Many different methods have been repeatedly studied in an attempt to find ways for people to retain information in the most efficient manner possible. One study in particular, conducted by Fernandes, Williams, and Meade (2018) tested the particular effects of drawing on memory and retention.
They hypothesized that drawing's effect on memory would be superior to all other methods that people use to try and remember information. The methods they used essentially consisted of having their subjects use various strategies, such as writing and drawing, and comparing the effects of those strategies on the subjects' abilities to remember words and abstract concepts.
Additionally, the researchers looked at the specific components of drawing, which were highlighted as motor, pictorial, and elaborative, and how multiple combinations of these components aided in memory for the subjects. Ultimately, each experiment aided the researchers to come to the conclusion that drawing does have a very compelling effect on memory, even more so than any other encoding method does.
These findings are especially relevant today in a society where superior memory is highly valued and students still struggle with finding effective methods to remember information when preparing for exams. This drawing effect can be taken as a call to action, especially for those students who have yet to find academic success with current conventional study methods.
For years, people have been seeking the most efficient strategies that lead to improved memory. Countless methods have been found, and new findings continue to outrule previous ones. One study in particular has looked into how and why drawing improves memory more than other conventional methods (verbalizing, writing, and enacting) do. This research question is incredibly relevant today because it can be justified by many existing psychological concepts. It can also be beneficial for students who have read this article to implement drawing into their studying techniques, ultimately making their recall process much smoother than it would be if they only used writing as a study method.
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Taking a closer look at the specific experiments conducted, the first hypothesized that in comparison to other methods of encoding, drawing pictures of the information subjects have to memorize would be the most effective. The experiment's design consisted of 30 words being presented one after another to each subject, each word being preceded by a direction on which type of encoding method to use ("draw," indicating to the subject to illustrate the word shown, and "write," meaning the subject should repeatedly write down the word shown). Each trial lasted 40 seconds, and the participant would continue employing the assigned method until the next direction was given. The independent variable here was the indicated method of encoding, whereas the dependent variable was the measured memory of that specific word for each respective subject. This first experiment's results showed that in comparison to writing, drawing proved to be a more powerful method of encoding information for better retention.
These results were also mirrored in a second experiment, wherein each encoding method's effects were magnified by embellished writing or repetitive drawing. Furthermore, the researchers conducted an additional experiment to see whether or not this drawing effect can be attributed to a deep, or semantic, level of processing. One aspect of psychology that the researchers must have utilized to build this initial hypothesis is the spreading activation of the semantic networks in the brain (Psych 240 lecture, 10/28/19). However, the outcome turned out to be, as exemplified in Figure 1 of the research article (indicated below), that the drawing trials were superior to all other trial types, thus supporting the researchers' hypothesis that this drawing effect cannot be attributed to deep (semantic) processing, shown on the x-axis as its own experiment type (Fernandes, Wammes, & Meade, 2018).
Looking further into the reasoning behind these conclusions, the visuospatial sketchpad (the component of working memory dedicated to visual imagery and spatial processing) seems like it would be an integral part of the drawing process that the subjects were told to implement here, since one needs to visualize what something is going to look like in their head before drawing it out on a piece of paper. This aspect of the tripartite model of working memory is also doubly dissociated from the phonological loop (meaning the right occipital lobe and right prefrontal areas of these subjects' brains were being activated while they were doing this experiment), thus the latter can be ruled out as being attributed to the drawing method's success (Psych 240 lecture, 10/16/19).
Next, the researchers conducted an experiment to test whether or not the drawing effect can also be applied to broader academic concepts consisting of more than just one word. In this experiment, each subject had 60 seconds to either write the meaning or draw a picture representing a particular indicated academic concept. The independent variable in this case was the condition of encoding, and the dependent variable was the number of concepts correctly remembered. Eventually, the researchers were able to conclude that overall, drawing proved to be a more effective method of encoding in increasing retention of a complex academic concept. This is because drawing forces the subject to create an explanation of the meaning of the concept in their head and then modify it into a completely different manifestation (in this case, a picture on paper). The researchers also noted that the effects of paraphrasing information can be comparable to drawing as well. Their results showed that drawing not only improves memory of their subjects, but it also does so in a way that forces the person to combine information about the context of that drawing, that has the ability to later be retrieved as well (Fernandes, Wammes, & Meade, 2018).
Thus, it is evident that in order to employ the drawing method, these subjects had to take the propositional code they were given, create a depictive image, and draw that onto their paper. This is exhibited in Kosslyn's Compromise Theory, and it makes sense from a logical standpoint of the process each subject has to go through within their given time frame in order to properly carry out this method. Thus, these subjects clearly have to work harder to take in the given information to generate their depictive image, as opposed to simply regurgitating the same words onto a page (Psych 240 lecture, 9/30/19).
The researchers also conducted two supplementary experiments regarding the components of drawing (motor, pictorial, and elaborative). They hypothesized that the number of components that go into a particular encoding method will have a linear relationship with memory performance. This experiment consisted of two trials, a trace trial and a blind-drawing trial. The trace trial (tracing over a picture that is already drawn for you) tested the motor and pictorial components, but excluded the elaborative component. The blind trial (drawing a picture but not having the ability to see how your drawing is turning out), however, tested the elaborative and motor components, but instead excluded the pictorial component.
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Additionally, contrary to the prior experiments, the researchers instituted a two-day delay between encoding and testing. They also used the measure of memory after the writing trial as a standard against which they would compare the other measures. Here, the independent variable was trial type (presence/absence of each component), whereas the dependent variable was the number of words correctly remembered. It is important to note that these two experiments differed in the sense that Experiment 1 did not test the "blind" component of drawing and the "write" method. Yet again, drawing still appeared to be superior to other encoding strategies, as it had the highest accuracy.
In addition, based on Figure 2 (shown below), drawing seemed to have the highest sensitivity compared to the other encoding methods as well. As each individual component of encoding was added, retention also increased, thus supporting the researchers' hypothesis that the two scaled linearly. They also found data to suggest that drawing yielded better retention than the combination of all three components, heavily implying that there is some type of supplementary advantage to drawing as a whole when all of these encoding components are unified (Wammes, Jonker, & Fernandes, 2019).
Overall, the data from these experiments do support the researchers' hypothesis that drawing is a superior method of encoding in comparison to all other forms of encoding.
The results were derived not only through comparing drawing to other encoding strategies, but also when analyzing its individual components that make it so successful. This work also heavily emphasizes the importance of drawing as an encoding method to better remember info in the future - this is applicable especially to university students, who utilize diverse ways to study for exams. For example, incorporating this method into a study guide before an exam as a way to conceptually map out newly learned information can prove to be advantageous for students in the long run.
After reading these compelling findings, I myself have tried to implement drawing into my study habits for my midterm and final exams this semester and have personally found much success with it. This conclusion ties into the notion that as opposed to just rereading lecture notes, one will prove to be much more successful at remembering information if they simply create their own interpretations and their own forms of quizzing themselves in preparation for examinations. By forcing oneself to think about potential ways in which the information they've learned can be assessed or tested in a real exam, they are forcing themselves to think beyond the redundant lecture notes that they've had for so long.
Drawing also requires people to think in this same manner, as stated by the researchers, thus explaining how it is the most effective of all the encoding strategies tested. This also falls along the same lines as desirable difficulties: this strategy may be hard at first, but implementing drawing into studying to eventually make it a routine strategy is one way to change study habits in order to yield greater retention and results (Psych 240 lecture, 9/9/19). In a world in which individuals are constantly gaining intelligence, finding new ways to outsmart each other, and striving to stand out at the top of their class, methods like these can prove to (eventually) ease the encoding and memory process once one applies them practically.
Fernandes, M. A., Wammes, J. D., & Meade, M. E. (2018). The Surprisingly Powerful Influence of Drawing on Memory. Current Directions in Psychological Science, 27 (5), 302-308.
Wammes, J. D., Jonker, T. R., & Fernandes, M. A. (2019). Drawing improves memory: The importance of multimodal encoding context. Cognition, 191, 1-9.
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