doodling as pedagogy

This one has been all over the news in the last two days, but if you haven’t seen it, it’s an Early View article in the journal Applied Cognitive Psychology. The article suggests that people who doodle while they are listening to stuff retain more of what they hear than non-doodlers do.

As an unabashed doodler, for me it’s usually fancy typography-like versions of my dog’s name, this isn’t all that surprising. But my brain keeps going back to it — should we be figuring out ways to encourage our students to doodle in library sessions?

See, the article doesn’t say definitively why the doodling works.  But the author, Jackie Andrade, does suggest that it might have something to do with keeping the brain engaged just enough to prevent daydreaming, but not enough to be truly distracting:

A more specific hypothesis is that doodling aids concentration by reducing daydreaming, in situations where daydreaming might be more detrimental to perfomance than doodling itself.

So you’ve got an information literacy session in the library, with a librarian-teacher you have no relationship at all, about a topic about which you may or may not think you need instruction.  That sounds like a perfect situation for daydreaming.

And it’s not too hard to think of ways to encourage doodling.  Handouts with screenshots of the stuff you’re talking about – encourage them to draw on the handouts.  Maybe even provide pencils?  I don’t know – it’s not an idea where I’ve fully figured out the execution, but I’m interested.

My students, most of the time, don’t take notes while I’m talking.  Part of this is my style, I talk fast and I don’t talk for very long in any one stretch before switching to hands-on.  But I don’t think that’s all of it – most of them don’t even take out note-taking materials unless they are told to do so by their professor (and then they ALL do) or unless I say “you should make a note of this” (then most of them do).   And this isn’t something I’ve worried about.  I have course pages they can look at if they need to return to something, and I’m confident that most of them know how to get help after the fact if they need it.

But the no-notetaking thing means that they aren’t even in a position to do any doodling.  And as someone who needs that constant hands/part of the brain occupation to stay focused, I wonder why I’ve never thought about that as a problem before.

This study specifically tried to make sure that the subjects were prone to boredom.  They had them do this task right after they had just finished another colleagues experiment, thinking that would increase the chance that they would be bored.  And they gave them a boring task – monitoring a voice message.  Half doodled, half did not, and then they were tested on their recall of the voice message.

I don’t mean to suggest that information literacy sessions are inherently boring; I don’t actually think they are.  But I think some of the conditions for boredom are there, particularly in the one-shot setting, and I don’t think there’s stuff that we can do about all of those conditions.  Some of them are inherent.  The idea of using the brain research that’s out there to figure out some strategies for dealing with that interests me a lot.

Jackie Andrade (2009). What does doodling do? Applied Cognitive Psychology DOI: 10.1002/acp.1561

5 thoughts on “doodling as pedagogy

  1. Interesting study. As for note-taking … I do that in lieu of doodling when I’m at a meeting, know I need to pay attention, and have no intention of actually consulting the notes later. It just keeps me focused. I should try doodling.

    My father, who taught journalism, said the key to getting students to start taking notes was to number things. “Here’s a very important concept, and here’s something cool, and this is something you really need to know. I’ll also mention there are three things that are entirely trivial . . . ” Pens immediately start moving across the page….

  2. Thanks for posting about this. I’m a long time doodler and I’ve always believed it helped me listen better. People always comment about my doodling in meetings and I tell them this. Now I’ve got something to back up my assertions.

    Also, discovered your blog the other week and I’ve really been enjoying it.

  3. I’m always surprised at how many students don’t even bother taking out note-taking supplies in my instruction sessions. One of these days I’m going to ask them, “do you honestly expect not to hear a single thing worth writing down in the next hour?” Maybe I’ll wait until after I have tenure to ask that…

    I do try always to supply them with a handout, if for no other reason than to get my contact information into their hands, and in case they DO realize that there’s something worth writing down, they have something on which to write it. Perhaps I’ll start supplying pencils, too, to enable doodling.

    I had a grad assistant a few years back who, when she did instruction sessions, would always stick a neon Post-It note on her podium that said, “They will always look bored.” She said it counteracted that pit-of-the-stomach, “I’m really tanking up here” feeling of seeing bored faces in the classroom.

  4. I used to tell people that the level of comprehensiveness in my class notes was directly related to how boring the lecture was. That wasn’t always true, but it was true enough – I definitely use the notetaking as a focus-keeping strategy myself. And I often combine the two.

    Derik, if I could draw like you do I would probably do that exclusively. I would have to focus way above the doodle level to do anything but fancy letters, though!

    I don’t really take the note-taking thing in my classes personally — though I am thinking now about how to change it. My husband and too many other people who teach regular credit classes say that it’s an issue in their classes too – not so much a problem that the students don’t take notes so much as a lot of them don’t know how to take useful notes. Many will knock themselves out trying to copy down all of the words that are on the slides – when, of course, it’s the ideas between the bullet points that you usually really need to make a note of. I don’t tend to lecture for more than 5-10 minutes, and when I do I’m usually doing live demos – I hardly ever use a slide, much less a bullet point – so I just don’t think it *looks* like a note-taking situation, if that makes any sense.

    I think the writing down the bullet points idea is probably related to why Barbara’s father’s trick works. If bullet points are a visual “write this down” signifier — then the number thing is an auditory version of same?

  5. I’ve heard that doodlling is about kinetic learners who instead of notes make a page of sketches but that upon looking at their sketches can recall the information in the lecture.

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