Bad News for Teachers: Research Says Doodling Boosts Concentration

By Eliza Strickland | February 27, 2009 5:07 pm

doodleDoodling isn’t the distraction it’s commonly thought to be, researchers say–in fact, it aids concentration, and memory. A new study suggests that doodling takes up just enough attention to keep the brain from wandering further afield, explains lead researcher Jackie Andrade.

“If someone is doing a boring task, like listening to a dull telephone conversation, they may start to daydream. Daydreaming distracts them from the task, resulting in poor performance. A simple task, like doodling, may be sufficient to stop daydreaming without affecting performance on the main task” [BBC News], Andrade says.

In the small study, published in Applied Cognitive Psychology, Andrade asked 40 volunteers to listen to a monotonous two-and-a-half minute telephone message and jot down the names of people who had been invited to a party. Half of the participants were asked to shade in shapes on a piece of paper while they listened to relieve the boredom. The shading task was chosen instead of more creative doodling because it was less likely to make people feel self-conscious [The Guardian].

In a surprise memory test afterward, the doodling group was able to remember an average of 7.5 pieces of information from the message, while the control group could only remember 5.8 on average. Says Andrade says: “It’s not so much that doodling is good for your concentration, but that daydreaming is bad. If you are thinking about where you are going to go on holiday, that is probably going to be more cognitively demanding than a doodle” [The Guardian].

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Image: flickr / hotcactuspepper

CATEGORIZED UNDER: Mind & Brain
MORE ABOUT: art, memory
  • Tristan

    Take THAT every single teacher I’ve ever had.

  • Lee

    Thank you for confirming what my own experience had taught me! I also used to find that my doodles acted like mnemonic devices because as I looked at each drawing I remembered what was being said as I had drawn it. Listening to music as I study also has the effect of helping me focus, contrary to what teachers and parents believe.

  • Nicole

    A little light shading is one thing but what about the faces and flowers (and skulls, guns, eyeballs and bunny heads on sticks, if that’s your thing), those ‘creative’ doodles that most of spend our doodle time drawing? While I agree with commenter Lee that the occasional simple doodle can serve as a mnemonic device, I can’t help but remember all the times I zoned out in class as I developed my doodles into little compositions, gave them captions and speech bubbles and fictional lives.

    This research could be an important wake up for teachers attempting to teach math equations, spelling, historical dates and the like. If students are instructed to put a little individuality, a shade or a colour, into potentially boring lessons, maybe more information will stick.

  • http://msladydeborah.blogspot.com msladydeborah

    I doodle all the time! I know that it has helped me to concentrate on what is going on.

  • Sundance

    People have been developing ideas like mind-mapping to assist memory and analysis for years. While this research shows that doodling helps relieve monotony, rather than serve as a mnemonic, what’s surprising is not that spicing up lessons with cartoons and doodles could be helpful, but that teaching methods are so far behind the times in adopting such ideas.

  • jk

    this is so hilarious! i knew my years of doodling were doing SOME good

  • Angela

    I’m not a doodler, but I do like to have the TV or music on when I’m working. I seem to concentrate much better and consequently get done faster. Drove my dad nuts, and now boss, despite the fact that I have an actual office rather than a cube and so no one can hear my very low music but me! Perhaps I should forward this… ;-)

  • Terri

    Why is this bad news? I will accept anything that will help my kids remember!

  • http://blogs.discovermagazine.com/80beats/2009/02/27/bad-news-for-teachers-research-says-doodling-boosts-concentration/#comment-19671 Terri

    Why is this bad news for teachers? I teach and if doodling will help my students learn and remember, then doodle away!

  • Alexandra

    Actually it’s bad news for some teachers around the world, they can get annoyed very easily as their students don’t make eye contact. Some teachers can be happy for them to learn faster, but in fact there can be many teachers who dilike the fact that students doodle in their lesson. In my opinion, I can concentrate whether I doodle or not. I know..pretty amazing!

