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Drawing to Learn in Science

Joshua Vogelstein points us to an article by Shaaron Ainsworth, Vaughan Prain, and Russell Tytler:

Should science learners be challenged to draw more? Certainly making visualizations is integral to scientific thinking. Scientists do not use words only but rely on diagrams, graphs, videos, photographs, and other images to make discoveries, explain findings, and excite public interest. . . . However, in the science classroom, learners mainly focus on interpreting others’ visualizations; when drawing does occur, it is rare that learners are systematically encouraged to create their own visual forms to develop and show understanding (6). Drawing includes constructing a line graph from a table of values, sketching cells observed through a microscope, or inventing a way to show a scientific phenomenon (e.g., evaporation). Although interpretation of visualizations and other information is clearly critical to learning, becoming proficient in science also requires learners to develop many representational skills. We suggest five reasons why student drawing should be explicitly recognized alongside writing, reading, and talking as a key element in science education. . . .

I like this, for several reasons:

1. I make a lot of sketches in my work. When I teach, I’m always sketching things on the blackboard. One of my principles of teaching is: Anything you want students to understand, they should do. If the derivation’s in the book or on the board, it should also be in the students’ homeworks and in-class activities. So, yeah, I think students should get practice in drawing (and feedback on their attempts).

2. Drawing is a good skill in itself. Just as writing and programming are useful in many different aspects of life, so is drawing. So it’s good to give students instruction in drawing whenever it fits in to the curriculum. Same with writing, same with programming.

3. Some people are good at algebra, others are good at drawing. It’s good to structure a course so that people with drawing talent have an entry into the field. Similar to how it’s good to give some mathematical subtlety in any course so that the more mathematical students can relate the course to that ability and interest of theirs.


  1. ralmond says:

    A while ago, Jody Underwood did a focus group about score reporting with teachers. She found that teachers preferred text, tables and graphs is about equal numbers. My guess is that the same is true of students, or at least sufficient numbers of each that I try to mix all three representation types in my teaching.

    Also, Linda Steinberg, who I worked closely with on the evidence-centered assessment design research, had a rather strong theory of _knowledge representations_, which are very common in science. In statistics, we have text, equations, tables, graphs of various kinds, and computer output. Linda found that forcing a student to translate knowledge from one representation to another was very good for both learning and assessing learning. This work is available in some of our CRESST reports.

    When I’m teaching statistics, I tend to set a lot of problems where I give the students SPSS output which I have produced and ask them to write a summary. Your teaching exercise where you give the students Stata output and ask them to to graph it serves a similar purpose, I think.

  2. Nadia says:

    Some studies have found that training spatial skills improves science success.

    This idea seems especially important for areas like spatial statistics.

  3. Sylvia says:

    Teachers tend to encourage written answers over schematic drawings, because drawings are harder to grade (with the exception of graphs). Yet, images are very important in scientific publications, so “harder to grade” shouldn’t be sufficient reason to ban drawing from science class.

    Imagine Da Vinci being told that science isn’t drawing class. ;-)

    For students who like drawing, encouraging them do so also provides a good way to acquire (or avoid losing) a liking to the subject of science. (This is called the affective component in learning.) A splash of colour can greatly improve how you feel about going through your notes once more.

    @Nadia: You sure need some spatial skills in physics. I once made some 3D model (from colored plastic forks – it wasn’t nice) to help me visualize Euler angles.

  4. Steve Sailer says:

    I read in the recent biography of sci-fi author Robert Heinlein that when he was assigned as a junior officer straight out of Annapolis to an aircraft carrier in 1927, the the captain made the new officers sketch the entire propulsion system in great detail. Someday, after a torpedo attack, they may have to repair it in darkness, so they better know what it looks like and how it all works.

  5. Sean Matthews says:

    Makes me think immediately of Tristan Needham’s (spectacularly good) Visual Complex Analysis, in the preface of which he describes the experience of studying under Roger Penrose, somebody who is rather good at both the algebra and the drawing. The whole point of VCA is proof by drawing, and a very sharp point it is.

  6. Eli says:

    I feel like the fixed costs to learning the nuts and bolts of drawing might not have been worth the added intuition it would have given me in math classes.
    Nevertheless, it makes me think immediately of Vi Hart, whose YouTube channel consists of 2-5 minute discussions of the mathematics underlying different kinds of doodles: