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Ask a REL Response

Drawing to support student learning — October 2018


Could you provide research on the use of drawing as a way to deepen and improve learning across grade levels and subjects?


Following an established REL West research protocol, we conducted a search for research reports and resources on the use of drawing and visuals as a way to deepen and improve learning for all grade levels, across subjects and disciplines. The sources included ERIC, Google Scholar, and PsychInfo. (For details, please see the methods section at the end of this memo.)

We have not evaluated the quality of references and the resources provided in this response. We offer them only for your reference. Also, we searched for references through the most commonly used sources of research, but the list is not comprehensive and other relevant references and resources may exist. References are listed in alphabetical order, not necessarily in order of relevance.

Research References

Baghban, M. (2007). Scribbles, labels, and stories: The role of drawing in the development of writing. Young Children, 62(1), 20–26. Abstract retrieved from

From the abstract: “Drawing helps children organize their ideas for expression in story writing in several ways. Drawing promotes the first writing, and this writing becomes the first reading material that children themselves author. Children draw pictures and write to organize ideas and construct meaning from their experiences. Open-ended opportunities to write and draw in relaxed contexts, without adults stating ‘the right way’ to do either, enable children not only to sort pictures from print but also to gain expertise in each context. With a review of the research and many everyday examples, the author examines young children’s acts of putting marks on paper—scribbles, drawing, and writing—and the role of the teacher. In this article, the author presents a ‘Some Stages of Writing Development’ chart, delineating children’s development of and negotiation between drawing and writing.”

Balzotti, J. (2016). Storyboarding for invention: Layering modes for more effective transfer in a multimodal composition classroom. Journal of Basic Writing, 35(1), 63–84. Retrieved from

From the abstract: “This article describes an innovative pedagogical technique for multimodal composition courses: the use of storyboarding as an invention tool across multiple composition platforms. Student response data and our textual analysis of their multimodal texts over a two-year period reveal some challenges when new media projects are taught alongside traditional essay writing. Our research also shows that basic writing students were more likely to see similarities between the two assignments when they were asked to use a similar process of invention. Utilizing composition concepts in tandem to compose two similar but different products (essay and video) that ostensibly reside in different spaces and times provides unique opportunities for teachers and students in the basic writing classroom to discuss conventional compositional moves—context, style, evidence, warrants—and to discuss argumentation more broadly. Reemphasizing the role of invention in multi-modal instruction as a critical component in the process of new media instruction may help students’ ability to transfer writing knowledge from one assignment to another.”

Bobek, E., & Tversky, B. (2016). Creating visual explanations improves learning. Cognitive Research: Principles and Implications, 1(27), 1–14. Retrieved from

From the abstract: “Many topics in science are notoriously difficult for students to learn. Mechanisms and processes outside student experience present particular challenges. While instruction typically involves visualizations, students usually explain in words. Because visual explanations can show parts and processes of complex systems directly, creating them should have benefits beyond creating verbal explanations. We compared learning from creating visual or verbal explanations for two STEM domains, a mechanical system (bicycle pump) and a chemical system (bonding). Both kinds of explanations were analyzed for content and learning assess by a post-test. For the mechanical system, creating a visual explanation increased understanding particularly for participants of low spatial ability. For the chemical system, creating both visual and verbal explanations improved learning without new teaching. Creating a visual explanation was superior and benefitted participants of both high and low spatial ability. Visual explanations often included crucial yet invisible features. The greater effectiveness of visual explanations appears attributable to the checks they provide for completeness and coherence as well as to their roles as platforms for inference. The benefits should generalize to other domains like the social sciences, history, and archeology where important information can be visualized. Together, the findings provide support for the use of learner-generated visual explanations as a powerful learning tool.”

Edens, K., & Potter, E. (2007). The relationship of drawing and mathematical problem solving: “Draw for math” tasks. Studies in Art Education: A Journal of Issues and Research in Art Education, 48(3), 282–298. Abstract retrieved from

From the abstract: “This study examines a series of children’s drawings (‘Draw for Math’ tasks) to determine the relationship of students’ spatial understanding and mathematical problem solving. Level of spatial understanding was assessed by applying the framework of central conceptual structures suggested by Case (1996), a cognitive developmental researcher. Drawings students constructed for the ‘Draw for Math’ tasks also were categorized as schematic (i.e., proportional details included) or non-schematic (i.e., no proportional details included). Findings indicate that level of spatial understanding and use of schematic drawings both were significantly correlated to problem solving performance. Findings from this research have implications for policy and practice. The art classroom is an important context for developing students’ spatial understanding and proportional thinking abilities associated with artistic as well as mathematical ability. Specific strategies to strengthen collaborative efforts of art specialists and their colleagues to integrate meaningful mathematically-based drawing activities are also suggested.”

Fiorella, L., & Mayer, R. E. (2015). Eight ways to promote generative learning. Educational Psychology Review, 28(4), 717–741. Retrieved from

From the abstract: “Generative learning involves actively making sense of to-be-learned information by mentally reorganizing and integrating it with one’s prior knowledge, thereby enabling learners to apply what they have learned to new situations. In this article, we present eight learning strategies intended to promote generative learning: summarizing, mapping, drawing, imagining, self-testing, self-explaining, teaching, and enacting. First, we provide an overview of generative learning theory, grounded in Wittrock’s (1974) generative model of comprehension and reflected in more recent frameworks of active learning, such as Mayer’s (2014) select-organize-integrate (SOI) framework. Next, for each of the eight generative learning strategies, we provide a description, review exemplary research studies, discuss potential boundary conditions, and provide practical recommendations for implementation. Finally, we discuss the implications of generative learning for the science of learning, and we suggest directions for further research.”

Fiorella, L., & Zhang, Q. (2018). Drawing boundary conditions for learning by drawing. Educational Psychology Review, 30(3), 1115–1137. Retrieved from

From the abstract: “Learning by drawing can be an effective strategy for supporting science text comprehension. However, drawing can also be cognitively demanding and time consuming, and students may not create quality drawings without sufficient guidance. Furthermore, evidence for drawing is often based on comparisons to weak control conditions, such as students who only read the text without provided illustrations. In this review, we synthesize past research to help draw boundary conditions for learning by drawing, focusing on the role of comparison conditions and drawing guidance. First, we analyze how drawing compares to each of four control conditions: reading only, text-focused strategies (e.g., summarizing), other model-focused strategies (e.g., imagining), or viewing instructor-provided illustrations. Next, we distinguish among four levels of drawing guidance: minimal guidance, drawing training, partially provided illustrations, and comparison to instructor-provided illustrations. Our findings indicate that when compared to only reading the text or using text-focused strategies, creating drawings is consistently more effective at fostering comprehension and transfer, regardless of the level of drawing guidance provided. However, when compared to other model-focused strategies or to viewing instructor-provided illustrations, effects of creating drawings are mixed and may depend on the level of drawing guidance provided, among other factors. We discuss the theoretical and practical considerations of our findings and suggest several directions for broadening research on drawing.”

Kantrowitz, A. (2012). The man behind the curtain: What cognitive science reveals about drawing. Journal of Aesthetic Education, 46(1), 1–14. Retrieved from

From the abstract: “Over the past 10 to 15 years the twin fields of neuroscience and cognitive psychology have exploded. Through a number of new imaging technologies, such as functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) and positron emission tomography (PET) scans, scientists have been able to look into the living brain in ways never before possible. What they have discovered, some of which is discussed in this paper, may help to inspire new approaches to the practice and teaching of drawing. The process of thinking through drawing shares characteristics common to many domains in the arts and sciences. Improvisation, analogy and metaphor, exploration and invention all have their place in a variety of creative pursuits. Yet the simplicity of marks on paper as a direct externalization of thought makes drawing a particularly good case study of the human imagination at work. The act of drawing can be understood as the creation of a physical space to play with one’s thoughts outside the confines of one’s minds, to see and manipulate one’s ideas and perceptions in visible form. Drawing is exactly the kind of external cognitive support that can enhance metacognition. It is a powerful tool for nonverbal inquiry, for thinking through problems and analyzing experiences. Beginning to draw, one immediately discovers that he or she understands far less about what he or she sees than he or she had assumed and that there is much more there than he or she had imagined. Drawing enables the drawer to see and comprehend that which is beyond words. Training the brain to draw, to engage with eye and hand, is to learn to be open to surprise, to perceive underlying structures and make unexpected connections and discoveries. In moving beyond automatic, superficial, and stereotyped responses and developing metacognitive skills like constructive perception, it is possible for those who draw to become deeper and more creative thinkers who are better equipped to solve problems across disciplines.”

Krauss, J. (2012). Infographics: More than words can say. Learning & Leading with Technology, 39(5), 10–14. Retrieved from

From the abstract: “Good learning experiences ask students to investigate and make sense of the world. While there are many ways to do this, K-12 curriculum has traditionally skewed toward reading and writing to interpret and express students’ sense-making. But there is another way. Infographics represent data and ideas visually, in pictures, engaging more parts of the brain to look at a problem from more than one angle. As the old adage goes, a picture is worth a thousand words, and pictures can be essential when complex relationships are difficult to convey with words alone. In this article, the author discusses how to develop students’ critical-thinking skills by teaching them to interpret and create infographics.”

Leigh, S. R. (2012). Writers draw visual hooks: Children’s inquiry into writing. Language Arts, 89(6), 396–404. Retrieved from https://

From the abstract: “Drawing and writing in response to picturebook read-alouds, elementary children construct varying ‘visual hooks’ in their sketches as effective visual devices for extending ideas for writing: the bubble hook, the zoom hook, and the group hook. This article reports on a 12-week qualitative study in which children in second grade develop as writers in a classroom where art and language have equal importance. The author and classroom teacher, collaborators in a dissertation study on art and language as ways of knowing, continued their research by looking more closely at children’s drawings as part of the writing process. Analysis of students’ visual/verbal responses, audiotaped talk in group shares, and interview data suggest that children were able to create visual hooks as meaningful pathways for supporting writing and thinking about writing.”

Leigh, S. R., & Heid, K. A. (2008). First graders constructing meaning through drawing and writing. Journal for Learning through the Arts, 4(1), 1–14. Retrieved from

From the abstract: “This eight-week study supports the view that literacy learning is multimodal (Berghoff et al., 2000). It contributes to existing research (Dyson, 1986; Gardner, 1980; Hubbard, 1989; Hubbard & Ernst, 1996; Olshansky, 2007, 2008; Skupa, 1985) on the communicability of drawing and writing as vehicles through which children make and share meaning. In the traditional classroom where language is privileged over other ways of knowing, opportunities to construct meaning through art diminish as learners progress to higher grades and reading and writing therefore shift to the more common curricular resources of the classroom. While some learners are ready for the new shift, many comfortably linger in other forms of expression such as drawing to show their comprehension (Eisner, 1998a). In first grade, varying abilities in writing abound. Exposure to and the personal construction of visual text may provide young writers opportunities to develop and reveal some of their own literacy strategies (Albers, 2007). Simply put, there is power in children’s use of art and, when it is valued as a conduit for understanding how children construct meaning, understanding children’s literacy processes is also expanded.”

Paquette, K. R., Fello, S. E., & Jalongo, M. R. (2007). The talking drawings strategy: Using primary children’s illustrations and oral language to improve comprehension of expository text. Early Childhood Education Journal, 35(1), 65–73. Abstract retrieved from

From the abstract: “Listening and reading comprehension can be assessed by analyzing children’s visual, verbal, and written representations of their understandings. ‘Talking Drawings’ (McConnell, S. (1993). Talking drawings: A strategy for assisting learners. ‘Journal of Reading,’ 36(4), 260–269) is one strategy that enables children to combine their prior knowledge with the new information derived from an expository text and ‘translate’ those newly-acquired understandings into other symbol systems, including an oral discussion with a partner, a more detailed drawing, and written labels for the drawing. The Talking Drawings strategy begins by inviting children to create pre-learning drawings. These initial drawings are a way of taking inventory of a child’s current content knowledge about a particular topic. After pre-learning drawings are created and shared, children listen to or read an expository text (e.g., information book, passage from a textbook) on the same topic as their drawing. Pairs of students discuss the information and either modify their pre-learning drawings to be more detailed or create completely new drawings that reflect the recently-acquired information. Students are encouraged to label their drawings with words in a diagram or schematic fashion. By evaluating the ‘before’ and ‘after’ artwork, educators can identify advances in students’ reading and listening comprehension of the terminology, facts, and principles on a particular topic.”

Quillin, K., & Thomas, S. (2015). Drawing-to-learn: A framework for using drawings to promote model-based reasoning in biology. CBE–Life Sciences Education, 14(1), 1–16. Retrieved from

From the abstract: “The drawing of visual representations is important for learners and scientists alike, such as the drawing of models to enable visual model-based reasoning. Yet few biology instructors recognize drawing as a teachable science process skill, as reflected by its absence in the Vision and Change report’s Modeling and Simulation core competency. Further, the diffuse research on drawing can be difficult to access, synthesize, and apply to classroom practice. We have created a framework of drawing-to-learn that defines drawing, categorizes the reasons for using drawing in the biology classroom, and outlines a number of interventions that can help instructors create an environment conducive to student drawing in general and visual model-based reasoning in particular. The suggested interventions are organized to address elements of affect, visual literacy, and visual model-based reasoning, with specific examples cited for each. Further, a Blooming tool for drawing exercises is provided, as are suggestions to help instructors address possible barriers to implementing and assessing drawing-to-learn in the classroom. Overall, the goal of the framework is to increase the visibility of drawing as a skill in biology and to promote the research and implementation of best practice.”

Ruchti, W. P., & Bennett, C. A. (2013). Develop reasoning through pictorial representations. Mathematics Teaching in the Middle School, 19(1), 30–36. Retrieved from

From the abstract: “This article describes some of the benefits derived from encouraging math drawing in a class of seventh- and eighth-grade students in line with promoting mathematical proficiency. The authors report teaching pictorial representations as part of the solution process, where both students and teachers gained insight into various areas of understanding. Talking about these representations with peers helped strengthen students’ reasoning and understanding. Providing problems that required students to use representations and discussion to develop reasoning skills helped students connect the logic of their thinking with mathematical concepts. In essence, pictorial representations helped students model, analyze, make sense of, and understand the underlying math within a problem. Specifically, using various types of models—area, length, and set—and discussing their usefulness in different contexts helped students develop deeper mathematical understandings. All of these habits of mind and skills take time and multiple experiences to properly learn and develop. The authors conclude that, while pictures may not be proofs, they can help adolescents create and communicate sound reasoning that can lead to proof.”

Schwamborn, A., Mayer, R. E., Thillmann, H., Leopold, C., & Leutner, D. (2010). Drawing as a generative activity and drawing as a prognostic activity. Journal of Educational Psychology, 102(4), 872–879. Abstract retrieved from

From the abstract: “In this study, 9th-grade students (N = 196) with a mean age of 14.7 years read a scientific text explaining the chemical process of doing laundry with soap and water and then took 3 tests. Students who were instructed to generate drawings during learning scored higher than students who only read on subsequent tests of transfer (d = 0.91), retention (d = 0.87), and drawing (d = 2.00). For students who were instructed to generate drawings during learning, those who generated high-accuracy drawings (according to a median split) scored higher than students who generated low-accuracy drawings on subsequent tests of transfer (d = 0.99), retention (d = 0.79), and drawing (d = 1.87); furthermore, drawing-accuracy scores during learning correlated with learning-outcome scores on transfer (r = 0.57), retention (r = 0.50), and drawing (r = 0.82). Results suggest that drawing can serve as a generative activity and as a prognostic activity.”


Keywords and Search Strings

The following keywords and search strings were used to search the reference databases and other sources:

[“students” AND (“freehand drawing” OR “drawing” OR “visuals”)]; and

[(“student drawing” OR “freehand drawing” OR “sketching” OR “sketches”) AND (“thinking” OR “recall” OR “imagination”)]

Databases and Resources

We searched ERIC for relevant resources. ERIC is a free online library of over 1.6 million citations of education research sponsored by the Institute of Education Sciences. Additionally, we searched Google Scholar and PsychInfo.

Reference Search and Selection Criteria

When searching and selecting resources to include, we consider the criteria listed below.

  • Date of the Publication: References and resources published within the last 15 years, from 2003 to present, were included in the search and review.
  • Search Priorities of Reference Sources: Search priority is given to study reports, briefs, and other documents that are published and/or reviewed by IES and other federal or federally funded organizations and academic databases. Priority is also given to sources that provide free access to the full article.
  • Methodology: Priority is given to the most rigorous study designs, such as randomized controlled trials and quasi-experimental designs, and we may also include descriptive data analyses, survey results, mixed-methods studies, literature reviews, or meta-analyses. Other considerations include the target population and sample, including their relevance to the question, generalizability, and general quality. Priority is given to publications that are peer-reviewed journal articles or reports reviewed by IES and other federal or federally funded organizations. If there are many research reports available, we select those with the strongest methodology, or the most recent of similar reports. When there are fewer resources available, we may include a broader range of information. References are listed in alphabetical order, not necessarily in order of relevance.

This memorandum is one in a series of quick-turnaround responses to specific questions posed by educational stakeholders in the West Region (Arizona, California, Nevada, Utah), which is served by the Regional Educational Laboratory West at WestEd. This memorandum was prepared by REL West under a contract with the U.S. Department of Education’s Institute of Education Sciences (IES), Contract ED-IES-17-C-0012, administered by WestEd. Its content does not necessarily reflect the views or policies of IES or the U.S. Department of Education nor does mention of trade names, commercial products, or organizations imply endorsement by the U.S. Government.