May 2018: One way to put the A in STEAM

Kathy's Katch

The NGSS  document is full of standards which begin with the phrase “students will create a model to illustrate”.  We customarily think of a model as something three-dimensional, like a diorama, a 3-D printed object, or a SketchUp creation. However,  the dictionary also states it can be a “system or thing used as an example to follow”.  So, can a hand-drawn or digitally-drawn project be considered a model? I believe it can!

I have discussed the student creation of infographics and sketchnotes in previous blog posts, and use of those two types of instructional models works well for students to help them both retain content and demonstrate acquisition of knowledge. However, there is research that specifically supports the use of drawing techniques to help students learn science concepts, too!


Ainsworth, Prain, and Tytler, in their article, Drawing to Learn in Science, which appeared in the AAAS Science journal on August 26, 2011, outline their “five reasons why student drawing should be explicitly recognized alongside writing, reading, and talking as a key element in science education”.

  1. Drawing enhances engagement, and, when students draw during instruction, they are more more motivated to learn
  2. Drawing teaches students to represent in science and, by creating their own drawings, students will understand how the inclusion of a drawing helps a viewer understand a concept.
  3. Drawing to reason in science helps students learn how to identify relevant information from a scientific study.
  4. Drawing as a learning strategy and creating a visual representation of information helps students understand the content better.
  5. Drawing  can be use to communicate in science. When students create a drawing, they have the ability to explain and summarize it for a peer
Ainsworth, S., Prain, V., & Tytler, R. (2011). Drawing to learn in science. Science, 333, 1096–1097.

Judith Fan, in her article Drawing to Learn: How Producing Graphical Representations Enhances Scientific Thinking, published in Transitional Issues in Psychological Science in 2015, covers the research on how drawing in science interacts and ties-in with the scientific processes of observation, problem-solving, explanation, and communication.

Drawing, in Fan’s paper, is defined as the hand-drawn creation of images which may be maps, graphs, sketches, diagrams, and charts, to name a few. One interesting study compared students who just verbally explained their observations,  others that just drew their observations, and those that drew their observations and received feedback from the instructor on their drawings. Those that drew and received feedback were proven to later have more content knowledge, with the students that just drew their observations coming in second.

As with any process, Fan suggests receiving feedback about drawn observations on a regular basis could help students learn how to develop observational skills of their own, ultimately having any student who just drew their observations (and did not receive feedback) attaining that same level of content knowledge.

Another great point Fan makes is use of a drawing as a formative or summative assessment can help teachers determine misconceptions by the student when reviewing their drawing. In addition, she states students who viewed a formal drawing were more likely to include the correct components in their own drawing. Fan also suggests that tracing over a formal drawing may enhance student content acquisition.

Fan covers the research dealing with the creation of a diagram to solve a problem as part of the scientific process. She states, when combined with other modes of problem-solving, this can aid in the solution of the problem. In addition, if students work in pairs to create the diagram, the pairs “were more likely to come up with abstract principles than students working alone.”.

Fan, Judith E. (2015) Drawing to learn: How producing graphical representations enhances scientific thinking. Transitional Issues in Psychological Science, Vol. 1, No. 2, 170-181.


The research covered above outlines the creation of hand-drawn images on paper. However, with the classroom tools readily available today, we can consider hand-drawn images with a stylus, on a tablet or touch-screen computer, to lead to the same enhanced content acquisition.

Fan suggests that tracing an already-created image or diagram can help students learn and remember the information when creating their own hand-drawn image. Tony Vincent traces many types of formal images and diagrams using his iPad and the Adobe Illustrator Draw app. Although he is not specifically talking about science in this video, his process is a great one for students to use. (


There are many other drawing tools that would allow the student to draw on a separate layer above the background of  a digital version of the formal scientific diagram.  Of course, it is important to have a touchscreen and a stylus available for the students if they are expected to be tracing or drawing scientific concepts. Here are some no-cost tools and apps that can be used for tracing.


When students start to create their drawings from scratch, there are literally hundreds of hand-drawing apps and online tools available.  Here are some of my favorites that are no-cost and cross-platform. (And, of course, any of the apps/tools in the tracing list above may be used, too!)


Since the research has shown that pairs of students creating a diagram is be very effective in leading to a better image, using online tools such as the ones below to allow students to work together in real time to create the product.


I decided to try two of these methods (tracing and drawing from scratch) for practice.  I first watched a DES video segment about the dry cell battery. I then downloaded a diagram of a dry cell battery from the Discovery Education Streaming collection and uploaded it to Photos on my iPad. When I was done with the two drawings I made, I took the Batteries quiz on How Stuff Works. I answered 8 of 10 questions correctly!  I do believe, with the instruction from the video, the tracing of the drawing, and the creation of a labeled, hand-drawn image of a dry cell battery, I did learn all about them.

Here is the image I used:

Below is my tracing of the image using Adobe Illustrator Draw.

And here is my hand-drawn version of a dry-cell battery created without looking at the formal image. I used the INKcredible iPad app. (And of course, I added more information for extra credit!)

How can you see hand-drawing used in your classroom? Let the rest of us know a grade and subject where you think drawing would have a big impact and help students showcase their learning by helping others understand a concept, understand relevant information on their own, and help students realize that a hand-drawing can be useful to support written or tabular work. Please share in the comments!

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One Comment;

  1. MU Result said:

    Along with research, while describing best possible ways to put the A in the stem, I loved the way you described the helpful tools. Moreover, out of the number of tools mentioned above, ABCYA (Paint & Draw), Pixlr Editor, Muro, Sketchpad, Speed Paint, Adobe Photoshop Sketch, Inkist and Adobe Illustrator Draw and Paper one are best possible to go through.