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Keep Calm and Doodle On

Traditionally, doodling has been seen as a distraction from the real work of learning. However, recent psychological research has found that doodling in class could actually benefit students' attention, memory, and learning.

ByScott AsakawaNOVA EducationNOVA Education

To a teacher, seeing a student hunched over her notebook furiously writing is generally thought of as a good sign. Upon closer inspection, however, a teacher sometimes discovers that instead of writing down notes, the student’s notebook is filled with small drawings. The content of these creations varies, but generally, this kind of drawing is known as “doodling.” For a long time, doodling has been thought, at best, to be an idle and mindless activity. At worst, it has been seen as a significant distraction from the real work of learning. Interestingly, recent research has revealed that doodling may actually

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help the brain to process certain kinds of information. Furthermore, it is possible that encouraging students to doodle may actually increase their engagement and interest in educational subject matter.

In a 2009 study,

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Jackie Andrade , a psychology professor at the University of Plymouth in England, designed a psychological experiment to determine whether doodling actually benefits attention and memory. In the study, an experimental group was instructed to make marks on paper while listening for information in a “mundane” phone message. The control group listened to the same message without doodling. The group instructed to doodle remembered 29% more information than did the control group. While the study is far from conclusive, its potential implications could explain a lot about why doodling has been so pervasive in generation after generation of school children, and how the practice might actually be useful in educational settings.

A doodle by Brock University professor Giulia Forsythe explaining how doodling helps with learning. Courtesy of Giulia Forsythe.

Some research suggests that doodling is particularly helpful in science classes. In 2011, educational researchers from three Australian universities — Shaaron Ainsworth of the University of Nottingham, Vaughan Prain of La Trobe, and  Russell Tytler of Deakin University — conducted a joint study to test Andrande’s 2009 results. The three researchers decided to test the theory in a science class, science being a subject that relies on images, graphs, and visual aids to explain concepts. They encouraged students to draw what they learned during lecture, and while doing assigned readings. Students who drew not only retained more information, but they also reported more enjoyment and engagement with the course material.

In the face of mounting evidence that doodling is much more than just an idle activity, a few notable individuals are looking to bring the practice into the professional mainstream. Sunni Brown, named one of the “100 Most Creative People in Business” and one of the “10 Most Creative People on Twitter” by Fast Company, is the leader of “The Doodle Revolution” the purpose of which is to “disrupt social norms about visual language and visual thinking, [and] educate people around the world about [doodling’s] power and potential.” Brown is an ardent champion of the practice of doodling, saying in her TED Talk, “the doodle has never been the nemesis of intellectual thought. In reality, it is one of its greatest allies.” Sunni Brown’s design consultancy, Sunni Brown Ink, has worked with high-profile clients like Linkedin, Zappos, and Dell, amongst others to improve organization and planning by using doodles.

Sunni Brown's TED talk from March, 2011.

It is worth noting that not all the research done on doodling suggests a positive effect. In 2012, Elaine Chan of the University of British Columbia found that for visual recall, doodling seemed to have a negative effect. Chan suggested a variety of plausible reasons for this result, the most likely being that “the main visual recall task required visual processing by the brain, [as did the doodling task, and so] performance on the recall of images was impaired [due to the split in attention].”

Certainly, we are just beginning to explore the connection between doodling and learning, and there is far more research to be done on the potential value of “meaningless marks.” That being said, the implications of these first few studies really are fascinating in that they imply incredible potential for the use of doodling as a way to help learners to process and retain certain kinds of information. Doodling should not be flatly discouraged, but rather, looked upon as one potential avenue for real growth as educators deduce the best methods for helping students to learn the vital skills that will help them succeed in the future.

Cover photo by Vincent Mace. Published under a Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 3.0 License.

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