Use of drawings in science education: Now tell me: what did you draw?


Frits F.B. Pals

University of Groningen 

Why drawing?

Much has been written about how and what children draw. Children usually draw what they see and experience. How could that be of use to educational researchers? International research about the use of drawing in education (Katz, 2017) provides evidence that drawings can serve as a window to their level of development. Looking at the development of children is important to parents and teachers. So, the question then that is raised is: what if teachers paid attention to students’ drawings?

Theoretical Underpinning

The combination of verbal teaching and learning, and visualization of information are basic multimedia principles of education since ancient times (Chippendale & Nash, 2004). Mayer (2014) has summarized various of these principles and one of these is: learning has a higher impact if students can combine information in words and pictures than from words alone. Images can give the opportunity to see full-scale at one glance and in detail, meanly connecting additional information to text.

An inspiring and comprehensive edited book volume with title Drawing for Science Education has recently been published and brings together researchers from various parts of the world who describe how teachers can use different drawing tasks as didactic strategies for supporting student learning (Frankel & DePace, 2012; Katz, 2017, diSessa, 2004; Paquette, Fello & Renck Jalongo, 2007). If students articulate their ideas (visualisation) this provides teachers with a window into their thinking (Veen, 2014). The evaluating of the expression (e.g., drawing artefact) provides students with unique opportunities for providing feedback and guidance. This additional learning option (the combination of drawing and talking) makes it possible for students to choose an alternative mental route to developing scientific understandings in comparison with writing (only).

Furthermore, by interaction teachers can improve the cognitive levels (Leutner & Schmeck, 2014) and affection of students. Students’ brain activity, as of example their memory, can be supported by drawing a representation of the lesson content and talking about that experience. ‘Pictures or drawings that align with students’ knowledge base are beneficial for learning and memorization’ (Schnotz, 2014). Learning by drawing provides another positive cognitive aspect: the fact of reduction of cognitive load of the working memory (Sweller, Ayres & Kalyuga, 2011). And, last but not least the support of drawings is not only beneficial to educational researchers but also for visualizing of situations that enable social stakeholders (e.g. in water management) to communicate about their ideas, to deduct misunderstandings and to solve problems (Poolman, 2011)

In previous work I offer a discussion of how Self-Generated Explanatory Representations can serve as theoretical framework for the use of drawing in education ((Pals, 2003). The concept of SER is defined as an active learner-centred didactics method by enhancing knowledge to a coherent content. The method, including drawing and talking, internalizes information and gives the possibility to improve deep learning and transfer of knowledge to solve problems.

Why pay attention to children’s drawings? 

Children love to draw and love their drawings. Children express themselves all day in different ways, including drawing. Everything is drawn, they draw how they see and experience the world. After they have finished the drawing they will show it proudly to their parents. They want to hear what mom and dad have to say about the drawing. The drawing is meant to form a bridge between parents and children. It may give parents an insight into the world of their sons or daughters. Parents see and react to the components and the contents of the drawing: children learn how other persons/people interpret the drawing. In what follows, I offer a discussion about the unique advantages that drawings offer to education, organized under seven themes.

Double Meaning

Much has been written about how and what children draw. Children (try to) draw what they see and experience. That’s one thing. Another point is: they provide a window, by means of the drawing, to their level of development. Looking at the development of children is important to parents and teachers. Teachers are the next step in the equation of development: what if teachers paid attention to students’ drawings and see whether there is an expression about the learning issue and the cognitive development of a student.


Everyone needs time and attention to make themselves familiar with something new. At school new information is introduced as a subject by teachers and that have to find a “place” in students’ head for understanding and deep reasoning. This information is brought by teachers to students (external information). Students organise their learning processes internally. How the information is handled by students (hard) working memory is, in my opinion, the hard core in education. Teachers can help students, by making drawings, to create a comprehension about the content of lessons (chunking). Meanwhile the students release (the overload of) the working memory in scaffolding relations and constructing reasoning.


