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Diagrams also help you make sense of information. Most Physics and Maths questions can be made much easier by drawing and organising the information given in the question. Even if you feel you don't need to draw one, it's worth doing as it makes it easier to spot silly errors.


Finally drawings or doodles of real-word examples can help you memorise concepts. Writing down how something works in notes often just results in paraphrasing the textbook. Drawing an example and explaining it in the diagram forces you to process the information in different ways. The drawings don't have to be complicated. I always explain momentum in terms of penguins sliding on ice, but stickmen work just as well.


Finally, mapping out a topic can really help get a sense of perspective on it. Just getting everything on the same piece of paper can help you organise your thoughts and visualise links between topics. You can be as elaborate or rudimentary as you like. You don't even have to draw them yourself. I used to use software programs to draw spider diagrams for me from bullet point lists, and then annotate them by hand. This solved the problem of running out of space on the page and having to start again.


This is particularly useful in topics where lots of things interlink, but you usually study them bit by bit. A classic example is organic chemistry. Try mapping out all the different chemicals and how you get between them. Flowcharts are also very useful for understanding processes, such as control of blood sugar or the different methods you should use to try to integrate an expression.


On the other end of the spectrum, you can create a detailed pictorial map of a topic - complete with monsters and sailing ships. Xkcd did this very well with their map of online communities. Alternatively you could take a blank map of the world and assign each country a revision topic according to the country's size and the topic's difficultly. Annotate it with doodles indicating each topic, then watch as you slowly take over the world. Exclaiming 'I conquered Iceland!' is far more fun than 'I can remember the difference between complete and incomplete combustion'.


In conclusion, don't rely solely on your textbook to revise. Expose yourself to as many different visual representations of what you're studying as possible, and try to come up with some new ones. You don't have to be artistically inclined, a pencil and a bit of creative thinking will do the trick.


Claudia Stocker is a Science illustrator. See







A Joined-up Education



Introducing the Bulletin


Conquering Iceland With a Pencil

Claudia Stocker


Do you learn better from diagrams than words? Do you like to colour-code your notes? Do you doodle on your notes to remember them? If the answer to these is yes, chances are you prefer to learn things visually. Popular psychology likes to divide students into visual, auditory and kinaesthetic learners, suggesting that they should be taught according to the style of whichever box they get placed in.


The bad news is that scientists treat this with as much skepticism as the theory that everyone is either right-brained or left-brained. They haven't found any evidence that students recall information significantly better when it's presented to them in their learning style. Whether they recall it better when the question is presented in a particular style is open for debate. Students do however express preferences for how they want to be taught, and this can be very useful for engaging and motivating them to learn.


I was once teaching a Physics lesson to a GCSE student. We were going through the syllabus point by point and stopping whenever we came across something she didn't understand. Every time I explained something - which I usually did by giving a real-life example - the student would draw a doodle of the example. Halfway through they blurted out 'Am I wasting my time doing this? I just feel it helps me remember things better'. Truth is, there is no right or wrong way of learning things, you just have to find something that works for you. If it does, then it's never a waste of time.


Even if you don't learn information better using one style over another, trying a mix of learning styles can help you to learn information more efficiently than just reading a textbook, and is particularly helpful when you encounter one of those mental roadblock subjects that just don't make sense however you look at them. Some of the best things to try are visuals, drawings and mapping.


Certain scientific concepts can be really difficult to get your head around. Often one image isn't enough to get a good sense of how something works. Biological systems, for instance, work in three dimensions. Often an image will give you a stylised cross-sectional view of how a system works, but this isn't necessarily how it looks in real life. Students are frequently caught out in exam papers when asked to label figures, because the images look different to the ones they've been memorising all year.


Images also give the impression that systems are static, which they aren't. You can't take an effective photograph of diffusion or homeostasis, so don't just rely on your textbook to explain these things. Have a look on Youtube for animations that explain how these things work.


One of the best ways to study and learn about something is to draw it. You don't have to be the next Leonardo da Vinci, but the practice of drawing means that you have to look at something really hard for an extended period of time, and note down all the details that you observe. Often when I go around a museum, I can instantly recognise an object that I've drawn several years ago, because I had to stare at it for so long.






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