Suggestions for integrating drawing into university-level biology courses

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I’m collaborating with the coordinator of a series of undergraduate Animal Biology labs this semester. She is interested in integrating drawing more fully and effectively into the work that instructors and students do in those labs. Her motivation stems, at least in part, from noticing that photographing specimens appears to be the most common way students interact with specimens in these labs. And yet, based on low exam scores, students aren’t getting much out of taking photos.

And so, we’ve been talking about how to utilize drawing as an active learning tool, as well as a self- and summative assessment strategy. Considerations include how to introduce drawing to TAs and students, and how to integrate it in myriad forms (phylogenetic trees, graphs, food web diagrams, specimen sketches, etc.) throughout lab activities, homework assignments, quizzes and exams.

We’ll be doing a TA training session before the semester begins, to ensure the TAs have basic familiarity and comfort in sketching and to troubleshoot facilitating it with their students.

As we planned all thi, I realized that one thing I take for granted is my capacity to articulate how and why to utilize drawing in these ways.

And so, I offered to write up some text which she could copy or modify and distribute to TAs and students. What follows is what I’ve come up with. Feel free to utilize it, and if you do, please do let me know how it goes, if and how you adapted it, etc.

You are welcome to reproduce this note and images therein in your syllabus or course website, so long as I created the images. Reproduction of images credited to other artists/authors must be arranged with them. Please provide attribution, even if you revise the text based on your own interpretation of the materials cited herein. And again, I’d love to hear what you come up with.

Notes on drawing for science learning 

© 2017

Bethann Garramon Merkle, art-science integration specialist, Sketching for ScientistsTM & Drawn to ScienceTM

Humans think in images. Our brains actually understand images faster, and remember images longer, than words [1]. Archaeological records indicate that drawing was the first visual representation method [2]. And history demonstrates that drawing has been an integral part of learning for centuries.

Even better, we know that drawing is an incredibly powerful tool for learning scientifically [3], and for helping us assess our own knowledge [4] and misconceptions about material we’re studying [5]. We also know that keeping notes by hand [6] (even doodling! [7]) results in better retention of the information, higher intellectual engagement in the material, and therefore, better grades.

Drawing (even without training) can: aid learning & memorization [8], help clarify what you know [9], enhance research methodology [10], improve your experience with and performance on assessments [11], enhance your visual thinking skills [12], enhance creativity and problem solving [13], and enhance science communication efforts [14]. There is even evidence that collaboration between scientists and artists [15] may result in better science [16].

This is all pretty important, considering that a lot of the things that we do and use in our daily lives depend upon scientific knowledge. Whether you’re sending a text, taking a photo, eating an apple in December, or using a hand sanitizer, you’re tapping into the wealth of technology and information that has been derived through scientific study and experimentation.

Whether you pursue a career in science or just want to be sure your decisions are informed by facts, thinking scientifically and understanding science-related information has great value for you and society.

So, it is also important that you learn some of the skills associated with this way of thinking. And drawing is a significant one.

For our purposes in this course, you might make a highly-polished illustration of a leaf, sketch out a few circles indicating locations at a research site, diagram genetic relationships in a phylogenetic tree, or graph experimental results. All of these approaches count as drawing.

Examples of different types of drawings you may make in this class.
(Credit: K. Quillan & S. Thomas, Drawing-to-Learn Framework)

Indeed, in our class and in general, “drawings can vary to the degree in which they should be representational or abstract, depending on context. For example, a highly representational drawing of a wolf might be appropriate to a study of wolf behavior (where the stance and position of ears and tail is germane to the point), but a mere box with the word “wolf” might be appropriate in a food web or concept map” [17].

Credit: K. Quillan & S. Thomas, Drawing-to-Learn Framework

Think you can’t draw? That’s okay! *

Despite research demonstrating how effective drawing can be for learning and for assessment, a lot of people avoid this powerful visualization tool because they themselves don’t have drawing training. However, the good news is that “We’re not making great art; we’re using rough sketches to note important things about our specimens,” experiments, and observations [18]. We can and will aim for sketching skills that are useful for our discipline.

