect
Does this mean we all need to start drawing like crazy when learning? The long and the short answer are both: No.
What it does mean is that we now know that drawing can help you learn. It’s can be an effective tool that you can add to your learning toolbox and use to your benefit!
Kirschner, P. A., & De Bruyckere, P. (2017). The myths of the digital native and the multitasker. Teaching and Teacher Education, 67, 135-142. Available from https://www.gwern.net/docs/psychology/2017-kirschner.pdf
Taevs, M., Dahmani, L., Zatorre, R. J., & Bohbot, V. D. (2010). Semantic elaboration in auditory and visual spatial memory. Frontiers in psychology, 1, 228. doi:10.3389/fpsyg.2010.00228
Wammes, J. D. (2017). On the mnemonic benefits of drawing [Doctoral dissertation]. Available from https://uwspace .uwaterloo.ca/bitstream/handle/10012/12114/Wammes_ Jeff.pdf?sequence=7
Wammes, J. D., Meade, M. E., & Fernandes, M. A. (2016). The drawing effect: Evidence for reliable and robust memory benefits in free recall. Quarterly Journal of Experimental Psychology, 69, 1752–1776.
Wammes, J. D., Meade, M. E., & Fernandes, M. A. (2017). Learning terms and definitions: Drawing and the role of elaborative encoding. Acta Psychologica, 179, 104–113.
Wammes, J. D., Meade, M. E., & Fernandes, M. A. (2018). Creating a recollection-based memory through drawing. Journal of Experimental Psychology: Learning, Memory, and Cognition, 44, 734–751.