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Draw On Your Brain Power

imageQueens student Niki Johnston sketchnotes on the 2003 film "Finding Nemo."
10/28/13 -  

Queens instructors Mike Wirth and Shawn Bowers are currently teaching a class on "sketchnoting," a form of doodling that helps students retain information they learn in class. The class is one of the fall semester's "topics" classes - one-credit courses that allow professors to teach something that wouldn't normally be offered in the course catalog.

Read all about Mike and Shawn's class and the science behind sketchnoting in the following Charlotte Observer article, featured in the paper's SciTech section on Monday, Oct. 28: 

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Queens course suggests doodling for brain power

By Reid Creager

We've all been there as students, sitting through those long class lectures where many of us doodled in our notebooks.

But some of those doodles are so numerous or detailed that we actually remember them - which is the basis for a Queens University of Charlotte course that provides a new approach to how we learn and process information. "Doodles With Brain Power" - taught by Mike Wirth, assistant professor of art, and English instructor Shawn Bowers Buxton - teaches students the science behind doodling and how it unlocks major memory potential.

Wirth said a visually oriented approach to learning jibes with how we're wired and with techniques that humans developed thousands of years ago - before words and phonetics turned learning into something more abstract.

"Fundamentally, I think being visually oriented was a survival method," Wirth said. "We needed to see if we were going to be eaten, or approached by friends. We needed that information instantly as primal beings.

"I don't think we've lost that. I think it's part of our fight-or-flight mechanism. So we need to have that initial visual context before we can get to any of the social context."

That need for visual context is built in, according to Wirth, given that "roughly one-third to one-half of the brain is dedicated in some way to a visual function." The visual cortex, located at the back of the brain, where the head meets the neck, is primarily tasked with processing visual information.

He further explained that deep within the middle of the brain, in the temporal lobes, are the amygdala: two small almond-shaped groups of nerves that are responsible for processing and encoding visual memory and emotional reactions. "The amygdala were studied with Rorschach tests," he said, referring to the classic ink-blot tests in which subjects' interpretations of the blots in certain shapes are interpreted. "People who gave unique responses often had enlarged amygdala."

The power of visuals

Bowers Buxton said social expectations can work against the creativity our brains provide. "There's a great quote by Picasso that says, 'Every child is an artist. The problem is how to remain an artist once we grow up.' We're programmed from early on to color within the lines....

"If you're drawing a lecture, you're interacting with that lecture more than just copying down whatever the professor says. If you're coming up with a doodle or sketch that represents the content, you're analyzing it at a much deeper level of the brain. You'll remember it better and longer."

Wirth's and Bowers Buxton's exploration of doodling follows many studies on the subject. "The majority of the research on this has been on the psychological side, in neuroscience and cognition," Wirth said. "An oft-referenced study is the dual coding theory by Dr. Allan Paivio.

"In 1971, he gave 10 subjects information in multiple modes: auditory, written and visual. He concluded that on their own, they were equally as strong but that when any kind of visual was combined with the other two - with the auditory and the written - that retention, recollection at various increments from an hour, a day, a month or a year, was by far larger than the other elements on their own."

More recent research affirms the visual impact of information: A study reported in the August 2011 issue of the journal Science said that doodling linked to subject matter being studied - not idle, random doodling - can be used in many ways to help further science education. The study said doodling can engage people, help them learn how information is presented, inspire learning and retention of information, and can help people in communicating that information.

How 'sketchnoting' works

The two teachers at Queens relish the chance to experiment in a nontraditional field of study. "Queens has run this really great program where we have exploration seminars," Bowers Buxton said. "There are one-credit courses that allow professors from across different disciplines to study something that would normally not be offered in a course catalog."

Wirth and Bowers Buxton have explored "sketchnoting" - the key component of the Queens class - at regional conferences. Its purpose, Wirth said, is to help students encode information into visuals "so that the information can more easily pass through the various stages of memory - working memory, the visuo-spatial sketchpad (the mind's eye), short-term memory and long-term or deep memory."

Students are guided through a set of multidisciplinary exercises that focus on creating distinct symbols, then designing visual structures to organize information into a coherent visual document.

"When people come to our sessions, the first thing they say is, 'I can't draw. Is that a requirement?'" Wirth said. "We calm them down and say no, just make the symbols personal so they create an emotional connection to the information. We've learned from psychologists that that is critical. When you say the word 'cow,' some people will draw a side view of a cow with its udders hanging down; others will try to draw a picture of the cow's face.

"At the beginning of this semester, we gave our students a sonnet for them to sort of transform the words. That was a lot of fun. It kind of takes the edge off the language. When we talk about the gods, I make a cloud with a lightning bolt. Kings are crowns; warriors are shields."

Wirth noted that sketchnoting isn't like a rebus, where you take a sentence and show it word for word, including articles and prepositions. "It's more about establishing broader boundaries."

Students are encouraged to carry a sketchbook and practice while conducting everyday student tasks, such as listening to a lecture, reading text, watching videos, and attending learning events. "By drawing silly doodles and arranging them into unique groups and compositions, we establish both a visual and emotional experience with information - which as a neurological pair leads to a deeper encoding of that information," Wirth said.

"When it comes time to recall this information - for example, during an exam, a presentation or drafting a paper - students can literally envision their sketchnote with greater ease than accessing the same data in text or verbal format."

Wirth said sketchnoting isn't just practical, it's era-appropriate: "Sketchnoting has come out of the business world, mostly in the dot-com era. Around Silicon Valley in the 1990s, there were a tremendous amount of tech startups and ideation sessions going on.

"So this method of having someone get up and draw pictures to give us a global picture of what our organization is trying to do or what our program or website is trying to do, it started there. And then it started to find its way into different areas."

Promising future

Wirth noted that in a world with growing international relationships and interdependencies, visual symbols will continue to grow in number and importance. "Symbols become more and more critical to avoid language barriers," he said, citing the engine light in a car as an important example.

"Online, you're bombarded with symbols. Susan Kare designed the symbol set for the first MacIntosh OS in 1984. She went through a process of coming up with all of these meanings, and that revolutionized the way we use computers.

"There's an information design revolution going on," said Wirth, who earned his Master of Fine Arts degree in design and technology from Manhattan's Parsons School of Design. "My professional work brought me into this because I make symbols professionally - infographics and data visualizations."

Wirth said in the Queens University course, "we're sort of testing out all of our curriculum models and exercises. We will take the information to their institutional research board and apply for the formal ability to do research on actual subjects."

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