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8 July 2012
Lessons from Leonardo – medical students to learn by drawing

Medical students at The University of Nottingham are to get drawing lessons as part of new research into how visual representation can help the academic learning process.

Painting Leonardo

Dr Shaaron Ainsworth, from the University’s Learning Sciences Research Institute, has won a prestigious Higher Education Academy grant to explore how learning and assessment of anatomy can be enhanced by introducing drawing into traditional dissection classes for first and second year medical students.

Existing research shows that experts in many fields use drawing to develop new insights, record their understanding and explain findings to an audience, but Dr Ainsworth’s new investigation will ask ‘can learners do likewise?’

The project will explore the medical students’ existing beliefs, practices, and skills, examining the role of drawing for formative assessment and see how drawing can best complement dissection as a tool for learning human anatomy.

Human anatomy and neuroanatomy is taught to over 200 students during the first two and a half years of their medical course at The University of Nottingham. Teaching involves weekly dissection classes which are essential in understanding the 3D relationships between structures in the body. The brain is the hardest component of this practical study, particularly the understanding of the relationships between structure and function. At present students are encouraged to use drawings and diagrams in their exam answers. But up to now, no explicit drawing activities or instruction in drawing has been provided during anatomy classes.

Dr Ainsworth said: “Although we often think about drawing solely for artistic purposes, in fact drawing can be very useful when learning many complex topics. It can help learners observe things more clearly, organise and integrate their knowledge more effectively and ultimately can be transformative when students understand in new ways. For lecturers, learners’ drawings reveals what their students have or have not understood allowing lecturers to give timely feedback and or adapt their teaching”.

The research will be conducted in collaboration with Dr Peter Wigmore, neuroscientist and anatomy course coordinator at Nottingham University Medical School. Dr Wigmore has developed interactive computer-aided learning programmes to teach neuroanatomy. He said: “Understanding anatomy is essentially a visual and three dimensional problem. In learning anatomy students are exposed to a large number of illustrations, photographs, diagrams and models as well as human subjects themselves.   However they have little opportunity to develop their understanding by generating and exploring their own visual material.  In using this more active approach to learning, I expect the students I teach will obtain a clearer and better understanding of anatomy than they would by simply viewing existing material.”    

If this research proves successful, then this approach could become embedded in the School with staff and students given increased opportunities to use drawing to learn. They may also wish to participate in the recently set up AnatomyArt Group, which enables students to use the medical school facilities to develop their drawing as part of their learning of anatomy. This has proved very popular with both medical and science students and will form part of the project to look at the impact of art in medical learning.

The Higher Education Academy’s grant is a doctoral studentship which will be carried out as an interdisciplinary PhD in the Learning Sciences Research Institute. The research is expected to lead to an increased understanding of the benefits of drawing by staff and students alike. A series of ‘How to’ guides will be produced for staff considering introducing drawing into their courses and assessments, as well as short study guides for students explaining how drawing can improve their understanding and the best ways to use it.

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