  • http://minddoctor.wordpress.com Belinda

    Actually, this is good news; teachers no longer have to reprimand kids who are actually listening and concentrating but don’t have their eyes on the teacher at all times…anything that allows kids/people to learn effectively is good news, not bad.

  • Jennifer

    I sent a similar article to my daughter Science Teacher from last year. He would yell at students and SEND THEM OUT OF CLASS if they doodled! As if that helped them concentrate!

  • http://businessanditarchitecture.blogspot.com Chris Bird

    I don’t think it is just doodling. I find almost any distraction to be helpful. So playing a video game on my mobile device actually boosts my concentration.

    So by the way does simple use of the device – like email, reading articles, etc.

  • Keith

    I’m not a doodler. I’ve tried, but whenever I do it, I lose focus during a presentation – even if I’m bored by the speaker.

    While I’m trying to be open-minded, I must admit Dr. Andrade’s conclusion surprises me. I’m still highly suspicious. I read the study, but I must ask, is this actually causation or merely correlation? I get that doodlers say it boosts their concentration, but what exactly are they concentrating on?

    As a college professor, I always ask students scoring below a C on an exam to visit me for tutoring and study skills help. When they visit, the first thing I ask is to see their notes. Without exception, the doodlers’ notes are skeletal at best (and virtually nonexistent at worst). Complex terms I have written on the board or shown on PowerPoint – which often require a great deal of explanation and discussion for definition – are copied in their notes. But there are no definitions nor any of the many examples I provide. It seems to me that if the same focus and energy were used to accurately take notes and get the information down as is obviously used for those great works of art, test scores might be a little higher.

    I know my experiences are only anecdotal, but my observations consistently contradict this study. Of course, I must leave open the possibility that perhaps the doodlers scores would be even lower without the doodling. And perhaps many of my A and B students, whose notes I never see, are helped by this. But until there is much more in-depth study on this, I will remain very suspicious.

  • Marla Simone

    I’m finishing up graduate school and have consistently drawn detailed designs throughout classes and lectures for as long as I can remember. I get extremely high grades/am a high achiever and have not only felt that drawing helps me concentrate and more accurately focus on the material at hand, but also makes me feel calmer if I’m anxious (I tend to draw very precise detailed geometric patterns-not necessarily what one would typically consider a doodle). I am positive it has helped me learn, but I often have felt social pressure to not do it for the reason (as mentioned above) that many Professors and teachers find it rude or think that a student is bored or not paying attention when they are drawing/doodling. And while I do draw when I am bored, I more often do it specifically to concentrate.

    I would guess that it depends on every individual. I know I tend to be a visual learner, I love art and so while I fully believe that doodling can indicate students’ boredom and lack of attention in some cases, I am certain that for me it has been beneficial. I hope that it is more fully embraced in classroom and workroom settings in the future.

  • Marla Simone

    I’m finishing up graduate school and have consistently drawn detailed designs throughout classes and lectures for as long as I can remember. I get extremely high grades/am a high achiever and have not only felt that drawing helps me concentrate and more accurately focus on the material at hand, but also makes me feel calmer if I’m anxious (I tend to draw very precise intricate detailed geometric patterns-not necessarily what one would typically consider a doodle). I am positive it has helped me learn, but I often have felt social pressure to not do it for reasons (such as those mentioned above) that many Professors and teachers find it rude or think that a student is bored or not paying attention when they are drawing/doodling. Additionally, I understand it can be distracting to other students. While I do draw when I am bored, I more often do it when I am interested in a topic, with the not entirely conscious goal of being able to increase my concentration, understanding and memory (I don’t consciously think about what I am drawing when I draw–it is just relaxing and pretty :-) . When I have been in work or courses where I feel comfortable to do so, I have often even spoken with the Professor or person in charge before the lecture, asking permission to draw and letting them know that I am still actively engaged in the lecture. For the most part, when I do this, they have tended to respond very positively to my request, but again, it could be a bias because I tend to be a good student.