Happily, the way our minds learn to draw is similar to how we learn to speak [19]. Further, by the time we are toddlers, most of us have the cognitive and motor skills necessary to use a pencil and make marks. It could be argued that humans are actually born knowing how to draw [20]. And, as mentioned earlier, our collective ability to draw goes back even further, to prehistoric records made deep in caves.dear-roots_fur_child-drawing_v1-1-2016_rs

Better yet, drawing as we know it today isn’t a magical gift. Three-dimensional drawing, for example, took about 400 years to develop [21], and it wasn’t fully understood until the Italian Renaissance. Modern drawing basics are learned, not inherited. Fundamental skills, techniques, and knowledge of different media (ex: watercolors, pencils, pen and ink) can be taught, practiced, and improved upon.

Thanks to a combination of your childhood aptitude and learning basic drawing techniques, anyone can learn to make sketches that are useful in learning and doing science.

This is why our coursework will include training in basic drawing skills and an expectation that you will draw in every class. You will receive feedback on the content and accuracy of your sketches, not the artistry of them, through exercises, including those spanning the spectrum shown below.

Credit: K. Quillan and S. Thomas, Drawing-to-Learn Framework

While repeatedly drawing from observations can help your drawing abilities improve in an aesthetic sense, our emphasis will be on using drawing as a tool and a learning process. For example, in the images below, the skull and feather may be visually appealing, but they aren’t very useful for learning, studying, or demonstrating knowledge.


On the other hand, the second image is a set of field sketches of birds the sketcher found difficult to identify. While quick and rough, these sketches recorded lots of fairly detailed information, both in the line work and the accompanying notes. The information was sufficient to look up and correctly identify the species later. That’s when the sketcher added in the name of the species and some additional notes for future reference.

20160105_phoenepephla study sketches.jpg

Together, we’ll use drawing both to learn course content and to practice scientific thinking. By sketching, and then assessing and revising drawings in this way, we will together develop a skill set that has been central to the doing and discoveries of science for centuries [22].

And just like drawing isn’t exclusive to artists, neither is innovation exclusive to established scientists. For example, a Hollywood actress during WWII invented a wireless communication system that underpins all our modern wireless technology [23]. She did it by paying attention, asking questions, and connecting ideas that others around her took for granted.

Hedy Lamarr & her patent drawings (Credit: Wikimedia Commons)

“The ability to notice, question, and direct our thought processes” is called metacognition. Metagognitive thinking is essential to innovation, invention, and discovery. And, a wealth of research indicates drawing can help us think in this way [24], [25].

Indeed, “training the brain to draw, to engage with eye and hand, is to learn to be open to surprise, to perceive underlying structures and make unexpected connections and discoveries. In moving beyond automatic, superficial, and stereotyped responses and developing metacognitive skills like constructive perception, it is possible for those who draw to become deeper and more creative thinkers who are better equipped to solve problems across disciplines and make the leaps forward that advance all of us”[26].


In addition to the introductory note above, you and your students may find it useful to read the following recommended articles.

In particular, you may all be engaged, inspired, and informed by Field Notes on Science and Science. The book is a collection of essays about keeping notes from scientists working in a range of disciplines from anthropology and geology to comparative anatomy. There is also a chapter by a scientific illustrator who provides numerous accessible and useful drawing tips.


In addition to the introductory note above, you and your students may find it useful if you as an instructor read the following:

