Cartooning and Doodling

“Helping The Medicine Go Down” During Reading Tasks

As educators, we are constantly searching for ways to improve student engagement in new learning materials that involve reading. One notable way is through interactive learning, using technology as a learning engagement aid. But there is another much simpler interactive solution that can also be useful: allowing students to doodle and cartoon while reading new learning materials.

The knee jerk reaction to the idea of letting students cartoon and doodle what they like during a reading task is: “Forget it! Students will just get distracted and stop learning!” Random cartooning and doodling are the last things most educators would want to see their students do during a learning task, and are essentially viewed as the Voldemorts of the classroom.

But why? Well, doodling and cartooning have a long history of being seen, rightly or wrongly, as distracters, something that shouldn’t be done during class, indicators that a student isn’t paying attention. Because of the labelling as distracter, time for cartooning and doodling is largely in control of the educator—doled out as a reward for attention. This is in spite of the fact that there is evidence that doodling and drawing can actually increase memory (e.g., Andrade, 2009). The fact is, today’s student is very different from yesterday’s, and maybe we need to rethink knee jerk reactions about old, perhaps out of date, ideas.

Drawing and doodling have been studied recently as education aids, but not as an undirected tool to use during the learning task itself. Students have been asked to demonstrate learning through drawing, after reading text, and through focused drawing (e.g., Zhang & Linn, 2011; Ainsworth, Prain & Tyler, 2011).

My arts students, even the ones who initially take cartooning class or drawing and painting class because their parents make them, mention they pay better attention to the verbal and reading information they’ve been asked to learn when they are drawing seemingly unrelated pictures at the same time. It’s clear too that the students liked being given the freedom to draw during class, were more relaxed learners as a result, and were still able to pick up the information they needed in order to succeed. This led me to wonder whether the effect I was noticing was only related to arts students, and whether cartooning and doodling during a reading task would help even a non arts student become more engaged in learning new materials.

I decided to put my psychology researcher hat on and test this on a group of students who weren’t art students. Twelve middle to upper level high school students participated in the study. The students were all female, with a mean age of 16 (range 14 to 18).

The students were given a two-page excerpt from a first year university undergraduate textbook. They were told that they would be reading a passage, and that there would be a written quiz afterwards. Before they began the task they were each given highlighters and told they could highlight the material if it helped them remember it. They were also told that they might find it helpful to draw (with pens or highlighters) while trying to remember, even if it was just drawing emoticons, so if they felt it would help, they could draw on the paper as well. After reading the passage, each student was given a questionnaire package to complete. Each package contained questions taken from the textbook’s study guide, as well as a second short questionnaire asking whether they found the reading task easier when they could draw as well as highlight. They were also asked whether they would try drawing again when learning new material, and why or why not.

Out of the twelve students who participated, eight (66.7%) said “yes, drawing helped,” one said “maybe, I guess” (8.3%), and three said “no” (25%). The people who said “yes, drawing helped” said it definitely made the task more enjoyable, which in turn focused their attention and aided learning. The three who said “no, drawing did not help” found it distracting to cartoon or doodle while reading the new material. The person who said “maybe, I guess” said it didn’t really help.

The actual comments the students gave are worth noting. From the “yes” students: Keeps attention focused; What little drawing I did worked for me; Helps memory (I’m a mix of kinesthetic and visual); I related the drawings to specific words I find difficult, to remember and visualize; It’s fun and I can build a story; It helped by making the task more enjoyable to do. From the “no” students, the only comment was: Distraction. And, for the “maybe, I guess” individual: It didn’t really help my memory.

The “no” students in particular said they wouldn’t use this as a strategy in future, since it didn’t work well for them. The students who found drawing did help, said they probably wouldn’t, or be careful if they did, but only because their teachers see it as a sign that they aren’t paying attention. This last finding suggests that we might want to keep in mind that just as there are different types of learners, there are also different types of effective learning methods— methods that may seem unorthodox, but do work for certain students. More study is needed, but seemingly random doodling and cartooning should not be automatically viewed as the Voldemorts of learning, and should be encouraged as an alternative tool. For many learners, non-focused doodling and cartooning can serve as additional and valuable tools for reading task engagement.



Sheree Bradford-Lea

Sheree Bradford-Lea, M.A. Psychology, is a Cartoonist and Mixed Media Artist, and also an Arts Educator. In addition to her professional arts career, Sheree has taught classes and workshops for students of all ages at various learning institutions. More information is available at

Back to Top