By reading, watching or hearing something, students gain new information. Students develop a visual image of the information, a representation emerge, “oh, this I have to learn” and (hopefully) search the relation between anchor points, in the inner self, which fits/matches the new information. The penny should drop on the right spot. Only when that happens, students can tell in their own words what they have learned. This is at the heart of the account of the learning process. This requires time and patience by teachers as well as students.


If students are confronted to new information, about for instance a part of science, there will be rarely jargon. Students will choose their own words to express themselves in the new knowledge field. So, they use own words and views for the subject matter to cope with the information. Teachers should recognize these (no jargon) expression of learners and will translate and explain these ‘language’ in technical jargon. Teachers could build a bridge between students and the information and eventually the profession. Thus, teachers can make students familiar with the language of the learning and the mutual understanding. They come ‘on speaking terms’: the talking is for instance about issues in science.

Comprehension Image

About ten years ago I came up with the following idea: teachers can monitor the learning process of children by means of their drawings. In short, the recipe:

  1. students draw a picture about the issue of the lesson: the drawing contains students’ representation of the content of the lesson.
  2. use the picture to talk about the matter. So, emerged, what I call, the ‘Comprehension Image’, the drawing is used as a medium between a student and teacher, the student interprets the drawing and the teacher reflects. There will be communication about the learning subjects and experiences of the students.

Picture Language – Key Figures

A drawing is built on representations. It can be drawings or symbols, icons, cartoon effects, signs, signals or msn characters. Everything is right, as long as students can explain what they draw. These pictures are important. They are “key figures”, for both teachers and students. They supposedly are the key for the student to the area inside: “as I understand it”. For teachers, the figures are the key to the art of science, “so it had to be understood.” The teacher compares the “representation” of the student with the content of the learning and the concepts of the subject.

Figure 1. An example of a drawing of a practice in science lesson. The subject is ‘to make a thermometer scale in degrees Celsius. The instruction to students is: you are going to make a drawing of the practicum and draw it in such a way that you can remember the content of the lesson and you are able to explain your drawing.


Meanwhile, as students work with attention to a “self-generated representation”, it creates time for discussion about the drawings. In addition, students can discuss their images in peer groups. A pleasant effect of making a drawing is the affection of students with their products. They are proud of their drawings and they regard the drawings as their “property.” They are ‘suddenly’ frugal with their notebook.

Want to try it yourself in your lessons?

Start this didactic method ‘mid-section’, so if some sections, explanation, tests, questions and answers are passed. (Of course, you can start a series of lessons by an assignment to make a drawing, if you want to test the prior knowledge of students

Mid-sections’ there is some to grasp and organize information. Give time for processing.

Plan two lessons (more) for making drawings and discussing (and test the quality compared with your conventional lesson)

Give instructions (such as below). But give no comment on drawings, ask and ask again.

Don’t point with your finger, but talk (in jargon).

Talk in a Socratic style.

Provide students with the following directions:

Make one set of all the important rules, definitions, events, results and conclusions and emphasis relations about the things you learned of the content of the lesson

Use (animated) symbols, colours, arrows, and other characters.

Write a word in the drawings. Indicate the sequence of events in the drawing.

Cheating allowed.

If you talk, talk in complete sentences.

Currently I run a study that focuses on rote learning sentences. I investigate whether there are differences in results; memorization with drawings compared to the “normal” way of learning by rote. There are indications: making drawings helps the learning process of students. Karel Appel once said, he was ‘fooling around’ while painting. But he knew exactly what he was doing. What would it be fantastic if students would say and do the same.


About the author:

Frits F.B. Pals works as researcher in collaboration with the University of Groningen and the Netherlands Institute for Curriculum Development (SLO) and the Netherlands Institute for Science Education and Communication (RUG). He taught mathematics, chemistry and physics from 1978 until December 2015 and is retired now. His research focuses on improvement of learning by developing learner-generated representations strategies, in memorisation, reasoning and transfer of knowledge in secondary science education.



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