  • Biological Drawing: A Scientific Tool for Learning – this article outlines a number of the introductory sketching techniques I teach in educator training sessions and student workshops. While the descriptions of the activities in this article differ somewhat from how I facilitate/suggest facilitating these techniques, the article nevertheless provides a valuable reference for educators seeking to inform their own efforts to introduce and facilitate drawing in the classroom. Citation: Dempsey, B.C. and B.J. Betz. 2001. Biological Drawing A Scientific Tool for Learning. The American Biology Teacher, 63(4):271-281. (link)
  • Drawing-to-Learn: A Framework for Using Drawings to Promote Model-Based Reasoning in Biology: A really valuable  combo article which provides images you can use to decide what kind of drawing you want students to make, and then explain to the by visual examples how your expectations compare to other possibilities. Many of the figures in the text of the note above are from this article. The article is also a synthesis of literature and instructional strategies for integrating drawing into biology (including the many subdisciplines ranging from botany to molecular biology). The article provides both an orientation to the utility of drawing and the potential challenges of utilizing it in your classroom, as well as a tables with examples for how to actually facilitate and assess student drawings depending on specific course objectives. Citation: Quillin, K. and S. Thomas. 2015. Drawing-to-Learn: A Framework for Using Drawings to Promote Model-Based Reasoning in Biology. CBE Life Science Education 14:es2. (link)
  • Drawing to Learn in Science: a brief (2-pg) article detailing several reasons why/how to utilize drawing in science learning and instruction. Citation: Ainsworth, S. V. Prain, and R. Tytler. 2011. Drawing to Learn in Science. 333:1096-1097. (link)
  • Drawn to Science: Exploring the Historical and Contemporary Synergies between Drawing, Creativity, and Science: a 1-hour video recording of an invited seminar I gave to the University of Wyoming’s Zoo/Phys department in 2016.
  • Opening the world through nature journaling: integrating art, science & language arts: The brief introductory notes in this curriculum include rationale for integrating drawing, basic drawing instruction, and very importantly, examples of do/don’t responses to use when commenting on student drawings. For example “Don’t say, ‘That is really pretty.’ […] Do say, ‘I see you have shown hairs on the stem. Details like that become important to botanists when identifying and studying plants.'” Citation: Laws, J.M., E. Breunig, E. Lygren, and C. Lopez. 2012. Opening the world through nature journaling: integrating art, science & language arts, 2nd ed. California Native Plant Society. (link to free download of curriculum)


In addition to the introductory note above, you and your students may find it useful if they read the following:

  • A learning secret: don’t take notes with a laptop: Scientific American reports on research indicating that hand-written notes are more useful for students. Citation: May, C. 2014. A learning secret: don’t take notes with a laptop. Scientific American; accessed online. (link)
  • Why scientists (even non-artists) should draw: A brief article detailing numerous important applications for drawing in the study of the biological sciences. Citation: Merkle, B.G. 2015. Why Scientists (even non-artists) should draw. (link)


[1] Fascinating study shows how to open a closed mind and research cited in “Fascinating study” article

[2] Art History Timeline and Metropolitan Museum of Art Heilbrunn Timeline of Art History

[3] Drawing to Learn in Science

[4] Drawing on Experience: How Domain Knowledge Is Reflected in Sketches of Scientific Structures and Processes


[6] A learning secret: don’t take notes with a laptop and research cited in “A learning secret.”

[7] What does doodling do?

[8] Drawing to Learn in Science


[10] Sandra Knapp review of Field Notes on Science and Nature


[12] Drawing on the right side of the brain: A voxel-based morphometry analysis of observational drawing

[13] Selected Findings from the Kennedy Arts Center’s Arts In Education Research Study: An Impact Evaluation of Arts-Integrated Instruction Through the Changing
Education Through the Arts (CETA) Program

[14] Are we hardwired to doodle?

[15] Why art and science?

[16] Why scientists should care about art

[17] Drawing-to-Learn: A Framework for Using Drawings to Promote Model-Based Reasoning in Biology

[18] *Dr. Stephen B. Heard, from the comments below. This post has been revised to reflect the suggestions he made.

[19] Explaining ‘I Can’t Draw’: Parallels between the Structure and Development of Language and Drawing


[21] The rise of the Renaissance perspective

[22] A Memorial to Hollywood Star Hedy Lamarr, a Founding Mother of Modern Tech

[23] Why scientists (even non-artists) should draw

[24] The genesis of errors in drawing

[25] The benefits of sketching for knowledge management

[26] The Man behind the Curtain: What Cognitive Science Reveals about Drawing

5 thoughts on “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.

      Liked by 1 person

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