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Teaching Biology Blog

Those who can, doodle

More Blog Posts

JFK's White House Doodles
I’ve been seeing lots of news stories lately about a research study that suggests that doodling improves memory. A group of test subjects who were directed to doodle while listening to a series of long, dull conversations remembered the details much better than the group who simply sat and listened. It seems that the brain is adapted to be active, and if the world doesn’t supply enough stimulation to keep it going, it’ll make it’s own through daydreaming. Doodling keeps the brain just busy enough that it continues to pay attention to the outside world. Daydreaming takes more mental effort, and distracts the mind from its surroundings.

There are obvious implications for teaching in this. As a biology student, I doodled a lot – the citric acid cycle, that would do it. The electron transport chain, every time. But I mainly did it when I thought I could do it on the down low, sitting in the back of the room or in a large lecture hall. In a smaller class, I became the master of the glassy stare and the falsely inquisitive head tilt instead.

As a teacher, I’m sure I’ve given more than one doodler the skunk eye. Now I wonder if I should encourage it. Every lecture has its boring bits – anything that keeps a student learning through the dull spots is worth using. Maybe I need to add doodles to the hands-on demo, the small-group discussion pause, the five-minute stretch and soda break, and all the other straighten up and pay attention tricks. At the least, I'll try and see doodling as a genuine attempt to learn rather than as a surefire sign of slacking.

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