    **One aspect of the research I found particularly interesting was that it sounds as though the theory behind it is that the drawing itself doesn’t matter as much as the act of doodling. I would disagree with that in my case because I really love seeing the ordered designs that I draw and I immediately feel more relaxed and focused. I don’t think this would happen if I would told to doodle in a circle and didn’t have more free reign.

    I would guess that it depends on every individual’s personality and behavioral patterns. I know I tend to be a visual learner, I love art and so while I fully believe that doodling can be an indication of a student’s boredom and lack of attention in some cases, I am certain that for me it has been beneficial. Not to mention, that it may be opening up the mind for more creative thoughts to enter and that studies on certain types of learning (such as some foreign language learning) have indicated that students tend to learn better when they are thinking creatively. Or… it could just be a compensation method I use for mild ADD. I don’t know…

    Regardless, I hope that when appropriate, it is more fully embraced in classroom and workroom settings in the future. And to address Keith’s comment above, thanks for mentioning that there is a possibility that you have not seen the notes of many of your A & B students, because my notes have a lot of detail AND a lot of “doodle.”

  • Keith

    Thank you for your thoughtful reply, Marla. I think you’re correct when you say it’s likely an individual thing. No doubt you are helped by drawing. But I also suspect many who doodle really are focusing on their drawings and missing out on what they should be paying attention to, instead.

  • Chanel

    Amazing. Sometimes I draw silly animals while sitting through a fairly dry lecture at school. Now I don’t have to be guity about it. For example, while reading several articles, I sketched hornbills (a type of bird that superficialy resembles a toucan). They are so cute and lovely. Doodling was helpful in my Historical geology class. The lectures were not boring, but there was coverage of prehistoric animals. A quick sketch of an animal helps me remember what it looks like. On a test, I had to pick my favorite animal covered, and describe it. I picked a pelycosaur (like dimetridon). Along with the description, I even drew a picture. Dinosaurs are the most famous prehistoric animals, but they were not covered yet. When I am alone studying, I have another concentration trick. I like to get out of my seat and aimlessly wander around. It stimulates my mind. It is probably due to extra blood flowing into my brain.

  • Jessica

    I always get bored in my Honors Chemistry class. I always feel guilty when she glances at me and i’m doodling and drawing on our worksheets, but can you blame me?
    Anyway, she doesn’t seem to understand that when she is talking about how to figure out the atomic mass of an atom, or Rutherfords theory on how atoms are mostly empty space, i’m actually paying a lot of attention. As much as visual communication aids me to learn, actively creating minor sketches and extremely wiggly lines, while listening to the lecture, aids my concentration more.
    As Marla had said “Not to mention, that it may be opening up the mind for more creative thoughts to enter and that studies on certain types of learning (such as some foreign language learning) have indicated that students tend to learn better when they are thinking creatively.” I have an anecdote that perfectly proves it:
    While taking a spanish course, our teacher Mrs. Deinst would constantly engage us with comics to make, and she allowed me to keep a minature white board in class to doodle. I remember quite clearly her talking about pensar, and the different conjugations of the verb. On the white board i was given, i drew a cute little monster/ alien creature with one hand to its chin looking up at one of its own daydreams, with a little thought bubble appearing next to it. I will never forget what pensar means because of it, and it means “to think”. (that was my freshman year of high school)
    I wish that my doodling wouldn’t become active pieces of art though, i bet that if i could just stick to drawing the squiggles that sometimes appear accross my papers, that i would focus better in the even more dreary of classes.

  • Molly

    I have generalized anxiety disorder and a background in art. I’m majoring in English now, and I sketch compulsively during my college classes and I really do find it helps me to concentrate better, no matter how elaborate my drawings become. Honestly, if I weren’t drawing, I would be fidgeting and worrying–my concentration is always split between at least two concerns, and drawing really helps ground me in the material world of the here and now.

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