Drawing “Octo-Pines”: Ice-Breaker Active-Learning Activities to Introduce Drawing-to-Learn in Biology

Author(s): Natasha Flores1, Jessica M. Theodor1, Mindi M. Summers*1

University of Calgary

Courses: EcologyEcology EvolutionEvolution

Keywords: Zoology drawing drawing-to-learn ice breaker

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Drawing has been advocated as a technique to develop visual literacy and observational skills in biology students. To increase student motivation and confidence to draw in our course, we developed an introductory active-learning lesson with a series of icebreaker activities that promote student creativity and discussion. These activities include a clicker question, group discussions, drawing activities, and a worksheet. During the lesson, student responses generated more than 18 categories of how visuals can be used as a professional practice and as a learning tool in biology, with 14 of these categories overlapping. Students demonstrated interest in using a variety of drawings and visuals to represent various scientific scenarios. In a survey completed after the lesson, students reported that this activity increased their understanding of how drawings are used in the profession of biology and as a learning technique. Students also indicated that while they experienced some discomfort with the exercises, they enjoyed the drawing activities and found them useful. The examples in this lesson can be adapted to fit courses that emphasize drawing, observation, or visual literacy.

Primary Image: “Octo-pine.” To increase student motivation to draw in zoology, the last activity in this lesson asks to students to draw an invertebrate-food combination (e.g., “octopine” = octopus + pineapple; “BEErito” = bee + burrito).


Flores N, Theodor JM, Summers MM. 2023. Drawing “Octo-Pines”: Ice-Breaker Active-Learning Activities to Introduce Drawing-to-Learn in Biology. CourseSource 10. https://doi.org/10.24918/cs.2023.29

Lesson Learning Goals

Students will:
  • gain self-confidence and increase their motivation to use drawing approaches as learning tools.
  • grasp the significance of how visual literacy and drawing approaches develop one's professional practice in biological research.

Lesson Learning Objectives

Students will be able to:
  • describe the importance of visual literacy and drawing in biology as a professional skill and as a learning technique.
  • discuss benefits and drawbacks to using different types of scientific drawings and visualizations in biological research and as learning tools.
  • feel confident in their ability to use drawing as a learning technique in this course.

Article Context


The Vision and Change report calls for authentic learning experiences that mirror disciplinary practice in biology (1). Across scientific disciplines, visualizations are used to consider data, concepts, and relationships (24). In biology, visuals are used to develop and communicate new ideas (2, 3, 5, 6). Biologists also employ visualizations to develop hypotheses, design experiments, and interpret and explain their ideas and findings (2, 7). The ability to explain a complex topic using several types of representational methods is an especially important professional skill for zoologists (8). For example, the work of natural historians such as Charles Darwin and Leonardo da Vinci exemplify the importance of natural history illustrations and record-keeping (2, 8).

Drawing-to-learn is advocated as a learning tool that can develop a student’s ability to understand scientific thinking and reasoning (9, 10), and to use scientific conventions and practices such as observation and record keeping (3, 11). Using visuals is emphasized as a technique that encourages students to think and learn inductively (3, 8, 12), organize their knowledge (13), develop problem-solving skills, communicate (7, 14, 15), synthesize, and generate innovative ideas (3, 11). In biology, studying nature through written observations and drawings is one example of how students can practice science using visuals (8). When students develop visuals, they take control of their learning and generate their own understanding of the material (16), resulting in improved retention of the information (17). Furthermore, there is evidence to show that using drawing as a learning technique in a classroom setting enhances engagement (7), increases motivation, and is useful for a diverse group of learners (3).

Drawing-to-learn has been implemented and assessed in many science settings, including physics (18, 19), math (20), medicine (21), and engineering (22), but work focused on biology is relatively limited and suggests the need for further research (e.g., 2, 2325). In general, using drawing as a learning and study technique encompasses skills such as creating and interpreting visuals, translating between visual and verbal information, and developing visual-spatial literacy (26), which require a significant amount of effort and perseverance (2). To use this technique effectively, students require the ability to create accurate and relevant drawings, evaluate visualizations, and use these drawings and other visual representations as reasoning tools when needed (2). Developing these skills will require instruction, scaffolding (27, 28), and practice to find relevant details and create meaningful connections between them (29, 30). Research further supports that students should create visuals for themselves to allow them to practice professional scientific skills (2, 3), and demonstrate their conceptual understanding, cognitive processes, and misconceptions (7, 15, 31).

Given the cognitive demands and time required, incorporating drawing-to-learn requires consideration of student motivation. A student’s motivation is proportional to the amount of time and effort that they are willing to commit to a learning technique (32, 33). Student views on the requirements for artistic drawings may act as a deterrent to use drawing as a learning technique (8), possibly because many hold insecurities about their artistic abilities (2, 34). Furthermore, studies have found low buy-in and resistance to active learning when students are uncomfortable transitioning to a role where they are responsible for their learning (35, 36). Therefore, to effectively implement drawing-to-learn, it is important to target instruction to better understand, discuss, and improve student attitudes, interests, values, and self-efficacy towards drawing (2).

