Drawing to Learn: Sketching and Peer Instruction

by Stephanie Chasteen on August 4, 2015

Many aspects of learning require the ability to visualize – the structure of the cell, the interconnected relationships of historical figures, the forces on a figure skater, the shape of a population distribution graph. But students rarely have the opportunity to create their own visualizations – a critical part of learning. This month’s article will discuss why it’s important for students to draw to learn, and how to use this in conjunction with clicker questions.

Students are usually called upon to interpret visualizations that are given to them –diagrams, photographs, videos, and graphs. We show these to students to help them develop an expert’s eye for the subject… or representational skills. However, interpretation of someone else’s representation is only half the battle. Students can learn through creating their own representations, by going through the tough mental work of coming up with a schematic to explain an idea, concept, or process.

I was recently reminded of the importance of drawing by an excellent article by Ainsworth, Prain and Tytler in Science – so good I’ve hung onto it for 4 years, meaning to write a blog post about it.

Here are five good reasons that they give for using drawing in science classes, but I believe the messages are relatively universal:

  1. Drawing is engaging. Drawing lets students explore and think about ideas in classes, a very clear break from the rote memorization and lecture which has been found to be minimally effective on its’ own.
  2. Drawing lets students to become visually literate. Each discipline has its’ core representations (graphs, diagrams, etc.), and through generating their own representations, students learn when different representations are important, and how to create a good representation. E.g., how does a line graph work, and when is it useful?
  3. Drawing helps students reason and make connections. Diagrams can provide insight into the thinking and reasoning of the discipline. For example, drawing diagrams of sound waves can help students better understand the relationship between pressure and sound. There are many studies showing that visualizations add a component of learning that’s just not there in strict verbal/textual representations.
  4. Drawing helps students learn. By drawing, students can become more expert in their thinking about a subject, because they need to make sense of and organize the material that has been presented. For example, students might be asked to make a drawing, or concept map, to explain what they’ve learned. And while students might not come up with the “right” or expert-like drawing, going through the process of trying to create their own representation prepares them for future learning.
  5. Drawing helps students communicate. Drawing lets students share ideas with one another, even before they have developed the vocabulary and expertise needed to explain themselves clearly in words. These drawings and sketches can be a great opener to peer sharing and discussion in the classroom, and give teachers insight into how their students are thinking.

Many drawing and sketching techniques can be done with students in small groups, preferably with small whiteboards that they can use to share their results with the whole class. An additional component can be added to this discussion by turning the open-ended sketch into a clicker question. To make a drawing-question into a clicker question, try:

  1. Pose the question as an open-ended question. Have students make sketches in their notebooks or small whiteboards. Some possible approaches include:
    1. Students make a concept map diagramming relationships
    2. Students predict the form that a graph will take (say, as a result of an experiment)
    3. Students diagram a structure or process (e.g., the steps of photosynthesis, the structure of the cell, how light travels from a light bulb)
  2. Have students share their sketches with one another. This is a critical opportunity for learning and sharing.
  3. Turn the question into a multiple choice clicker question – which of these most closely matches your sketch/graph? If you aren’t sure what choices to give, you can choose a few sketches or whiteboards from around the room to display at the front of the room as exemplars of a particular type of drawing, and have students choose among these.

Below is an example of such a question. Can anyone share additional examples?
Citation: Ainsworth, Prain and Tytler, “Drawing to Learn in Science,” Science, 333, August 2011.

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