In a series of experiments involving college students, drawing pictures was found to be the best strategy for remembering lists of words.
The basic experiment involved students being given a list of simple, easily drawn words, for each of which they had 40 seconds to either draw the word, or write it out repeatedly. Following a filler task (classifying musical tones), they were given 60 seconds to then recall as many words as possible. Variations of the experiment had students draw the words repeatedly, list physical characteristics, create mental images, view pictures of the objects, or add visual details to the written letters (such as shading or other doodles).
In all variations, there was a positive drawing effect, with participants often recalling more than twice as many drawn than written words.
Importantly, the quality of the drawings didn’t seem to matter, nor did the time given, with even a very brief 4 seconds being enough. This challenges the usual explanation for drawing benefits: that it simply reflects the greater time spent with the material.
Participants were rated on their ability to form vivid mental images (measured using the VVIQ), and questioned about their drawing history. Neither of these factors had any reliable effect.
The experimental comparisons challenge various theories about why drawing is beneficial:
- that it processes the information more deeply (when participants in the written word condition listed semantic characteristics of the word, thus processing it more deeply, the results were no better than simply writing out the word repeatedly, and drawing was still significantly better)
- that it evokes mental imagery (when some students were told to mentally visualize the object, their recall was intermediate between the write and draw conditions)
- that it simply reflects the fact that pictures are remembered better (when some students were shown a picture of the target word during the encoding time, their recall performance was not significantly better than that of the students writing the words)
The researchers suggest that it is a combination of factors that work together to produce a greater effect than the sum of each. These factors include mental imagery, elaboration, the motor action, and the creation of a picture. Drawing brings all these factors together to create a stronger and more integrated memory code.