Here we describe an active learning lesson that focuses on increasing student motivation to use visuals and drawings to learn and study biology. The lesson outlined in this paper emphasizes the use of non-artistic drawings to learn and study. This lesson is meant to introduce students to drawing and visualizations using a series of “icebreaker” activities, and the main goal is to improve student attitudes and motivation to draw-to-learn. This interactive lesson includes a worksheet, a clicker question, group discussion, and drawing practice. Overall, we found that students actively engaged throughout the lesson, with 93% indicating that this activity increased their understanding of how drawings are used in the profession of biology and as a learning technique. During the lesson, students expressed an interest in using a variety of drawings to accomplish different professional and learning tasks. Based on student responses, we were able to generate over 18 categories for how students view the use of visuals in a learning and a professional environment, with 14 of these categories overlapping. Students reported experiencing some initial discomfort with the drawing tasks as expected, but described enjoying the exercises and finding both the speed drawing and “octo-pine” activities useful.

Intended Audience

This lesson was designed for an undergraduate invertebrate zoology course that particularly emphasizes observational drawing, generally taken by third-year students at the University of Calgary, Canada. This lesson can be modified for other undergraduate courses that include drawing or visualization.

Required Learning Time

This lesson was designed to run for 40-minutes.

Prerequisite Student Knowledge

Students do not require any specific set of background knowledge or experiences. This lesson can be modified to fit a variety of classroom contexts.

Prerequisite Teacher Knowledge

We recommend that instructors become familiar with scientific visualization, its importance, and drawing-to-learn as a learning and study technique. For example, Ainsworth et al. outline reasons to incorporate drawing-to-learn in the sciences (3), Quillin and Thomas provide a drawing-to-learn framework for biology and discuss the role of student motivation (2), and Fan discusses the importance of graphical literacy in science education providing an overview of how drawing can assist students in learning important scientific practices (7). There are also many books on scientific visualization more broadly (reviewed in 5). In addition, the following websites provide examples of how to use scientific visualizations: PicturingtoLearn, FeliceFrankel, and King’s Centre for Visualization in Science.

Scientific Teaching Themes

Active Learning

Students are engaged in active learning throughout the lesson. Students respond to a clicker question, record their responses with written explanations on a worksheet, engage in small group and whole class discussions, and participate in drawing activities. We (authors NM and JMT) observed the instructor (author MMS) and students during the lesson, and coded their behaviors at two-minute intervals using the Classroom Observation Protocol for the Undergraduate STEM (COPUS) (37). COPUS results show a diversity of student-centered instructional practices and student participation (Figure 1). For example, 43% of student codes reflected students working (individually on a clicker question, individually on their worksheet, in groups on a clicker question, or in groups on their worksheet) and 14% of the codes showed students talking to the whole class (answering questions). Similarly, 55% of instructor codes identified guiding behaviors (posing question, posing clicker question, following up with students, moving and guiding, and working one on one with students).


Students were assessed using formative questions and drawing exercises aligned with the learning outcomes: (i) describe the importance of visual literacy and drawing in biology as a professional skill and as a learning technique; (ii) discuss benefits and drawbacks to using different types of scientific drawings and visualizations in biological research and as learning tools; and (iii) feel confident in their ability to use drawing as a learning technique in this course. An overview of assessment questions is provided in Table 1. Specific questions and teaching script are available in Supporting File S1 and Supporting File S2. Forty student responses to assessment questions are described in Progressing through the Lesson and Teaching Discussion.

Table 1. Drawing “Octo-pines” lesson plan with approximate time stamps. Worksheet and clicker questions identified by WSQ (worksheet question) and CQ (clicker question). Clicker questions run through a digital application that students can use on their phones or computer, allowing self-reporting of their responses in real time (e.g., Top Hat). The clicker question format used here asks students to respond individually, discuss with their peers, revote, and then engage in an instructor-facilitated whole class discussion. Lesson slides and the accompanying student worksheet are available in Supporting Files S1 and S2.

Activity Description Estimated Time
Class Session: Progressing Through the Activity

1. Introduction and assessment of prior knowledge

Slides 3–5

  1. Provide students with a definition of visual literacy.

  2. WSQ1: Students individually record their ideas on how visuals are used (i) in the profession of biology and (ii) as a learning and study technique. This is followed by a discussion with their peers and then an instructor-facilitated whole class discussion.

~ 10 minutes

2. Present evidence on the effectiveness of drawing-to-learn and active learning in general

Slides 6–7

  1. Provide students with reasons why drawing is incorporated as a learning tool in a biology classroom.

  2. Discuss the benefits of drawing as a form of active learning.

~ 5 minutes

3. Assessment of student understanding of types of drawings and their uses

Slides 8–14

  1. WSQ2/CQ1: Students identify which type of illustration provides the most information about an organism. This is followed by a discussion with their peers and revote, and then an instructor-facilitated whole class discussion focused on how each type can be useful in different contexts.

