Observation Drawing Skills – Labs

The ability to make meaningful observations and use visual skills to document physical features and spatial relationships are two fundamental skills of a professional geologist (Liben and Titus 2012).  Visual skills training can have positive and lasting affects on learners at all ages (Meadow et al 2012), and improving the spatial skills of individuals in geoscience education is a meaningful strategy for university education programs (Newcombe 2012).

Becoming a professional includes learning to observe features and visual patterns that are of relevance to the work of a geologist, as in any profession (Bouderau 2008). We “learn to see” like a geologist, a physician, or any other occupation (Elkins 2008).  The ability to draw and observe are considered essential by many successful natural scientists (Canfield 2011). Drawing and visual skills are highly desirable for success in science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM) disciplines (Liben and Titus 2012).

The following preliminary results describe the results of a two-week visual skills training activity developed for the first two weeks of this undergraduate paleontology course. The training activity involves two lab sessions with facilitated drawing and observation skills activities.  

Two 3-hour weekly labs focused on formal observation drawing skills were provided to 35 undergraduate students in a second year paleontology course . Short questionnaires were provided before the first lab (Figure 1) to gauge students’ prior experience with observation drawing and evaluated students’ confidence in observation and drawing skills.

Pre-learning Questionnaire

Figure 1: Pre-Learning Questionnaire provided before the first of two labs that focused on observation and drawing skills.
Figure 1: Pre-Learning Questionnaire provided before the first of two labs that focused on observation and drawing skills.

 Observation Drawing Skills Labs

The two three-hour labs included a number of short activities facilitated by the instructor who had prior experience with drawing and scientific illustration. Activities were designed in order to provide students with understanding and experience with the importance of scale (1:1 vs 3:1), line quality (soft vs dark), edges and surfaces, proportions, attentive observation, drawing with grids, shapes, labels, and illustrations in publications. Each lab included a rubric that was used to assess the students drawings.

Activities included drawing specimen photographs that were displayed on two large screens in the front of the lab. These photographs were shown for 30-60 seconds to encourage rapid drawing and high-attention observation.  Specimens (crab carapaces) were also distributed to allow students to draw natural objects with increased attention to details.

Students handed in their lab books at the end of the labs, which were marked by the teaching assistant according to the rubric that students received at the start of the sessions.

Post-learning Questionnaire

At the end of the second lab, a post-learning questionnaire (Figure 2) was provided to students to assess changes in students’ confidence in drawing skills and observation skills. Completion of the pre-learning and post-learning questionnaires was voluntary and students were asked to complete the paper forms anonymously but to include an four digit number (last digits of their phone number), to link pre-learning and post-learning answers.  All results were tallied by the teaching assistant to ensure all student feedback remained anonymous.

Figure 2: Post-Learning Questionnaire provided before the first of two labs that focused on observation and drawing skills.



Twenty-six (26) of the pre-learning and post-learning questionnaires could be linked with a non-identifying number (last four digits of phone number). Among these twenty-six students, 56% (n=14) said they did not take art classes in high-school, 44% (n=11) did take art in high-school, and one did not provide an answer to this question. A strong majority of students said it was a long time since they had drawing lessons (Figure 3).


Chart - Long Time Since Drawing Lessons
Figure 3: Student responses to question on Pre-learning questionnaire.

Comparing the changes in self-reported confidence in drawing ability after the two labs shows a marked increase in confidence among the students (Figure 4).  Comparing responses in pre-learning and post-learning questionnaires (Figure 5) found a  majority of students increased their confidence in drawing skill by at least one level, although one student’s responses represented a decrease in confidence after the labs, while confidence in observation skills did not show a strong increase.

Chart - Confidence Change
Figure 4: Comparing the self-reported confidence in drawing skill between Pre and Post Learning questionnaires.
Level of changes drawing and observation
Figure 5: Number of students that experienced an increase (+1, +2), decrease (-1) or remained unchanged (0) in confidence of drawing skills and observation skills.


 Student Comments

Twelve students provided free-text comments about the drawing skills labs on the post-learning questionnaire. Ten of the comments were highly positive, saying the labs were enjoyable, useful, helpful, and interesting.  Two comments that represented these positive comments are:

I thought the labs were helpful in picking up tools to help with field sketches. I know it is important to be able to look at something and pull out the important aspects in a sketch and I feel these labs helped me to develop skills to do this.


enjoyable, haven’t really done any drawing since grade 10 art class.

While most comments were positive, two students provided negative or neutral comments, suggesting the labs were “a little dull” or “somewhat useful”.



The results of the pilot appear to be of interest and helpful for the students. The students were highly attentive and engaged during the facilitated lab activities. The students’ have continued to use drawings in subsequent labs, providing them an opportunity to build their observation drawing skills.

While confidence in drawing skill increased markedly after the two labs, the confidence in observation skills did not show a similar increase. The development of “confidence” in observation skills may require more time, and the labs may have highlighted the previously unappreciated challenges of accurately observing details. While there may have been improvements – there may also have been increased awareness that observing details is a complex skill.

New labs that provided specific observation drawing skills provide students with improved confidence and encourage them to continue to develop their observation and drawing skills.



Boudreau J D, Cassel E J, and Fuks A, 2008. Preparing medical students to become skilled at clinical observation. Medical Teacher, (9-20) pgs 857-862.

Canfield, M. R.  2011. Editor. Field Notes on Science and Nature. Harvard University Press, Cambridge, Massachusetts. 296 pgs.

Elkins J 2008. How to use your eyes. Taylor and Francis Group e-Library. 272 pgs.

Liben L S and Titus S J, 2012. The importance of spatial thinking for geoscience education: Insights from the crossroads of geoscience and cognitive science, in Kastens, K.A., and Manduca, C A, eds., Earth and Mind II: A Synthesis of Research on Thinking and Learning in the Geosciences: Geological Society of America Special Paper 4886, p. 51-70.

Meadow N, Uttal D, Tipton E and Newcombe N, 2011.Training spatial skills: What works, from whom, and for how long?, in Carlson, L. Hoelscher C, and Shipley T, eds., Proceedings of the 33rd Annual Conference of the Cognitive Science Society: Austin, Texas, Cognitive Science Society, p. 2260.

Newcombe. N. S. 2012. Two ways to help students with spatial thinking in geoscience, in Kastens, K.A., and Manduca, C A, eds., Earth and Mind II: A Synthesis of Research on Thinking and Learning in the Geosciences: Geological Society of America Special Paper 4886, p. 85-86.

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