This post will cover two topics simultaneously.
First, I’m going to describe recent research into the benefits (?) of doodling.
Second, I’m going to use a cool new artificial intelligence thingy to explore that research.
I found both fascinating; perhaps you will too.
The Story Begins
I don’t doodle. However, I know that some folks like to doodle; they say it helps them relax and focus. So, over the years, I’ve gotten increasingly zen about Team Doodle.
If doodlers don’t distract non-doodlers, I say: let the sketching begin!
Recently I stumbled across actual research about doodling. I’m always happy to update my prior (mis)conceptions, so I reviewed this study enthusiastically.
At the same time, I thought it would be a fun opportunity to try out a new artificial intelligence platform: chatPDF.
In theory, this online tool:
… reads the PDFs you drop into it, and
… answers your questions about them.
Now, my earlier experience with chatGPT was — to put it mildly — frustrating. As I wrote then, it “hallucinated” citations for its claims.
Honestly, our field has enough difficulties without HAL just making up sources.
However, I thought, maybe chatPDF’s narrower mission will make it more effective. Why not give it a try?
So: here’s what I learned about doodling in the classroom, and about chatPDF…
Using chatPDF couldn’t be simpler. Open the platform, drop in a PDF, start asking questions.
ChatPDF starts with a quick summary of the study:
Welcome to this informative PDF file about note-taking and doodling! In this article, you will learn about the surprising truth behind the effectiveness of doodling in reducing boredom and enhancing attention and retention of lecture material.
It also suggests a few questions you might want to ask.
What is the traditional view of doodling and fidgeting in educational contexts?
How many experiments were in this study and what was the total number of participants?
What were the findings of the study regarding the effectiveness of doodling in improving performance?
So, let’s start with the basics. I asked: “according to this study, what is the surprising truth about the effectiveness of doodling?” ChatPDF answered:
It does not appear to improve attention, retention of information, or reduce boredom or mind-wandering compared to other conditions such as note-taking or simply listening.
In fact, in Experiment 1, participants who doodled did nominally worse on the memory assessment than those who solely listened. These findings contradict previous studies that have suggested that doodling can be an effective tool for enhancing attention and reducing boredom.
When I asked it about those contradictory studies, it responded:
Previous studies have suggested that doodling can be an effective tool for enhancing attention and reducing boredom. For example, a study by Andrade (2010) found that participants who doodled while listening to a phone message had better recall of the message content than those who did not doodle.
I followed up with some more specific questions: who were the participants? What exactly did they do in each experiment? How did the researchers measure “boredom” and “retention of information”? And so forth…
In every case, chatPDF provided prompt and clear answers. Helpfully, it also provided the page number on which it found the information — very useful for double checking!
So far, I have to say, I’m really impressed! When I asked the sorts of questions important to evaluating research, chatPDF found the answers and explained them clearly.
I started pushing a bit, asking the kinds of skeptical questions important in my work.
When I asked, “does the study mention boundary conditions?”, it responded:
Yes…The authors suggest that the lack of effect of doodling on attention and retention of information may be specific to certain types of tasks or situations.
For example, [the authors] note that previous studies have found that doodling can be effective in reducing anxiety during a stressful task (e.g., taking a test), and that it may be more effective for individuals who are more prone to mind-wandering or have difficulty focusing their attention.
A question about limitations got a list of 4 answers: everything from sample size to the fact that researchers measured retention right away — and so can’t make claims about long-term effects.
I tried to get chatPDF to speculate, but (happily) I didn’t succeed. For instance, I asked it about the benefits of doodling for students with ADHD, it responded:
The study does not specifically address whether doodling would be helpful for students with ADHD….
Given that ADHD is characterized by difficulties with attention and focus, it is possible that some students with ADHD may benefit from doodling as a tool for improving their attention and retention of information.
However, it is important to note that the current study found no evidence that doodling improves attention or retention of information.
In brief, chatPDF offered a nuanced balance: given previous research, it’s possible that doodling would benefits students with ADHD, but this research doesn’t answer that question.
In fact, it doesn’t even ASK that question.
Up to this point, I’ve been so focused on chatPDF that I haven’t responded strongly to the study itself.
If you had asked me before I read this study, I would have predicted that:
Doodling probably distracts most neurotypical students in most cases (and is therefore bad for learning), but
It just might improve focus for many students with ADHD or other learning differences (and is therefore good for learning in some cases).
Having spend a while scanning available research, I’ve updated my thinking.
As far as I can tell, there’s no obvious consensus on any point – especially because the question includes so many variables.
For instance, a few studies look at the difference between doodling-as-drawing and doodling-as-shading-in-drawings (!).
The best known study — the Andrade study mentioned by chatPDF — focuses on doodling while listening to brief phone messages. While that’s an interesting place to start, it hardly sounds like a substantial analog for classroom experience.
So, this most recent study adds to a complex field…but the field remains (frustratingly) complex!
Based on this research adventure, I tentatively conclude that…
… chatPDF could be REALLY USEFUL for teachers who want to explore the specifics of education and psychology research, and
… despite strong claims to the contrary, we don’t have a good enough research basis to draw conclusions about doodling.
For the time being, we — teaachers and students — should rely on our best judgment.
Spencer Mueller, E. K. (2019). Note-Taking for the Win: Doodling Does not Reduce Boredom or Improve Retention of Lecture Material (Doctoral dissertation, University of Guelph).
Andrade, J. (2010). What does doodling do?. Applied Cognitive Psychology: The Official Journal of the Society for Applied Research in Memory and Cognition, 24(1), 100-106.