  2. Provide background information on the types of drawings used (artistic, abstract, and observational) in biology and their respective purposes.

  3. WSQ3: Students are given four scenarios and work in groups to choose the best types of drawings to use, followed by a whole-class discussion.

  4. Summarize the major take-away points from the lesson: (i) place more emphasis on the process of creating and using an accurate drawing and (ii) artistic drawings require high time investment with reduced learning gains and lower scientific value.

~ 15 minutes

4. Group speed drawing and “octo-pine” exercises to increase self-efficacy and reduce fear of drawing

Slides 15–30

  1. Instructor(s) and students complete timed speed drawing of a butterfly (3 minutes) and a snail (1.5 minutes). Emphasize that the focus is on observation and communication in this course, not artistic ability.

  2. Students draw an invertebrate and food combination, of their own choice or based on a chart with options corresponding to the month and day they were born.

~ 10 minutes
Collect student feedback on lesson
  1. Provide students with questionnaire to obtain feedback on the activity (Supporting File S3).
~ 5 minutes


Inclusive Teaching

This lesson was designed as an ice-breaker activity to establish an inclusive classroom environment for both students and instructors. As a result, all the questions asked in this lesson have no “right answers,” and questions were designed to encourage discussion, multiple viewpoints, and collaboration among students and instructors. In addition, the instructor verbally emphasized inclusivity by encouraging students to identify their drawing and learning preferences and advocating the creation of non-artistic drawings. Similarly, the instructor, peer mentors, and students all drew together to break down the expert-versus-novice barrier and promote drawing equality in the course. Students also engaged in a low-stakes opportunity for them to be creative in this lesson, where they chose what to draw and worked as a team to develop funny names for their drawings.

The lesson incorporates a variety of active learning components, including a worksheet, a clicker question, peer discussion, and drawing practice. Based on the literature, active learning approaches are known to increase students’ examination marks and decrease failure rates when compared to traditional lecturing methods (38). Freeman et al.’s analysis also suggests that active learning benefits female students and those from disadvantaged backgrounds more than other students (38). One reason for the difference may be that clicker questions allow anonymity for students, therefore fostering an environment that encourages broader participation (39).

Lesson Plan

This lesson is designed to run for 40 minutes during an introductory class on visual literacy, scientific visualization, and/or drawing. The activities are designed as icebreakers that also promote student creativity in order to increase student motivation to draw-to-learn. This lesson can also be used to foster and establish an active and inclusive learning environment among students and instructors. Table 1 describes the progression of the drawing-to-learn lesson with estimated timing.

Pre-Class Preparation

This lesson was designed to introduce students to drawing-to-learn using examples in invertebrate zoology. However, an instructor may wish to replace some of the examples and images to better align with the topics of their course (e.g., anatomy, physiology, vertebrate zoology, ecology, plant biology, cellular molecular biology, or biochemistry).

Progressing Through the Lesson

1. Introduction and Assessment of Prior Knowledge (~ 10 Minutes)

The lesson begins with the instructor describing visual literacy and eliciting student thinking and prior knowledge on the topic (Supporting File S1, slide 3).

Worksheet Question 1 (WSQ1). How are visuals used in the professional practice of biology? How can visuals be used to learn and study biology?

The instructor then asks students to individually brainstorm answers to WSQ1 for two minutes and write their answers on the provided worksheet (Supporting File S1, slide 4; Supporting File S2, Question 1). Students are then asked to take one minute to share and discuss their ideas, with each group choosing one person to report out their responses to the class (Supporting File S1, slide 5). After discussion, the instructor asks groups to share their examples with the class. In our class, students mentioned 20 different uses for visuals in the profession of biology, and 19 uses for visuals when learning and studying (see Teaching Discusison).

2. Present Evidence on the Effectiveness of Drawing-to-Learn and Active Learning in General (~ 5 Minutes)

This section of the lesson focuses on support for drawing being incorporated as a learning and studying technique in biology classes (Supporting File S1, slide 6). To target one of Quillin and Thomas’s purposed interventions for improving student value (2), the instructor provides a list of five benefits gained from using drawing-to-learn (Supporting File S1, slide 6). Then the instructor explains how zoologists, in particular, have been using drawing to observe organisms since the start of the field (Supporting File S1, slide 6). Next, the instructor discusses how drawing-to-learn is a form of active learning and outlines the known benefits of active learning as an effective method for increasing students grades and the likelihood of passing (Supporting File S1, slide 7). The purpose of this discussion is to improve student’s attitudes and understanding about the value of using drawing-to-learn in their biology courses.

3. Assessment of Student Understanding of Types of Drawings and Their Uses (~ 15 Minutes)

The instructor first provides an overview of the clicker question format (Supporting File S1, slide 8). Clicker questions are delivered through a digital application that students can use on their phones or computer, allowing self-reporting of their responses in real time. The question format used here asks students to respond individually, discuss with their peers, subsequently revote, and then engage in an instructor-facilitated whole class discussion (40).

