Can Doodling During A Lecture Enhance Student Learning?

Visual Learning MedEd

Anyone who has ever attended formal schooling — from middle school classes to advanced medical courses — knows the struggle of paying attention during a prolonged lecture. For even some of the most avid learners and skilled notetakers, it can be challenging to keep a sustained focus on a professor who reads straight from the book or who lacks enthusiasm all together.

Usually when students become disengaged from the lecture material they begin to daydream, text, browse the internet and doodle. Historically, allowing these outside habits to take priority over the lecture has led to decreased in test scores and a loss in memory retention.

However, researchers are beginning to explore how when students are able to incorporate their distractions (e.g. doodling and internet browsing) into what is being taught in the lecture, not only will they be more immersed in the subject, there is a possibility that their memory retention will expand and their test scores will increase, according to KQED News.

Specifically for doodling, students can become more receptive to the material being taught in class than traditional note taking. When students start putting the lecture material into images and doodles made up of different shapes and colors, they begin to engage with different functions of the brain that leads to enhanced memory retention. Jill Gough, director of teaching and learning at Trinity Schools said:

“If we draw or sketch, that’s activating the visual pathway, so we’re using our auditory senses to take in information. But our output is visual, so there isn’t that traffic jam.”

There are three ways in which the brain creates meaning through visuals, according to Tom Wujec, author and visual designer at Autodesk.

  • The first way is through the ventral stream, which is located on either side of the brain. This brain function acts as the “what” detector and is able to recognize familiar objects such as a chair, a book or a remote control.
  • The second is called the dorsal stream and it manages where objects are located in physical bodyspace. It allows individuals to create mental maps based on object proximity, size, transparency, and so on, giving people the ability to navigate in a space even if they temporarily close their eyes.
  • The final way a brain creates meaning is with the limbic system, which is located deep inside the brain. The limbic system is activated when an individual sees motion, color, shapes and patterns.

Through these three brain functions the mind works to create perception. And memory has a strong relationship to that visual perception. Wujec said:

“We make meaning by seeing, by an act of visual interrogation. The lessons for us are three-fold. First, use images to clarify what we’re trying to communicate. Secondly make those images interactive so that we engage much more fully. And the third is to augment memory by creating a visual persistence.”

So when it comes to the class with the boring professor, instead of drawing a picture of the attractive girl in the back, or a giant name-collage made up of different sharpie colors, doodle what is being taught. Shelley Paul director of learning design at Woodward Academy, said in a recent interview:

“I sat through two 45-minute lectures in high school social studies and not only was I super focused because I was doodling, I could also basically give the lecture afterwards. And if I look at the doodle again today for three to four minutes, I can basically remember it all again.”

Doodling is a form of information synthesization and is used to make split decisions about what is important and how it should presented. While it may seem like doodling is just another form of distraction, it can actually be a powerful way to encode and retain memories, creating more engaged students.

Riley Schatzle
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