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Drawing to Learn

Expert practioners draw visualizations to develop new insights, record discoveries, explain findings to colleagues and to excite public interest. Students should also have more opportunity to create visual representations (pictures, diagrams, flowcharts, etc) to develop, deepen and demonstrate their understanding.

Thus, the central goal of Shaaron Ainsworth's research is to explore how understanding can be improved by drawing.

Revolving and Rotating

Two examples of drawings by 12 year old students who were challenged to explain the meaning of the terms 'revolve' and 'rotate' in planetary motion. (Image courtesy of Representation in Learning Science, funded by ARC DP070999).

Ainsworth, Prain and Tyler  (2011) in a paper in Science argue that  drawing  can play a number of  important roles in learning:, namely:

  • Drawing to enhance engagement — surveys have shown than when students draw to explain they are more motivated to learn compared to traditional teaching of science.
  • Drawing to learn to represent in science — the process of producing visual representations  helps learners understand how scientific representations work.
  • Drawing to reason in science — student learn to reason like scientists as they select specific features to focus on in their drawings, aligning it with observation, measurement and/or emerging ideas
  • Drawing as a learning strategy — if learners read a text and then draw it, the process of making their understanding visible and explicit helps them to overcome limitations in presented material, organise and integrate their knowledge and ultimately can be transformative.
  • Drawing to communicate — discussing their drawings with their students provides teachers with windows into students’ thinking as well being a way that the peers can share knowledge, discovery and understanding.

For example,  in the drawings below, students were using drawing as a learning strategy. They  read this text "Valves prevent the blood from moving backward or downward. These valves allow blood to flow in only one direction through the veins.” The drawings on the left are typical and the one on the right less so.

Function of Valves

In these drawings, students were given the instructions “Draw, as if explaining to a high school student, how the motions of large and small particles suspended in a fluid are affected by an increase in temperature of the fluid”. The two related drawings on the left hand side demonstrate a greater understanding of concepts such as particle size and motion compared to the picture on the right hand side. (Image courtesy of Picturing to Learn, funded by NSF DUE-0925110). Such drawings help lecturers to see what their students understand.


The most recent project conducted by the LSRI in this area will explore how medical students learn of anatonomy and neuroanotonmy can be improved by drawing; see