Worksheet Question 2 (WSQ2)/ Clicker Question 1 (CQ1). What type of visual would provide the most information about an organism when studying zoology?

Using a clicker question, students individually choose from the following answers: (A) artistic, (B) observational, (C) abstract, and (D) photograph (Supporting File S1, slide 9; Supporting File S2, Question 2). This question assesses students’ preconceived ideas about the best way to visually learn about an organism. During the peer discussion, the instructor can prompt students to make an argument for how each type of visual could help in better understanding an organism (e.g., “what are the pros and cons to using each type of drawing in this scenario?”). In our course, approximately 85% of students chose B (observational) during the individual vote, and all students choose B (observational) during the revote following discussion with their peers (see Teaching Discussion). The instructor then asks groups to report their responses and reasoning to the class (Supporting File S1, slide 9). The instructor summarizes student discussions by providing examples of when and how each type of drawing can be used in biology (Supporting File S1, slides 10–12). This synthesis is intended to help students conceptualize that a variety of visuals can have many uses in the field of biology and that they have a choice in what type of visual to use, depending on the purpose.

Worksheet Question 3 (WSQ3). For each scenario, choose the type of drawing/visual that would be the most useful.

The instructor gives students a set of four scenarios, which are: (i) represent experimental findings in a research article; (ii) organize ideas when learning about a new organism; (iii) explain evolutionary relatedness between organisms; and (iv) link emerging ideas in this course. For approximately two minutes, students individually select from the following responses: (A) artistic, (B) tables/ graphs (abstract), (C) flowcharts and concept maps (abstract), (D) relationship/ process (abstract), (E) observational, and (F) photograph (Supporting File S1, slide 13; Supporting File S2, Question 3). Students record their choices and written responses for each scenario on their worksheet. For the next two minutes, students are asked to discuss their answers in their groups (Supporting File S1, slide 13). During this time the instructor and peer mentors provide conversation prompts to encourage discussions within the various groups. Some examples are: “is there another type that would be useful as well?”, “can you tell me more about why you chose that response?”, “what types would be least helpful and why?” and “will that always work?” After students recorded their responses (from both the individual vote and group discussion), the instructor asks groups to report their rationales (see Teaching Discussion). Following the exercise, the instructor provides a summary of the main points to take away from the lesson (Supporting File S1, slide 14).

4. Group Speed Drawing and “Octo-Pine” Activity to Increase Self-Efficacy and Reduce Fear of Drawing (~ 10 Minutes)

The instructor gives a brief description of things to remember and incorporate when sketching an organism, for example: first draw an initial outline of the organism lightly and continue to adjust and add details (Supporting File S1, slide 15). As recommended by Quillin and Thomas (2), it is helpful to encourage and emphasize that these should be quick, non-artistic drawings, which students can use for learning. Students are then asked to practice drawing a butterfly on the back of their worksheet, following a timed slideshow (the drawing progression takes three minutes) (Supporting File S1, slides 16–22). During this time, the instructor also gives step-by-step verbal instructions while drawing with peer mentors on a whiteboard or chalkboard. After the butterfly sketch, students use the same process to draw a snail (the drawing progression takes 1.5 minutes) (Supporting File S1, slides 23–27).

After the quick-draws, the instructor introduces the “octo-pine” activity by showing an internet image of a “catermelon,” followed by an octopus mixed with a pineapple (an “octo-pine”) (Supporting File S1, slides 28–29). Students are then asked to draw an invertebrate-food combination using a list of invertebrate animals and foods with corresponding months and days provided for students who want to create a combination based on their birth date (Supporting File S1, slide 30). This activity is a low-stakes wrap-up to the lesson, allowing students to express their creativity and expand their drawing comfort zone. In our class, approximately 10% of students wrote in their feedback form that they felt the drawing practice was rushed and that they would have preferred more time. Since one goal of these exercises is to encourage non-artistic drawings, and all students completed these drawings in the allotted time frame, we recommend that instructors limit the timing and specifically emphasize the reasoning behind speed drawing (see Instructor Notes in Supporting File S1, slide 15). Together, these activities allow students to practice their quick-drawing skills, develop self-confidence, increase self-efficacy, and generate community.

Teaching Discussion

This lesson was designed to improve student motivation to use drawing-to-learn in biology courses. We collected evidence of student thinking, their perceptions, and the effectiveness of the lesson while teaching it during the first day of class in Introduction to Invertebrate Zoology, a third-year zoology course. Students completed a worksheet during the lesson (Supporting File S2) where they wrote responses to questions posed during each of the main activities. Following the lesson, students were asked to fill out a feedback form that we used to uncover their perceptions about the lesson (Supporting File S3). This survey utilized Likert scale and short answer questions to ask what students liked about the lesson and what they thought could be improved. We will discuss the responses of 40 students who consented to have their work analyzed as part of this lesson study.

