Drawing to Learn

September 22, 2020
Teaching & LearningJulia Winter


Since the original post was published, the Alchemie team has completed research (recently submitted for publication) about how students use the Mechanisms app to make sense of arrow-pushing. We have also supported research done with Ginger Shultz’s group at the University of Michigan as they studied the similarities and differences of students’ using the app versus traditional paper-and-pencil methods.

The most important take-away is that the Mechanisms app adds the ability to try out ideas and test hypotheses when learning organic chemistry mechanisms. It is not meant to replace traditional teaching methods and student learning processes and is a great supplement to traditional teaching and learning. So pick up your pencil (or your iPad stylist) and draw to learn!

We have added references to these research studies at the bottom of the blog post.  

Original post:

I sit down every morning and write a list of to-dos. On sheets of paper, in little notebooks, and recently using my iPad Pro and Apple pencil. Writing things down helps me to organize my thoughts and keeps me focused. I tried a few online listing methods (using Trello or To Doist), but none of these methods was as successful as the old-fashioned means of seeing words appear out of a writing utensil.

Probably for the same reason, when I taught, I rarely would share pre-made presentations. No Power Points or slides – it was always me and my whiteboard, starting from scratch each day. Students could see organic mechanisms, with structures and arrows, appear step-by-step from my whiteboard pen -- and also hear my silly sound effects added for emphasis.

In the last few years there have been a number of articles testing the hypothesis that “The Pen is Mightier than the Keyboard,” and looking at hand-written note taking versus typing notes on a keyboard. But for chemistry, there is really no equivalent digital method to drawing structures quickly than with a writing utensil. And that’s good for chemistry! This article about including drawing for creative curricula has a quote that can be applied directly to chemistry: “…the act of drawing remains a fundamental means to translate, document, record and analyze the worlds we inhabit.”

So now my company has created the Mechanisms app to help students learn organic chemistry. Does that mean I think drawing structures and arrows is now unnecessary? Absolutely not! In fact, our early research has shown that the best way to use the Mechanisms app is to do so in conjunction with a writing instrument, either pencil/paper, or on a whiteboard, or with digital drawing tools. We have found that students are more willing to put pencil to paper when they can use the app to test out moves.

This research has been backed up by instructor practice. Professor Joe Houck of Penn State uses Mechanisms during class: “I have students draw the mechanism as they play the puzzle in class. They end up proposing mechanisms quicker than if you ask them to just draw it on paper.”

We encourage students to draw as they use the Mechanisms and ModelAR apps to make sense of the chemistry. We have also discovered some cool methods to capture your drawings as you study using devices that have drawing tools, like an iPad or Surface laptop.

Capture of Mechanisms and OneNote Side by Side.

 If you split your screen on either of these devices, you can use the app on one side and take notes on the other as you play with the structures. In this image above we used the Mechanisms web app, One Note, and a Surface Pro. The video shown below used ModelAR, an iPad Pro, and the Notes app.

Capture of ModelAR and Notes on the Ipad Pro

Regardless of high- or low-tech methods, when you study chemistry grab a pen or pencil and start drawing to learn.


Winter,J., Engalan, J., Wegwerth, S., Manchester, G., Wentzel, M., Evans, M., Kabrhel,J. Yee, L. The shrewd guess: Can a software system assist students in hypothesis-driven learning in organic chemistry Published 11/11/2020). https://pubs.acs.org/doi/10.1021/acs.jchemed.0c00246.

Petterson,M.; Watts,F.;Snyder-White, E.; Archer, S.; Shultz, G.; Finkenstaedt-Quinn, S. Eliciting Student Thinking About Acid-Base Reactions via App and Paper-Pencil Based Problem Solving, Chemistry Education Research and Practice 2020, 21, 878-892. https://doi.org/10.1039/C9RP00260J.

 Finkenstaedt-Quinn, S.;Watts, F.; Petterson, M.; Archer, S.; Snyder-White, E.; Shultz, G.; Exploring Student Thinking about Addition Reactions, Journal of Chemical Education 2020,97 (7), 1852-1862. https://doi.org/10.1021/acs.jchemed.0c00141.

Co- Author