Art and science can seem like polar opposites. One involves the creative flow of ideas and the other cold and hard data – or so some people believe. In fact, the two have a lot in common. Both require a lot of creativity. People also use both to better understand the world around us. Now, a study has found that art can also help students better remember what they learned in science class.
Mariale Hardiman is an education specialist at Johns Hopkins University in Baltimore, Maryland. When she was the school’s principal, she had noticed that students who used art in the classroom were more involved. They can listen more closely. They can ask more questions. They can offer more ideas. In addition, students seemed to remember more than they learned when the lessons involved art. But Hardiman knew that the only way to test whether and how art could really improve learning was to test it with an experiment. So she joined other Johns Hopkins researchers and six local schools.
The researchers worked with teachers in 16 fifth grade classrooms. Scientists took traditional science lessons and created versions focused on their art.
In a traditional science class, for example, students can read a book aloud. In the art-focused class, they can now sing or rap with the information. Another example: traditional science classes often use graphs and charts. Instead, classrooms had students creating collages and other types of art. Everyone would receive the same information – learn in different ways.
The team then randomly assigned each of the 350 students to either a traditional science classroom or an art classroom. Students learned science using this unit-wide approach – about three weeks. When they changed to a new topic, they also changed to another type of class. In this way, each student had a class focused on art and a normal one. Each unit was taught both ways, to different groups of students. This allows researchers to see how students performed in both types of classes.
Students in Hardiman’s study learned through drawing, painting, music and dance.
Mariale Hardiman / Johns Hopkins University
Before and after each phase of the experiment, students took the tests. This measured how well they still remembered what they learned two months earlier. The research team also analyzed each student’s performance on the reading test. This allows them to compare how art and non-artistic classrooms have affected students with different types of learning skills.
Students who read at or above their class level also did well in both types of class. Those with lower reading scores gained much more from science if they had been taught in a class focused on art.
In some cases, says Hardiman, the children actually performed better on the third test, months later, than those taken earlier. And the teachers said that “many students continued to sing the songs or raps they learned after finishing the unit,” notes Hardiman. “The more we hear something, the more we retain it,” she says.
Students who started in regular classes performed better after moving to an art-focused class. But those who started an art-focused class did well even when they returned to a regular science class. Hardiman says, these students seemed to use some of the art techniques after returning to a traditional class. “Some continued to sketch or sing to help them retain information,” she notes. “This suggests that the arts can help students apply creative ways of learning on their own.”
His team shared their results on February 7 on Trends in Neuroscience and Education.
The study takes art as a method of learning science very seriously, says Jaime Martinez. He specializes in science, technology, engineering, arts and mathematics (STEAM) at the New York Institute of Technology in New York. He was not involved in the study. It is understandable that the authors can interpret their new results as a useful approach to help readers with difficulties, he says. But he also thinks there is a greater benefit to using art in the classroom. Researchers and teachers have found that students in art-oriented classes develop more creativity and learn to collaborate with better skills, he notes.
Everyone benefits from the arts, Hardiman agrees. “All educators must learn how to use the arts as an instructional tool to promote learning.