Student Thinking Regarding the Use of Visuals as a Professional Practice in Biology and as a Learning Skill

Worksheet Question 1 (WSQ1). How are visuals used in the professional practice of biology? How can visuals be used to learn and study biology?

This prompt was designed to give instructors information on student perceptions of visuals prior to instruction and to give students an opportunity to think about and discuss their values with peers. We were particularly interested in how students regard visuals being used professionally and in learning, and how much overlap occurred between their responses. We categorized student responses to identify themes in our class. Tables 2 and 3 provide a summary of the types of answers students recorded on their worksheet. The categories we created are an example of how an instructor could analyze the written answers from students as part of this activity. In our class, students mentioned 20 different uses for visuals in the profession of biology, and 19 uses for visuals when learning and studying, with 14 categories overlapping (Tables 2 and 3). Half the class gave examples of scientific figures as a learning technique, and over 70% referred to scientific figures as a professional practice. Other common responses to both questions (> 15% of the class) included communication and organization. Categories that were found primarily for professional practice included evolutionary trees, compare and contrast, record and document data, and observational drawings (Table 2). Categories that we recovered more for learning and less often as professional practice were: concept maps, observe organisms and anatomy, and interpret and analyze data (Table 3). These student responses suggest that in our classes we could provide students with more experiences and opportunities to use those visuals they associate mainly with professional practice (e.g., evolutionary trees and observational drawings) when learning and studying. Likewise, we could more effectively integrate concept maps with scientific applications to assist students in seeing the value of developing these types of visual literacy skills for their future careers.

Table 2. Summary of student responses to worksheet question 1 (WSQ1), “How are visuals used in the professional practice of biology?” (number of students = 40). Categories that provide examples of products are in bold; descriptions of processes or benefits are in italics. Asterisks (*) indicate responses also used to answer, “How can visuals be used to study and learn in biology?” (responses summarized in Table 3).

Student Responses Count (n = 138)
Scientific figures (graphs/tables/flow charts/diagrams) * 29
Evolutionary trees (to describe relationships among organisms) * 16
Photographs (including live photography) * 15
Observational, anatomical, labeled diagrams or scientific drawings of organism * 13
Videos (recorded experiments or biological events) * 9
To increase communication and/or understanding of information, results, or findings * 8
To record data or document observations and findings * 7
To organize ideas and information * 6
Presentations, lessons, textbooks, or papers * 6
To interpret and analyze data * 4
To develop hypotheses, show thought processes and ideas, or see information from a new perspective * 4
To increase attention and attract readers and/ or make more appealing * 3
To display trends * 3
To compare and contrast * 3
Concept maps * 3
To catalogue or identify 3
Models * 2
To visualize things that are too small to see or too complicated to explain 2
Maps/geography 1
To develop observational skills 1

Table 3. Summary of student responses to worksheet question 1 (WSQ1), “How can visuals be used to study and learn in biology?” (number of students = 40). Categories that provide examples of products are in bold; descriptions of processes or benefits are in italics. Asterisks (*) indicate responses also used to answer, “How are visuals used in the professional practice of biology?” (responses summarized in Table 2).

Student Responses Count (n = 115)
Concept maps * (To make connections between concepts and relationships) 20
Scientific figures (graphs/tables/flow charts/diagrams) * 16
To observe organisms and anatomy and better understand/ identify/ recognize key features 15
To increase communication and/or understanding of information, results, or findings * 10
Anatomical, labeled diagrams, or sketches of organism * 9
To organize ideas and information * 8
To interpret and analyze data * 8
Evolutionary trees (to describe relationships among organisms) * 6
To help increase memorization 4
To display trends * 4
To develop hypotheses, show thought processes and ideas, or see information from a new perspective * 4
To record data or document observations and findings * 2
Videos (recorded experiments or biological events) * 2
To provide a concrete image associated with a concept (visualization) 2
To increase attention and attract readers and/or make more appealing * 1
Photographs (including live photography) * 1
To compare and contrast * 1
Artistic interpretation 1
Presentations, lessons, textbooks, or papers * 1


Student Perceptions of the Most Effective Types of Visuals for Biological Scenarios

Our goal for including WSQ2/CQ1 and WSQ3 was to see what types of drawings students are interested in using in various situations. Student responses to these questions can help instructors better understand student preferences and learn what drawings require more time spent developing student buy-in.

Worksheet Question 2 (WSQ2)/ Clicker Question 1 (CQ1). What type of visual would provide the most information about an organism when studying zoology?

In our class, more than 85% of students selected observational drawings as the most useful type of visual to obtain information about a new organism. The students noted that observational drawings allow key structures to be identified and labeled in an organized manner. In general, students said that observational drawings help them to focus on what's important about that organism, making these features easier to remember, and are less confusing than a photograph, which may have too much information.

Worksheet Question 3 (WSQ3). For each scenario, choose the type of drawing/visual that would be the most useful.

