Drawing is memorizing!

Did you forget to buy the milk? But you wrote it on a post-it and stuck it on the fridge! If you had drawn a milk carton, maybe it would be sitting in the fridge right now… Indeed, according to a study carried out by Canadian researchers, drawing the thing we want to memorize is more effective than writing its name. Jeffrey D. Wammes, Melissa E. Meade, and Myra A. Fernandes demonstrated that drawn information is better memorized than written information. Why do we retain images better than words?

In order to compare memorization by drawing versus writing, the researchers from the University of Waterloo (Canada) implemented 7 protocols.

In experiments 1 and 2, the participants (exp. 1: n=55; age=20.6 years - exp. 2: n=49; age=19.10 years) were asked to draw or write words, for some of the words, they were asked to add details to their writing such as floral patterns on certain letters, or musical notes for the word "harp," for example. They were then asked to recall as many words as possible in 60 seconds.

The goal of experiments 3-5 was to determine if drawing necessitated more in-depth processing than writing. For each of the protocols, the participants were either asked to draw the word, or to write it, and a third modality was introduced. In experiment 3, the participants (n=47; age=20.2 years) were also asked to list the physical characteristics of the word; in experiment 2 (n=28; age=20.3), they had to mentally represent the image of the word, and in experiment 5 (n=37; age=19.1 years), they were shown an image of the word to be memorized.

In experiment 6 (n=29; age=20.6) and 7 (n=47; age=19.5), the limits of the drawing effect were explored by reducing the length of presentation (and thus encoding) of each of the words (the number of which increased from 30 to 66) and the forcing the choice between modalities: drawing or writing all of the words (experiment 7).

The results of all these experiments clearly show the effectiveness of drawing over the other encoding methods tested in a memorization and free recall task. According to the authors, deeper information processing alone cannot explain the “boosting” effect of drawing. They explain that drawing improves memory by fostering the transparent integration of semantic, visual, and motor elements; a combination that encourages memorization.

One last piece of important information: you don’t need to be a great artist to change your ways! Indeed, the quality of the drawing doesn’t appear to have an effect on memorization. In the last two experiments, though they had only 4 seconds to illustrate the word to be memorized, the effect was still noticeable.
Source: Jeffrey D. Wammes, Melissa E. Meade & Myra A. Fernandes (2016) The drawing effect: Evidence for reliable and robust memory benefits in free recall, The Quarterly Journal of Experimental Psychology, 69:9, 16 February 2016.

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