Museum corridors are often populated by clipboard-bearing school children enjoying a day away from the classroom. These museum trips seem like a good idea, but how much do children really learn from their day out? According to Julien Gross and colleagues, young children actually remember a great deal, especially if they are given the chance to draw as they recount their museum experience.
Fifty-eight lucky New Zealand school children, aged approximately six years, were taken for a day visit to the Royal Albatross Centre and Historic Fort in Dunedin. One to two days later, the amount of information recalled by the children depended to a large degree on how they were tested. Asked to freely recall the visit, the children remembered a significant amount of factual and trivial, "narrative" information, uttering an average of ten factual clauses. Crucially, this amount of factual recall doubled when they were allowed to draw at the same time as they recounted the day's events. By contrast, the children performed relatively poorly when given a traditional comprehension test in the form of 12 questions.
A second study largely replicated these findings with a second group of children who were tested on their memory for the museum visit after seven months. The amount of information they recalled remained substantial but was reduced, as you'd expect after a longer delay. Also, the benefit of drawing now only affected recall of narrative information, not facts.
Why the difference in performance between free recall and the comprehension test? Analysis of the content of the children's free recall revealed that they tended to remember facts that were not tapped by the traditional comprehension test, which had of course been devised by adults. This tallies with previous research showing that children and adults tend to focus on different aspects of the same events.
Gross's team said the results "demonstrated that children learned and remembered an extraordinary amount of information about a school trip to a museum" even after a lengthy delay. The findings also showed that giving the children the opportunity to draw, significantly increased the amount of accurate information they recalled. This is consistent with previous, forensically motivated research showing that drawing facilitates children's verbal reports of their experiences.
An earlier theory for why drawing aids children's recall is that, rather than improving their memory for an actual event, it helps them tap their general knowledge for material that's relevant to the topic. However, Gross's team said their new findings showed there must be more to it than this, because drawing helped the children recall specific facts they could only have learned at the museum. Other possible explanations include the idea that drawing aids motivation and attention, provides memory cues, and that adult interviewers make more encouraging noises when children draw. This latter explanation was borne out by the current study, with interviewers in the drawing condition making twice as many encouraging noises like "uh huh" and "wow".
Our coverage of this research precedes the Campaign for Drawing's Big Draw series of events running throughout October, and coincides with the Independent on Sunday's Drawing for Britain competition.
Gross, J., Hayne, H., & Drury, T. (2009). Drawing facilitates children's reports of factual and narrative information: implications for educational contexts. Applied Cognitive Psychology, 23 (7), 953-971 DOI: 10.1002/acp.1518
Post written by Christian Jarrett (@psych_writer) for the BPS Research Digest.