Overall student responses to the four scenarios demonstrate that the students in our class were interested in using different types of drawings for different tasks. When asked about which type of drawing would be better for representation of experimental findings, all students chose ‘tables and graphs’ for at least one of their answers (Table 4). Student explanations for this choice emphasized that tables and graphs summarize findings in a professional, organized, and concise manner. To explain evolutionary relatedness among organisms, 97.5% (39 out of 40) of students chose abstract drawings as at least one of their responses (Table 4), with written explanations that mentioned showing evolutionary relatedness through phylogenetic trees. When asked about linking ideas in this course, all students selected flow charts and concept maps (Table 4). Student responses focused on how flow charts and concept maps summarize information in an organized way that allows for a connection between concepts. There was one scenario where students showed more variation in the preferred type of visual. When asked what type of drawing would be the most useful for organizing ideas when learning about a new organism, 85% (34 out of 40) of students chose flow charts and concept maps, and 65% (26 out of 40) selected observational as one of their answers (Table 4). Students explained that flow charts and concept maps allow them to link, organize, and connect concepts to give the bigger picture, while observational drawings help organize details in a simplified image that highlights critical information and key features. Except for artistic drawings, which were not selected for any of the scenarios, these responses show that the students in our class were interested in using a variety of visuals. Likewise, photographs were mentioned mostly for representing experimental findings. Students who chose this answer discussed imaging (e.g., fluorescent in situ hybridization) as the rationale for choosing photography.

Table 4. The number of students who responded that they would use each type of drawing for the scenarios listed in response to worksheet question 3 (WSQ3), “For each scenario choose a type of drawing that would be the most useful method of representation” (number of students = 40). Students could choose more than one option for each scenario. Drawing types selected by 50% or more of students are shaded in grey for each scenario.

Organize ideas when
learning about a new
Explain evolutionary
relatedness among
Link emerging
ideas in this
Artistic 0 0 0 0
Tables/ Graphs (Abstract) 40 1 1 1
Flow charts/ Concept maps (Abstract) 2 34 7 40
Process/ Relationship (Abstract) 6 8 39 8
Observational 7 26 3 1
Photograph 16 1 1 0


Student Products and Perceptions of the Drawing Exercises

Students were asked to participate in two speed drawing exercises (~ 3 minutes each) that they completed with the instructional team. With these exercises, we wanted to encourage completing outline drawings quickly and not focusing on artistic quality. By having students do this with the instructor and peer mentors, we also hoped to increase their confidence and self-efficacy through a positive experience combined with observing how others draw (personal and vicarious self-efficacy) (41). During this exercise, some students indicated that they felt rushed and frustrated by this activity. However, all students completed both drawings to a level in which the drawings could easily be identified in the allotted time (Figure 2). The purpose of this activity was to move students away from spending too much time trying to make their drawing look nice, and towards creating something functional that they can use to learn and study.

Following the speed drawing, students completed the “octo-pine drawing” activity, which was meant to increase their self-efficacy and attitudes by allowing them to be creative, while moving away from their comfort zones with no grades attached. Every student in the class made an invertebrate-food combination, except one student who combined a hedgehog (a vertebrate) and a hotdog (Figure 3). During this activity, many students in the class were working together in their groups sharing ideas and helping each other to come up with names for their drawings. Students interacting and having fun was the main goal of this activity, to help improve their attitudes towards using drawing in a learning environment.


Student Responses Regarding Observational and Artistic Drawings

In this course, students are asked to complete a set of observational drawings during each weekly lab following this introductory lesson, making drawing a key component in student learning. Therefore, an overall goal for our lesson was to increase students’ value of and interests towards observational drawings. During this first lesson, students in our class appeared to hold various levels of value and interest concerning these drawings, depending on the questions posed. For example, in WSQ1, observational drawings were only recorded as a professional practice, and not as a use for learning and studying (Table 2). This result suggests that before this lesson, students may not have considered observational drawing as a skill they could use to learn about new organisms. After the instructor discussed observational drawings, though, approximately 85% of students chose observational drawings from a list of options for WSQ2. Then, when asked about the most useful way to organize their ideas about a new organism, 65% of students selected observational drawings. These results not only suggest that students were made aware of observational drawings and their value through participation in this lesson plan, but also that additional follow-up and examples would likely help students to use such drawings in practice.

Before implementing this lesson, we were concerned about two beliefs that could decrease students’ willingness to complete observational drawings in our courses. First, in our zoology courses, we have observed many students wanting to take photographs of specimens, which led to concerns that they would value photographs over observational drawings. Second, based on existing literature and surveys given to students in our courses, many students appear to have low self-efficacy regarding their perceived artistic abilities, and thus tend to feel limited in their ability to benefit from using drawings and visuals to learn and study. In our class, we found that photographs and artistic drawings were not popular choices when students were asked questions regarding the use of drawings and visuals to learn. This finding was evident in the brainstorming activity (WSQ1), where out of 40 students, only one student mentioned photographs and one other student referred to artistic interpretation as a learning technique (Table 3). Comparable results were obtained from WSQ2, with less than 10% of students selecting photographs and 5% choosing artistic drawings as being the most useful for learning about a new organism. Additionally, no students selected artistic drawings as their choice for any of the scenarios provided in WSQ3 (Table 4). These results suggest that in this lecture setting, our students may not have much interest in using photographs and artistic drawings to learn and observe new organisms. An interesting comparison would be to ask these same questions throughout the course or during laboratory sessions.

