Drawing can help students remember details of a topic, researchers have found, even if they sketch it quickly while taken written notes.

There has long been a connection between visualization and art dating back to ancient Rome and Greece when storytelling was linked to a series of objects in an activity called a memory palace. Today, when experts offer tips to help adults recall names or other items, they often suggest they visualize something about the appearance of the person or item related to the name.

But Canadian researchers in a series of experiments have found a more direct link that connects the process of drawing to improved memory.

How Does Drawing Help with Memorization?

In several experiments at the University of Waterloo’s Cognitive Neuroscience Lab, participants were asked to either write or draw items from a word list. The results, published in the Quarterly Journal of Experimental Psychology, showed that the students who did drawings were able to recall those words that had been drawn better than those that had simply written them down.

That supported earlier research that showed six-year-old children who were asked to draw what happened during an event reported more details with more accuracy than those who just talked about what happened, especially in response to verbal questions.

Newer research backs both and says that a “systematic exploration of the efficacy of drawing as an encoding strategy” showed a “large and reliable advantage in memory performance for items that were previously drawn relative to those that were written…”

“Drawing a to-be-remembered stimulus was superior to writing it out, regardless of whether the encoding orientation instructed the participant to emphasize either detail or repetition. Further, this effect was replicated in an ecologically valid large group setting,” the researchers found.

They also found drawing was superior to a deep level of processing, visual imagery, or viewing pictures for encoding. Other experiments showed that drawing helped with both long lists of items and short encoding durations.

“We argue that the mechanism driving the effect is that engaging in drawing promotes the seamless integration of many types of memory codes, including elaboration, visual imagery, motor action and picture memory into one cohesive memory trace, and it is this that facilitates later retrieval of the studied words.”

Can All Students Benefit from Drawing?

Experts say the process of drawing an item requires that anyone, no matter what their learning style, puts the subject in a different form and that “translation” and “elaboration” on the subject through drawing imbeds it in the memory. Also, a student listening to a teacher is passive and can be distracted, but the act of drawing involves them and requires physical activity, which supports the memory.

Memories are stronger when there are more neural connections made in the brain, and drawing enhances that process because we create those cellular-level connections in three ways – by thinking about the topic, drawing it and considering its meaning in more detail, and thinking about how the drawing and the subject relate.

Some experts also believe that drawing avoids concern about learning styles when it is used in teaching because it allows students to use their strongest skills since the subject becomes visual, physical, and related to words.

Ways to Utilize Drawing in the Classroom

Here are some ideas for using drawing to help students recall facts:

  • When students are taking notes, it may be helpful to have them draw the subject matter occasionally, creating interactive material, especially about key points. It will help them imbed the information at the time, break up the monotony of a lecture, and be useful as they review the material later. Even quick, small sketches with notes are fine.
  • It is sometimes difficult to show the benefits of a field trip or hands-on activity, but having students capture a few important learning experiences from such activities in a picture might make the events more valuable.
  • Historical facts are always the items that come to mind when we think about memorization in education, and it would be helpful to have students interpret an event with one or a series of images that describe the event, with attention to its significance.
  • Even in math, there are opportunities. For years, educators have explained addition and subtraction using images, and animators have made more complex mathematical procedures come to life. Students can be challenged to think about math — especially repeated formulas — in a more visual way in drawings.
  • Data is increasingly important, and while there is plenty of software that allows students to create graphs or charts, a hand-drawn representation of data is also helpful. Charts with graphics or constructed out of images can make the process more engaging.
  • Some teachers have students create books about a topic, requiring them to develop a narrative with facts but also pictures that relate to it.