Suggestions for integrating drawing into university-level biology courses

This post has been updated (2021) to point to two more recent publications in which I detail the drawing-science integration approach I recommend and study.

Screenshot of article mentioned in the text of the blog post. A screen-reader-friendly version of the text is available by clicking the image or the hyperlink in the text.

In October 2018, I published a commentary in Nature which introduces key ideas I share with every instructor I coach on integrating drawing into field and lab courses. You can view that open-access commentary here.

In spring 2020, I published a peer-reviewed article in Natural Sciences Education which provides detailed context, resources, assignment and grading examples, and more. It is a robust overview of the framework I use when coaching instructors. You can read a synopsis here, listen to a podcast episode about the paper here, and view the full-length, open-access publication here.

If you would like to participate in the associated research project, please contact me directly. Additional faculty are welcome!

If you cannot access the publications, feel free to contact me directly – I am happy to send you a PDF of them.

10 Replies to “Suggestions for integrating drawing into university-level biology courses”

  1. I think the argument here is fundamentally right: making a drawing is far superior as a learning tool to taking a picture, the same way that taking notes by hand is far superior to taking a picture of the chalkboard.

    But I want to sound a note of realism/caution. I’m one of those people who says “I can’t draw”. And I know that that isn’t quite true, and that I can learn (some) drawing skills. The problem is, for many years my mother and various teachers would say to me “Anybody can draw”. And what I heard was “It’s YOUR fault that your drawings aren’t good, because you can’t be bothered to try hard enough”. I was trying, and my drawings still weren’t good, and hearing this shut me right down. Some drawing skills can be learned, sure; but people differ in innate ability and preferred style, too. And people who can draw easily very often seem disrespectful of those who can’t, precisely and perhaps ironically because they seem to think it should be just as easy for everyone. So in a syllabus, I think one needs to be very clear about this. Rather than saying “Think you can’t draw? You’re wrong; of course you can”, I think we should say “Think you can’t draw? Guess what? It doesn’t matter. We’re not making great art; we’re using rough sketches to note important things about our specimens”. But then we have to follow up on this by grading fairly and transparently – a beautifully executed drawing and a hideous piece of junk should get exactly the same grade, as long as they show the same critical feature of the specimen (for example). In my experience, though, this is NOT how grading of drawn material often works. I think it’s a major readjustment for us to decouple the information content of a drawing from its artistic quality or precise representation, but it’s a readjustment we have to make when we require drawn material for credit.

    It does help a lot to realize that non-representational or highly abstracted sketches are ALSO “drawing”! I would play that up even more. I was and still am terrified if asked to draw a rabbit, but have no problem sketching a phylogenetic tree or the expected shape of a relationship on a graph.

    I realize that pretty much all of this is in your piece! And yet reading I still felt taken back to my bad experiences; in particular, I think, the heading “Think you can’t draw? Think again!” set off every bad reaction I’ve ever had. It’s not inaccurate; it just plays into the bad experiences people like me have had with instructors for whom drawing came easily and just couldn’t wrap their heads around people for whom it didn’t. And again: I don’t mean to criticize the intent of the piece, which I absolutely agree with! It’s just that getting the message convincingly to people like me is harder than one might think.

    1. Stephen, THANK YOU for your comment. The rhetoric of how this is framed is critical, as you point out. I’ve revised the text above to reflect your suggestions. As for the equitable grading issue, I totally agree with you. That is essential, though often pretty difficult for instructors to pull off. I’m hoping, in working with this lab coordinator (and with feedback from folks like you), to draft a basic rubric template that will address this matter head on. If you have suggestions for the type of criteria that would be essential in a drawing in your specialty, for example, those would be really helpful. Similarly, I’m looking for comparative examples wherein the “less pretty” drawing is actually more accurate. I’d like to pull together enough of those (plus criteria) to develop this rubric into something that’s at least a functional foundation for a range of biology specialties. Your comment motivates me to get to work on it pronto.

      1. Also, note that there is a valuable (and brief) discussion of this matter – equitable commenting/grading that doesn’t privilege “pretty” drawings – in the California Native Plant Society field journal curriculum. I’ve linked to that in the recommended readings for instructors (it’s the last entry in that list). It’s a free curriculum, designed for middle-school instructors, but the tips and ideas are valuable for any age group. Here’s the direct link to download the curriculum:

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