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Epistimi 2009

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Do attention span and doodling relate to ability to learn content  
from an educational video? 
Ashley Aellig, Sarah Cassady, Chelsea Francis, Deanna Toops
ABSTRACT
Student doodling is a form of self-expression that diverts attention from course content in an educational
setting. The purpose of this research was to determine the extent to which student attention span and
doodling can be used to predict how much students learned from an educational video. Students
watched a video in a mock educational setting and were given the opportunity to take notes on the
video and doodle. They completed an attention span measure and answered questions about video
content. The students’ notes from the video were collected and scored for amount and complexity of
doodles. Scores on the attention span and doodling measures were correlated with the number of correct
video content items. Students with shorter attention spans were expected to have more complex doodles
and perform lower on the video content quiz. However, this hypothesis was not supported. This study
has implications on the value of multitasking and provides greater insight on a student's ability to retain
course material.
INTRODUCTION
History illustrates how art has been
used for communication, visualization of a focus
or goal, and expression of emotion (Rubein,
1999). In the 1930s, the therapeutic use of art
was first recognized as a tool of self-expression
for uncovering unconscious material about a
person’s inner world (Malchiodi, 2003). Ten
years later, art therapy was viewed as an
occupation provided by professionals trained in
art and therapy, and used by people seeking
change and healing (American Art Therapy
Association, 2009). Research has found a
correlation between personal wellbeing and the
recognition of emotional conflicts and problems
(Malchiodi, 2003). Art is an important tool that
aids in this realization and methods for creating
art relate to a person’s wellbeing. One artistic
medium that is often overlooked is doodling.
Among the many facets of art therapy, doodling
needs further exploration.
Art therapy uses media, such as paint,
chalk, clay, or other materials for self-expression
and fostering personal growth, selfunderstanding, emotional reparation, and
interpersonal skills (Malchiodi, 2003,). Unlike the
linear process of language, art allows for
multiple thoughts to be conveyed at the same
time. When art therapy is used as an adjunct to
psychotherapy it may decrease anxiety, lower
defenses and encourage the expression of
thoughts, feelings and beliefs. An art therapist
may help to reveal hidden feelings and emotions
communicated solely through the artwork. An
added benefit of art therapy includes the ability
to record internal and external conflict, which
can be reviewed at a later time, without

distortion or memory recall (Malchiodi, 2003). Art
therapists use spontaneous drawings (e.g.,
doodles) in their work with clients; a better
understanding of doodling can advance the field
of art therapy and make this mode of treatment
more effective.
Doodling has many purposes. It can
focus the attention by fulfilling the craving for
symmetry in a chaotic world and can also be
used to assess the effectiveness of college
instructors or help define comfort or what is
comforting (Guzman et al., 2007). Depending on
the skill of the doodler, the doodle may even
create backtalk, that is, a verbal explanation that
accounts for a mistake made in the doodle
(Goldschmidt, 2003). Doodles can be an outlet
for the need to be active when students are
forced to be inactive in a confined space. The
tension between the desire for activity and the
need to be still is resolved through doodling and
allows the student to focus on the class lecture.
This particular function of doodling speaks to the
relationship between doodling and attention.
Most research on attention span has
been limited to children with attention deficithyperactivity disorder, people with
schizophrenia, or older individuals with
Alzheimer’s disease. Using a sample of nondisordered individuals, Cowen et al. (2006)
compared how college-age adults (mean age
20.6 years) and children (mean age of 10 years)
divided their attention among a variety of
activities. Children and adults were tested on
their ability to pay attention to select items and
ignore trivial stimuli. College students dedicated
their full attention to a task more efficiently than
children, and performed significantly higher on

Epistimi 2009

tasks involving selective attention, especially
with spoken or written lists. Cowen et al.
concluded that a high attention span, or
command of attention, helps people control and
retain incoming information. College-age
students focused significantly better on the task
and recalled more information in a quiz setting
than did the children. A shorter attention span
contributed to a lower level of concentration on
assignments and less information recall.
Research on note taking has focused on
types of note taking and not on how people view
this activity. Note takers must select the most
important information, summarize, and
paraphrase the information they are receiving.
Badger et al. (2001) explored why people take
notes and how they decide which information is
important and should be recorded. Their
research is based on the belief that “people
listen for a purpose and it is the purpose that
drives the process” (Rost, 1990, p. 7). Rost
conducted interviews with the note takers, most
of whom were college students. A majority of
students took notes for two reasons: to
remember what the lecturer said and to have a
method of review for exams. Few subjects
reported that they took notes only during boring
lectures but preferred reading the textbook over
reviewing notes for the exam. Nine out of the 18
students interviewed said they took notes on the
main points of the lecture, while two said they
only wrote what they thought would be on the
exam. Five students stated that they wrote down
everything they heard without determining
whether the information would be important in
the future. Rost concluded that the form of
taking notes differs on the basis of student
interpretation of the lecture. During an
interesting lecture or when lecture material is
perceived to be important, students are more
likely to take detailed notes. Students reported
more note taking in interactive lectures with
visual aides.
Using a laptop in the classroom to
engage in activities beyond the scope of note
taking during a lecture is referred to as “hightech doodling.” Hembrooke and Gay (2003)
studied how multitasking during class affects
ability to retain knowledge for a quiz.
Hembrooke and Gay gave students a laptop in
class. One group of students was permitted to
use their laptops during class, and the other
group was instructed to keep the laptops closed.
Each group listened to the same lecture. At the
end of the lecture, the students completed a quiz
consisting of recognition (multiple choice) and

