When children and adults are learning complicated new ideas, research suggests that drawing can be an effective and engaging way to learn. When students draw, they make their ideas explicit, permanent and visual. This new knowledge once externalised can leverage complementary cognitive and affective benefits, which in turn, can prompt new understanding. It can support communication between peers and with teachers and is a fundamental practice is many STEM disciplines.

So in this work, we explore how drawing works to help students in domains as diverse as anatomy, fashion design, physics, and chemistry learn as they read texts, study material, remember situations or interact with simulations. It explores how drawing activities should be designed, whether there are important individual differences that influence learning by drawing and how technology changes drawing to learn.

I have collaborated with many researchers over the year to explore these issues and a number of projects have been completed and papers have been authored. Here are just a few examples of projects and this paper written with Russell Tytler and Vaughan Prain and published in Science in 2011 sets out my overall view

Ainsworth, S., Prain, V., & Tytler, R. (2011). Drawing to learn in science. Science, 333(6046), 1096-1097. doi:10.1126/science.1204153

How can drawing support teaching and assessment in dissection?

In HEA funded PhD studentship to Dimitrios Panagiotopoulos co-supervised by Dr Peter Wigmore we studied medical students drawing pre-and post whole body dissection to see how their drawings changed and compared them to third-year medical students. We also showed the drawings to anatomy instructors and established how they assessed them. Full findings are reported in the thesis and here are some of the drawings. Can you guess which student drew which heart?

Three drawings created by medical students of the heart

Drawing to Support Learning with Simulations

I work with my colleagues Antje Kohnle (Physics, St Andrews), Gina Passante (Physics, California State University: Fullerton) Katharina Scheiter (IWM, Tubingen,) and Mike Stieff (Chemistry, University of Illinois, Chicago) to explore how drawing whilst learning from simulations can enhance understanding of the concepts and representations in Quantum Mechanics and Intermolecular forces. This work involves designing systems and conducting lab or real-world studies of students’ interactions with simulations and is aimed at uncovering design principles that will help students learn by drawing most effectively.

Drawings of an unknown gas under two conditions (Image courtesy of Mike Stieff)

Sample Paper

Kohnle, A., S. Ainsworth, and G. Passante, Sketching to support visual learning with interactive tutorials. Physical Review Physics Education Research, in press

Drawing as a Learning Strategy

Many researchers believe (including me) that drawing can be used as a metacognitive strategy: i.e. learning strategy that both depends upon and enhances a student’s understanding of what they understand. When learners draw in a constructive way, they translate their current understanding (perhaps also based upon new source material like text) into an external visualisation. This process can help generate new insight, as can reflecting upon this newly constructed representation. In many studies, I have explored the conditions that influence the success of learning by drawing, such as drawing for peers, drawing after a teacher draws in front of you, drawing with technology or with a pencil, drawing after training or drawing from different original materials (such as writing or drawing). Here are links to sample papers.

Scheiter, K., Schleinschok, K., & Ainsworth, S. (2017). Why sketching may aid learning from science texts: Contrasting sketching with written explanations. Topics in Cognitive Science, 9(4), 866-882. doi:doi:10.1111/tops.12261

Ainsworth, S. E., Musgrove, S., & Galpin, J. (2007). Learning about dynamic systems by drawing for yourself and for others. Paper presented at the EARLI conference Budapest.