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Man sketching on drawing board
Cognition and perception, Education

Want to remember something? Draw it

Drawing involves different mental processes that are known to benefit memory, such as visualisation and deep-level elaboration.

08 April 2016

By Christian Jarrett

If you've got some revision to do, get yourself a sketch pad and start drawing out the words or concepts that you want to remember. That's the clear message from a series of studies in the Quarterly Journal of Experimental Psychology that demonstrates drawing is a powerful memory aid.

Jeffrey Wammes and his colleagues first presented dozens of students with 30 easily drawable words such as "apple". For each word, they had to spend 40 seconds writing it out repeatedly, or drawing it. The students then completed a filler task for a couple of minutes, which involved classifying the pitch of different tones. Then they were given a surprise memory test and asked to recall as many of the earlier words as possible. Participants recalled more than double the proportion of drawn words than written words. The drawing advantage held in a variation of the experiment in which the 40 seconds were spent either drawing each word repeatedly, or writing out each word just once and then spending additional time adding visual detail, such as shading.

In further experiments with dozens more students, the researchers showed that drawing was a better memory aid than visualising the words, than writing a description of the physical characteristics of each word's meaning (designed to encourage deep-level encoding of the words), and more effective than looking at pictures of the words. The drawing advantage also remained when participants were given just four seconds to draw each word, and whether they performed the tasks alone or together in a lecture hall.

The researchers think that drawing has this effect because it involves lots of different mental processes that are known to benefit memory, such as visualization and deep-level elaboration. "We propose that drawing, through the seamless integration of its constituent parts, produces a synergistic effect, whereby the whole benefit is greater than the sum of the benefit of each component," they said. They acknowledged more research is needed to show the usefulness of these findings to real life: "While we did show that the drawing effect is reliable in group testing in our experiments, the content was still only single words and hardly representative of an academic setting."

Further reading

The drawing effect: Evidence for reliable and robust memory benefits in free recall