Student Perceptions on the Lesson

Student survey responses (Supporting File S3) indicate that students found the overall lesson and most activities included in this lesson valuable (Table 5). The majority of students found the clicker question and discussion the most useful, followed by the worksheet and whole classroom discussions. Furthermore, based on the optional student written responses, we learned that five students appreciated the lecture portion of the material, and four students liked individually answering the clicker question and then talking with their groups and the whole class. Additional insights gained were that nine students felt that being able to practice drawing in class was helpful, and four students mentioned they found the real-time drawings done with the instructor and peers mentors beneficial. Some of the reasons given for enjoying the drawing practice included, “I thought [the drawings practice] was great, [it] gave a sense of what the prof expects from us in our drawings,” and “when we drew together, and I saw all the drawings this made me more confident since I lack in the artistic department.” Three students also made the point that they would prefer to have more drawing practice in the lesson, and eight students requested more time to draw during the last activities.

Table 5. Student responses to feedback survey on the lesson (Supporting File S3) (total student responses = 56).

  Strongly agree/agree Strongly disagree/disagree
Participating in this activity increased my understanding of how drawings are used in the profession of biology and as a learning technique 52 (93%) 4 (7%)
How useful for your learning were the following components: Very useful/useful Somewhat useful/not useful
Clicker question 49 (88%) 7 (13%)
Team discussion about clicker question 49 (88%) 7 (13%)
Classroom sharing/ discussion of responses 44 (79%) 12 (21%)
Provided worksheet 44 (79%) 12 (21%)
Instructor and peer mentor real-time drawing 36 (64%) 20 (36%)


Additional Suggestions to Enhance Student Learning While Using This Lesson

Based on student performance and responses to clicker and worksheet questions, we have made minor modifications to the lesson slides and worksheet to increase clarity (e.g., timed slide progression for the speed drawings; including space for students to record their individual thoughts and group thoughts) (Supporting Files S1 and S2).

We also provide a set of recommendations for integrated assignments, tutorials, and discussions on visual literacy throughout the course that we feel could further improve student learning beyond the lesson plan.

1. Exercises Evaluating and Comparing the Value of Different Types of Drawings and Visualizations

In response to questions asking about students’ values and interests in this lesson (WSQ1–3), students individually wrote in or selected multiple types of visuals (e.g., observational drawings, phylogenetic trees, graphs). Students then discussed their rationales in their small groups and with the whole class. During WSQ3, students could be asked to think about how each type of visualization could lead to better understanding for each of the scenarios listed. In small groups, students could also be asked to identify themes in each other’s responses and report out their discussion to the whole class. Further, the students could take the list of their class’ results for WSQ1 and categorize them, to see what “themes” are shared among their thinking. Another potential follow-up to these exercises could involve students comparing given visuals from the scientific literature that communicate similar topics, and then structuring an argument around the benefits and limitations of using different types of visuals. This activity could have students report their thinking visually, in text, or verbally, providing additional opportunities to expand their thinking about different visuals and use evidence to support their ideas. Such an exercise would also provide instructors with valuable evidence on how students are developing their thinking towards science visualization.

2. Tutorials on Observational Drawing and Science Visualization

At the start of our lesson, students did not mention observational drawings as a learning technique (WSQ1), but as the lesson progressed, most students selected that they would use observational drawings to learn about new organisms. For our class, this suggests that observational drawings may have been a new skill that students had not yet encountered but would be interested in learning to use. To continue developing students’ understanding of observational drawings and other types of visualizations, they could complete tutorials online, in lab, or as homework. We recommend that these tutorials step students through an introduction to the conventions of different types of visualizations, particularly focusing on observational drawings. Schwamborn et al. argue that when novices do not understand how to generate drawings, they devote substantial amounts of mental capacity to creation, which can impede their ability to learn (28). It has also been noted that students with low visual literacy skills will spend more of their time and effort creating their drawings rather than using them (42). Furthermore, most students need direction and feedback to create drawings that are useful for their learning; simply asking them to draw does not teach them what they should be looking for (7, 27). Therefore, these practice activities could include resources for students to compare their work, as well as ongoing dialogue where students can receive instructions and feedback.

3. Reflections That Develop Student Metacognition of Their Learning and Motivation to Use Drawing-to-Learn

In our lesson, we gave students multiple opportunities to engage in positive experiences with drawing and emphasized that artistic ability should not limit learning. While their feedback suggests that students left our class with positive attitudes, long-term impacts will likely require multiple conversations and ongoing personal reflection. Once students have finished their “octo-pine” drawings, they can answer open-ended reflection questions on their experience to promote development of metacognition (Supporting File S4). We recommend allowing students five minutes to answer the questions, collecting the worksheets, and providing them to students to review at a later time-point in the course to reflect on how their ideas have changed over the course.