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recall (short answer) questions. The group who
used the laptops during lecture performed
significantly worse on the test than those not
allowed to use the computers. Hembrooke and
Gay investigated the websites accessed by the
laptop-user group and concluded that the
website content did not significantly influence
test performance. Whether the students viewed
websites related to the lecture topic or used the
computer for instant messaging or email, they
diverted their attention away from the professor
and remembered less course content than the
group without laptop usage.
Similar to the research by Hembrooke
and Gay (2003), this study focused on three
aspects of multitasking in the classroom:
listening to an educational video, note taking,
and doodling. The purpose of this research was
to determine the extent to which student
attention span and doodling can be used to
predict how much students learned from an
educational video. The goal of this study was to
examine how doodling affects a student’s ability
to learn information from a video in a mock
educational setting.
METHOD
Participants
Thirty-four undergraduate students from
Capital University, a religiously affiliated private
university in Columbus, Ohio, were recruited
from a variety of general education courses.
The school places an emphasis on a liberal arts
education. There were 14 men and 20 women,
including 14 freshmen, 15 sophomores, 1 junior
and 4 seniors. Approval to use human subjects
was obtained from the Capital University
Institutional Review Board. As incentive,
participants received a $5.00 gift card to a retail
store and extra credit for a college course.
Materials
The Art of Effective Communication
(2000), an educational video on communication
styles, was shown to the participants. According
to the video description, The Art of Effective
Communication (2000) is approximately 25
minutes in duration and teaches people how to
improve their communication skills. The movie
outlines tips for identifying communication
styles, improving communication in a job setting,
developing customer service relationships, and
etiquette for written communication. This
educational movie has been rated as easy to
understand and moderately interesting.

Epistimi 2009

Paper and pens were provided to the
students to take notes and doodle with during
the video. A questionnaire that contained
demographic items, items about the content of
the video, and a tool assessing attention span,
the Mindfulness Attention Awareness Scale
(Brown & Ryan, 2003), was given to collect the
data necessary for the research. The attention
span measure included 15 items rated on a six
point Likert-type scale with almost always and
almost never as the anchors. An example item
is: “I forget a person’s name almost as soon as
I’ve been told it for the first time.” Several items
on the scale were reverse scored. Convergent
and divergent validity were determined by Brown
and Ryan (2003). Discriminant validity was
determined by Zvolensky et al. (2006).
MacKillop and Anderson (2007) assessed
internal validity and confirmatory factor analysis.
Procedure
Participating faculty read the recruiting
script and distributed the recruiting flyer to their
classes. Interested students contacted
researchers to schedule a time to participate in
the study. Students arrived at the assigned
classroom and signed the participant
identification list and extra credit list for
professors. Students sat at the seat
corresponding to the number on the participant
identification list. After everyone had arrived and
signed in, the participant identification list was
sealed into an opaque envelope. The
researchers read the consent script and allowed
students time to complete the consent form.
Signed consent forms were collected and put
into an opaque envelope. Students read the
instructions for the study, and the video was
shown. After watching the video, students
completed the questionnaire. The completed
questionnaires were placed in an opaque
envelope. The researchers distributed gift cards
and thanked the students. After all the data were
collected, participants received the debriefing
letter via email. Participating students were
given the ability to remove their data from the
study.
RESULTS
Pearson’s product moment correlation
coefficients were calculated to examine the
relationships among the attention measure, the
number correct on the video test and the
doodling score. We found no significant
relationships. Using an independent sample ttest, we found a sex difference for attention,

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t(32) = 2.149, p = .039, Cohen’s d revealed a
moderate to large effect, d = 0.76. Men had
higher scores on attention than women,
indicating more focused attention.
DISCUSSION
The goal of this study was to examine
how doodling affected a student’s ability to learn
information from a video in a mock educational
setting. The results did not support the
hypothesis that there are relationships among
doodling, attention, and number of correct video
items. There appeared to be a ceiling effect for
the video quiz, with most participants scoring
100% correct. While students watched the
educational video, they were given the
opportunity to take notes, which was identified
as a necessary component of the classroom
experience (Badger et al., 2001). Of the 34
participants, 24 took notes and 6 people doodled
during the movie. Despite the fact that the video
content was moderately interesting and
challenging and the participants were not
directly encouraged to take notes, they still felt
compelled to record video material. Further
research could use a harder quiz or a video with
more challenging content.
Another limitation was that few
participants actually doodled (n = 6). Given that
the sample was drawn from a moderately
selective private school, we can assume that
many of the students are engaged in their
learning, and thus the lack of doodling is
consistent with the research that multi-tasking
negatively affected academic performance
(Hembrooke & Gay, 2003). For future research,
confederates could be placed among the
participants in the classroom setting to model
doodling; this would establish a cultural norm
that doodling is acceptable in that context. With
the addition of confederates, it is expected that
more participants will multi-task because they
will be taking notes, doodling, and watching the
movie.
Finally, it is possible that doodling was
not the appropriate task to assess in this
situation. The current generation of college
students might be more likely to text during
lecture than they are to doodle. Thus, future
research should focus on how texting is related
to attention and academic performance.
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