How To Draw Your Way To Drastically Better Memory

By on May 24, 2016 in How To
How To Draw Your Way To Drastically Better Memory

I was just into my fourth year of University when I completely revamped the way I took notes: I started drawing them, and the results were amazing.

Knowing that not everyone learns the same way, I assumed that I had just found my method — the one that sung to me. Drawing my notes allowed me to visually recall them during exams, I was able to literally locate the information by envisioning it on my hand-drawn notes. At the time there was no way to attribute all the credit to sketching my notes, and there are always outlying variables in a situation like that. I couldn't be sure if the act of sketching my notes just made me more attentive in class and thus engage more in the topic, or if the shift from text-based notes to sketched notes was really all to blame.

Drawing-Your-Way-To-Better-MemoryPin ItMy first foray into sketchnoting - before I knew what sketchnoting was.

At the time, I had no idea that I was “sketchnoting”, a form of note-taking that focuses on drawing the experience and sketching down your ideas, rather than the more traditional approach of the written text-based note. Regardless of what it was called, it was working for me, and according to science, it may work for everyone.

Recently, a research group from University of Waterloo, led by Jeffrey Wammes, has been making it rain science. Their study is showing significant results in the correlation between drawing and memory, a positive relationship where drawing actually increases your chance to remember. And best of all, you don’t have to be good at it, results are positive across the board, regardless of your drawing abilities.

“...the quality of the drawings people made did not seem to matter, suggesting that everyone could benefit from this memory strategy”

The Study

The study pivoted around a series of studies that had participants quickly review 30 random words from a list of 80, all being simple nouns, and then subsequently having the participants write or draw the word shown. The participants were then thrown a curveball to distract them by having them perform a separate task of identifying the pitch within a soundbite. After being distracted by the soundbite task, the participants were asked to recall as many of the thirty original words as possible.

A multitude of these experiments were conducted, altering slight variables to help weed out outlying influences. For example, the time a participant was given to originally draw or write the words, prior to the distraction task, was reduced from the original 40 seconds to as low as 4 seconds.

Several of these variations in the experiment were implemented to continue to solidify the results, and parse them from any unknown and outside influences. However, one consistent theme kept returning as the results of the studies were sorted: drawing was the superior method to improve memory.

“We discovered a significant recall advantage for words that were drawn as compared to those that were written,” said Wammes. “Participants often recalled more than twice as many drawn than written words. We labelled this benefit ‘the drawing effect,’ which refers to this distinct advantage of drawing words relative to writing them out.”

The Implications

Going forward, drawing everything won’t always be the most practical solution. Drawing can be time-consuming, and even though talent doesn’t matter in this study, it is hard to separate our ego from sketches and doodles, especially those that others may see.

However, consider the results of this study next time you are in a lecture hall or conference. Merging the new best practice of drawing for memory into your existing note taking workflow could result in higher levels of engagement, and increased retention.

Sketchnoting is a great option here. It emphasises a thoughtful clear hierarchy through the implementation of visual graphic elements. A sketchnote will often be text heavy too, because the idea is not to eliminate words, but to create a visual harmony on each page that distills the most important information into graphic and text-based representations.

Here’s a great example of a sketchnote by Rob Dimeo on the topic of “The Drawing Effect” — how apropos.

Drawing-Your-Way-to-Better-Memory-2Pin ItThe Drawing Effect Sketchnote - Rob Dimeo
Original Tweet

When sketchnoting, don’t attempt to capture every idea, but isolate the broad-stroke themes and convert them into awesome doodles. Remember, quality is not a prerequisite to utilizing The Drawing Effect, so draw like nobody's watching and let your creativity flow unrestricted.

Sketchnoting Tips

  1. Break your page into columns. Build your structure so you remain organized. Remember, you are creating a tool for future use, make sure it’s reusable.
  2. Try to maintain consistency. If you sketched the title of a header in one style, then repeat that for all your headers. This will make referencing the sketch note a lot easier since you have built in visual organisation.
  3. Be sparse. Clutter will make you hesitate to return to the notes, and make it tougher to digest the second time around. Utilize white space to create breathing room and keep things light.
  4. Don’t be a perfectionist. You will drive yourself crazy trying to make your notes the prettiest you can, and scrutinizing over detail will make you miss the lecture.

Going Forward

The implications of this study, of course, aren’t limited to sketchnoting. Preliminary learning in youth could become more efficient if educators were to take advantage of this method. Drawing an idea could increase comprehension and will improve memory recall for exams and testing.

For now, the results of this study are gaining momentum but it still needs additional research to expand its usefulness. Currently, only one word at a time was reviewed, resulting in a relatively easy memory exercise for the participants, but what happens when more complex ideas are put forward? The hope is that The Drawing Effect will continue to prove itself as the superior method for memory when new and more complex scenarios are tested.

Get Started

We've shared more than a few sketchnoting resources in the past, and these might help you get a head start with practice:

50+ Awesome Resources to Create Visual Notes, Graphic Recordings & SketchnotesPin It

How-to Sketchnote: An Interview with Mike RohdePin It

Original Study: The drawing effect: Evidence for reliable and robust memory benefits in free recall


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