To further promote reflective practices, discussions between students and among students and TAs, past students, or the instructor could focus on tools, techniques, and past experiences with drawing. These dialogues could also mention how drawings have been personally used in professional settings. Similarly, students could be given reflective assignments that ask them to read articles or watch videos on science visualization (e.g., this Visual Literacy Ted Talk). These articles and videos could also target ideas and mindsets around learning in general (e.g., growth mindset).

4. Incorporating Peer Review to Bolster Learning

Peer review activities could also be included in later class sessions once students are more comfortable with drawing-to-learn and sharing their work with others as a way to help students develop their understanding and skills.

5. Assessments Targeting Student Learning and Motivation

We recommend using survey tools at the start and end of a course that emphasizes drawing-to-learn to evaluate student learning and changes in motivation. We also advocate the use of general tools such as classroom climate surveys and surveys to assess student engagement (43) and classroom community (44). Currently a published survey does not exist specific to drawing attitudes or experience. We are working on developing such a tool; instructors can contact the corresponding author to pilot this instrument in their courses. Additionally, we feel that it could be helpful to collect information on students’ previous experiences with drawing outside of this class to see if there are any correlations and links to how these students respond to questions about drawing. This should be done at the end of the course to prevent students from self-identifying as artistic or not artistic during the lessons.


Drawing-to-learn can enable biology students to develop their visual literacy and observational skills, yet many students feel uncomfortable drawing. The icebreaker activities described in this lesson plan can be used to increase student motivation and confidence in their ability to use drawing as a learning technique. During the lesson, students generated approximately 20 categories of how visuals can be used as a professional practice and as a learning tool in biology (Tables 2 and 3). Through completing these activities, students also expressed an interest in using a variety of drawings and visuals to represent various scientific scenarios (Table 4). At the beginning of our lesson we found that students in our class did not mention observational drawings as learning techniques, but as the lesson progressed many students selected them as a useful way to learn about a new organism. All students also completed speed practice drawings and worked together in their groups during the “octo-pine” drawing activity to come up with fun invertebrate-food combinations. Student feedback on the lesson indicates that they felt many aspects of the lesson were useful in their learning of this topic. Most students also expressed that this lesson increased their knowledge of how visuals are used in biology, both professionally and in learning and studying. This lesson therefore provides instructors with the tools to be able to collect information on students’ attitudes and interest when introducing this new skill.

These icebreaker activities can be used as an introduction to visualization in other classrooms that aim to have their students use drawing as a study and learning technique. This lesson could be used beyond the field of zoology (e.g., anatomy, physiology, vertebrate zoology, ecology, plant biology, cellular molecular biology, or biochemistry) by modifying the food-biology combinations and providing field-specific examples of visualizations. We also recommend the development of additional learning activities and assessments that could be implemented throughout a course to promote and assess drawing-to-learn in biology.

Supporting Materials

  • S1. Drawing Octo-pines – Lesson Presentation Slides with Instructor Notes

  • S2. Drawing Octo-pines – Student Worksheet

  • S3. Drawing Octo-pines – Student Feedback Form

  • S4. Drawing Octo-pines – Student Pre- Post- Drawing Reflection


This work was funded by The University of Calgary Teaching and Learning Grant Program, Scholarship of Teaching and Learning Project 10018450. This research was reviewed and approved by the Conjoint Faculties Research Ethic Board (CFREB), University of Calgary – REB 16-2430. We would like to acknowledge the participation and contribution of all students who actively engaged in this lesson. We would also like to thank the peer mentors of the course—Austin Ashbaugh, Stephanie Griffiths, Sarah Vermaak, and Himanthri Weerawardhena—for assisting in implementing the lesson plan. We are grateful to Austin Ashbaugh for providing a photograph of his concept map to include in our lesson slides. We would like to acknowledge Paige Iwacha, Alyssa Brandelli, Emily Harrison, Alixis Hassell, Austin Ashbaugh, and Sarah Vermaak for their feedback about the lesson format and content in lab meetings. We would also like to recognize Bryan Morden for helping to brainstorm ideas for the “octo-pine” activity at the end of the lesson plan.


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Article Files

to access supporting documents


Author(s): Natasha Flores1, Jessica M. Theodor1, Mindi M. Summers*1

University of Calgary

About the Authors

*Correspondence to: Mindi M. Summers: 2500 University Drive NW, Calgary, AB T2N 1N4, Canada; mindi.summers@ucalgary.ca 

Competing Interests

This work was supported by The University of Calgary Teaching and Learning Grant Program, Scholarship of Teaching and Learning Project 10018450. Any opinions, findings and conclusions, or recommendations expressed in this material are those of the author(s) and do not necessarily reflect the view of the University of Calgary or the Taylor Institute for Teaching and Learning. None of the authors have a financial, personal, or professional conflict of interest related to this work.



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