November 16, 2009
Doodling vs. Surfing
There was a recent article on the value of doodling while listening to a dull lecture (their wording, not mine). The study found that doodling while listening to the lecture improved retention of the material, well above the retention of people who were not allowed to doodle while listening. While I would not call all law school lectures dull, looking back at my handwritten notes, there are stars in the margins of many pages. (I drew stars on the margins of my notes since high school; I try to draw the perfect 5-point star.) One of the most brilliant law professors I know also doodles while listening to lectures, and she believes student computer games have taken the part of doodling in the margins.
What interests me about this study is not just that focused attention did not result in the best retention of material, but that I don’t know if there is a similar activity on the computer that can simulate doodling. I think that there are important differences between the sort of things our students do on computers and old-school doodling. I think the level of engagement with the distraction matters; my mind is on the game while I am playing because it requires thought. However, when I am drawing stars in the margins, my mind is still on the lecture while I am drawing, much like knitting while watching television or running on a treadmill and reading. Additionally, I believe that doodling offers something that computers can’t mimic; we know that there is a mind-body connection in learning. Some people learn better when they are moving. While doodling does not require much movement, it requires more movement than moving an index finger to scroll on a laptop. Doodling frequently requires not just moving a writing utensil, but moving the paper, and re-arranging arm position. The movement takes the edge off the boredom, just enough so lecture sinks in.
The secondary effect of doodling is listening. While this sounds paradoxical, one of the problems with using a laptop to take notes is the “transcriber” effect. Doodling stops students from being transcribers, and allows them to listen without focusing on transcribing every word. (RCF)
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