The saying that “a picture is worth a thousand words” may contain more truth than we assume. We know that looking at a powerful image can stir our emotions, stimulate our curiosity, and stay in our memory for a good while. As an extension of this, a recent study points to significant power in creating pictures of things we want to learn and later recall.
The study examined whether picture drawing as part of the learning process can enhance performance and build long-term memory. Researchers at the University of Waterloo in Canada found in multiple trials that drawing to-be-learned information produced results superior to any other known mnemonic techniques, including visualization, viewing pictures, listing physical characteristics, writing, tracing, or associating the information with a mental image. In fact, drawing pictures of what needs to be remembered was more than twice as powerful as writing down new content.
The researchers noted that at least four powerful learning and recall processes are at work when we draw a picture to represent words and concepts: elaboration, visual imaging, motor movement, and pictorial representation. To draw, we must notice or create physical characteristics of what we want to learn and remember. This step requires us to elaborate beyond what we see or hear. As we draw, we create an image of the object of our attention. This step engages the process of visual imagery. The act of drawing involves hand movement, thus further solidifying our attention through motor activity. Finally, the product of the process is a pictorial image with multiple links to our observation, imagination, and actions.
Importantly, the artistic talent displayed, or the quality of drawing people produce, does not appear to influence the benefits gained from the drawing process. Further, the amount of time invested in drawing pictures for this purpose also does not appear to be a significant factor in the effectiveness of the strategy. In fact, even when study participants were given only a few seconds to draw a picture, they still experienced significant advantages in later memory. Age also does not appear to be a factor in reaping the benefits. Drawing activities improved learning and memory for young learners, adults, and even individuals more advanced in age.
The potential benefits of this strategy for students are obvious. The deeper observation and engagement associated with drawing pictures can enhance the learning performance and memory recall of our students.
Meanwhile, the process also does not have to be time consuming, as students can benefit even from making short, rough drawings when time is limited. Of course, there may be circumstances when allocating more time to the process will allow students to add details and enhance the depth of their learning and extend their recall.
We can support students to engage in drawing as a learning and memory assist by:
- Sharing and discussing with students the research on the benefits of drawing to enhance learning and memory.
- Guiding students to notice elements or aspects of what they want to learn that might be converted to a drawing.
- Encouraging students to create a mental image of the information or content they want to learn and recall.
- Reminding students to pay attention to their hand movements as they draw to create an even stronger connection between the image and their experience.
- Having students practice drawing pictures of what they want to learn and then explain their drawing to other students to reinforce the experience.
- Replicating the research study to test this approach against other mnemonic strategies. (The full research report is available via the provided link.)
Giving students tools and techniques to enhance their learning and extend their recall can be a great way to build their learning capacity. We also help them to expand the array of strategies they have available when they struggle or need to learn something particularly important.
Fernandes, M., Wammes, J., & Meade, M. (2018). The surprisingly powerful influence of drawing on memory. Current Directions in Psychological Science, 27(5), 302-308. https://doi.org/10.1177/0963721418755385