Encouraging critical thinking with scientific sketching activities

Pragna Patel, Professor of Biochemistry & Molecular Medicine at USC’s Keck School of Medicine, uses sketching activities to help students develop critical thinking skills in her courses and beyond.

Professor Patel was a 2021 recipient of the Associates Award for Excellence in Teaching

Watch this 2-minute video and scroll down for the full interview, plus tips for implementing this in your course!

Read more about this approach in Pragna’s own words:

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Interested in using sketching activities in your course?

Here are some tips for implementation:

  1. Explain the purpose and process of making a sketch. Make a point to students that the artfulness of the sketch is not the main focus, rather it is the information contained in the sketch that is important.
  2. Provide them with a model and identify the key elements of a successful sketch.
  3. Ask students to complete their sketches individually or in small groups.
  4. Ask students to either reflect on their individual sketches, switch sketches with a peer and review, or discuss as a class.
  5. Lead a class debrief or provide group or individual feedback to tie the activity back to course content and your objectives for the activity.
  6. After the activity, students may submit their sketches or keep them as a study guide. Sketches could also be posted in the classroom or shared with the class virtually on a discussion board for follow-up activities.

More resources for active learning and sketching activities:

What does the research say?

Edlund, A. F., & Balgopal, M. M. (2021). Drawing-to-Learn: Active and Culturally Relevant Pedagogy for Biology. Frontiers in Communication, 6.

Helen J. DeWaard, Giulia Forsythe, & Deborah Baff. (2024). Graphically Speaking: Expanding Landscapes of Scholarly Writing Using Sketchnotes. Brock Education, 33(1).

Nesbit JC, Adesope OO. Learning with Concept and Knowledge Maps: A Meta-Analysis. Review of educational research. 2006;76(3):413-448.

Wu, S. P. W., Van Veen, B., & Rau, M. A. (2020). How drawing prompts can increase cognitive engagement in an active learning engineering course. Journal of Engineering Education (Washington, D.C.), 109(4), 723–742.


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