Let’s Get to Work with Productive Learning Strategies: Drawing

Paul A. Kirschner, Mirjam Neelen, Tine Hoof & Tim Surma

This blog is the fourth one in a series of eight blogs, originally written by Tine Hoof, Tim Surma & Paul Kirschner, and published on excel.thomasmore.be.

In 2015, Richard Mayer and Logan Fiorella published their book ‘Learning as a Generative Activity’ describing eight generative learning strategies. They’re called generative (also productive) because they allow/force learners to ‘remould’ the subject matter and based on that, create their own output, such as a summary or a drawing. In other words, as a learner, you generate/produce something yourself based on and that goes further than what you’ve learned. In addition to mapping,  Mayer and Fiorella also discuss summarising, drawing, imagining, self-testing, self-explaining, teaching, and enacting.

Each strategy prompts learners to apply Mayer’s Selection, Organising, and Integrating (SOI) memory model. These strategies ensure that the learner engages with the new subject matter in a ‘cognitively active’ manner. In the first blog (on summarising) you can read more about why this is important when studying. 

SOI Model

What is drawing?

Drawing as a generative learning strategy means that learners convert verbal information (such as what they read in a textbook or hear in a lecture/lesson) into a visual information (some kind of drawing). For example, if you read about how a battery works, you might then draw a battery, illustrating the parts of the battery and the chemical reactions that take place in it.

Note that the information hasn’t only been drawn, but also that coloured (signalling) text has been added making use of mnemonics like:

“The Red cat ate an OXopposites attract

drawing 1

Drawing can represent, for example, the structure of a concept (like the parts of a plant or animal cell), the different steps of a process (such as a flowchart about distillation or a diagram of the Krebs‑/citric acid cycle), or the relationships between certain things (like a family tree). In the last case, two generative strategies are used at the same time: drawing and mapping.

In this context, the activity of drawing doesn’t have a decorative or relaxing function, but supports deeper processing of the subject matter. In other words, while drawing, learners actually (meta)cognitively process the information. It doesn’t matter if the drawing looks nice or not, as long it’s doing its job: explicating/demonstrating the content.

Why does drawing work?

As with other productive learning strategies, learners who use drawing as a study or learning strategy go through the SOI model (select, organise, integrate). They generate a new product (in this case, a drawing) based on the subject matter, by selecting the most important ideas from the information source such as a lesson, a video, a podcast, or a book. They have to think hard about the organisation of those core ideas (i.e., how they’re related to each other) to decide how to integrate (incorporate) them into a drawing.

Sometimes learners will come to the conclusion that they don’t really understand the subject matter sufficiently to convert it into a drawing and that they must go back to the original source. This way, drawing also has a metacognitive function (van Meter & Garner, 2005). Finally, when they’re (planning their) drawing, learners need to think about how the new information ties in with what they already know, to make sure that the information can be integrated into their long-term memory (Chi et al, 1994).

One of the advantages of drawing as a learning strategy is that learners – even more than with other generative strategies such as summarising or mapping – are forced to recode the subject matter. Because the textual or verbal subject matter must be translated into a visual form, they’re stimulated to work cognitively with the subject matter. This principle, called the generative drawing principle, appears to be especially present when learners draw by hand (Leutner & Schmeck, 2014). The risk of ‘passive consumption’ is therefore small.

During the conversion of verbal/textual information into a drawing, learners dual code. They combine word and image and process the information both visually and verbally.

How does drawing work?

Learners who use drawing as a generative learning strategy read, for example, poems with different types of rhythmic patterns and draw the sound image of the iambic pentameter (∪- | ∪- | ∪- | ∪- | ∪-) for clarification.

drawing 2

Recent research shows that drawing in combination with teaching is very effective as a generative learning strategy. Learners who processed a scientific text about the respiratory system by drawing while teaching peers scored better on the test than learners who only drew or only taught.

They also produced more elaborate explanations while processing the subject matter than the group that only taught (Fiorella & Kuhlmann, 2020).

drawing 3

Possible limitations

Drawing as a learning strategy is obviously not applicable or meaningful in each and every context. There are a number of limitations to this strategy. First, there’s a real danger that the focus shifts to the decorative aspect of drawing (What colours do I use? Does this look nice?). Also, drawing abstract concepts like liberty or justice isn’t easy! In addition, there’s a chance that the student gets lost in the technical details of drawing, as a result of which the limited working memory is overloaded (extrinsic load) and insufficient capacity is available to actually make learning happen.

That’s why it’s important to ensure that learners focus on the new subject matter and think about how they can put that information into a drawing. As a teacher, you can limit the risks by supporting learners through, for example, showing them how to draw certain important ideas or concepts (Leutner & Schmeck, 2014), by providing them with a legend with symbols that they can use, or by giving them the opportunity to compare their own drawing with an instructor-provided example of a drawing (Van Meter, 2001).

Schwamborn and colleagues (2010) asked high school pupils to read a short text about the chemistry behind washing clothes with soap and water. Learners in the drawing group were asked to draw this but were given a sheet of paper with the main elements already drawn in the margin for easy copying and thus lowering the cognitive load. The “drawers” scored much better than the readers on a transfer test.

For young pupils (primary school) it often turns out to be difficult to convert learning material into a drawing (Brod, 2020).

Finally, the effectiveness of this generative strategy depends – as always – on the quality of what learners generate, in this case the drawing.

Scientific evidence

Fiorella & Mayer (2016) refer to 28 studies that researched drawing as a generative strategy. This strategy had a positive effect in 26 of these studies. A recent meta-analysis by Fiorella & Zhang (2018) shows that drawing as a generative strategy to process a scientific text is more effective than just reading or summarising. Studies in which drawing were compared with other strategies such as imagining or studying presented images are less straightforward and other factors, such as the extent to which learners are supported, appear to determine the effectiveness of the strategy.


Brod, G. (2020) Generative learning: Which strategies for what age? Educational Psychology Review.  

Chi, M. T. H., de Leeuw, NK, Chiu, M.-H., & LaVancher, C. (1994). Eliciting self-explanations improves understanding. Cognitive Science, 18, 439-477.

Enser, Z. & Enser, M. (2020). Fiorella & Mayer’s Generative Learning in Action. Woodbridge, United Kingdom: John Catt Educational Ltd.

Fiorella, L., & Kuhlmann, S. (2020). Creating drawings enhances learning by teaching. Journal of Educational Psychology, 112(4), 811–822.

Fiorella, L., & Mayer, R. E. (2015). Learning as a generative activity: Eight learning strategies that promote understanding. New York, NY: Cambridge University Press.

Fiorella, L., & Zhang, Q. (2018). Drawing boundary conditions for learning by drawing. Educational Psychology Review, 30, 1115-1137.

Leutner, D., & Schmeck, A. (2014). The generative drawing principle in multimedia learning. In R. Mayer (Red.), The Cambridge Handbook of Multimedia Learning (pp 433-448). Cambridge, Verenigd Koninkrijk: Cambridge University Press.

Pavio, A. (1986). Mental Representations. New York, NY: Oxford University Press.

Schwamborn, A., Mayer, R. E., Thillmann, H., Leopold, C., & Leutner, D. (2010). Drawing as a generative activity and drawing as a prognostic activity. Journal of Education and Psychology, 102, 872–879.

Van Meter, P. (2001). Drawing construction as a strategy for learning from text. Journal of Educational Psychology, 93(1), 129–140. 

Van Meter, P., & Garner, J. (2005). The promise and practice of learner-generated drawing: Literature review and synthesis. Educational Psychology Review, 17(4), 285-325.