Taxonomy and the ability to tell one plant from another is an important skill in botany, but what is the best way to learn about it? A study by Bethan Stagg and Michael Verde has looked at how students perform at descriptive writing and labelled drawing and compared the results.
The students were gathered from Plymouth University and Schumacher College and selected for being botanical novices. If they were unfamiliar with the species they were learning about, the results would be a better reflection of the teaching methods and not prior knowledge.
Despite being a part of a lot of courses, Stagg and Verde say that the effectiveness and problems of teaching scientific drawing have been under-studied. One possible problem is ‘cognitive load’. Effectively the problem is that not only are you learning about the shape or morphology of the plants; you’re also having to spend mental effort on the process of drawing itself.
The results showed that students were much more likely to look at the large scale, such as a whole leaf or flower, than at small details like bracts or bud trichomes. This habit was shared across both the written descriptions and the drawings. It’s the little details that can help you identify if you’re dealing with this species or that one, so the authors see this as a problem. They’re not sure whether it’s because capturing this small details is difficult – or if they simply weren’t noticed.
As far as teaching how to identify plants went, writing and drawing both seemed to be equally successful. Stagg and Verde note that drawing was thought to be more enjoyable. The authors comment that if you’re looking to keep students interested in a field, this is a good thing. They also found that drawings gathered more morphological information than the written descriptions.
If it’s merely about capturing morphology, students all have smartphones these days. Could they use those to produce quick digital photographs of specimens? Is it simply a case that a picture is worth a thousand words? Not according to Stagg and Verde who say: “The drawing of specimens will benefit learning to a greater extent than photography because it supports and trains students’ observational skills.”
These findings would bother me if I were on a botany course. I can draw a bath, but when it comes to pen or pencil, I’m useless. I wouldn’t be alone in thinking that. Stagg and Verde say: “[M]any participants had poor confidence or belief in their drawing skills, which highlights the necessity of drawing tuition specific to taxonomy courses, to prevent students shying away from this valuable recording method.” Though in their conclusion they also suggest that lack of confidence is justified in many cases, and that it highlights the need for better tuition for drawing at the undergraduate level.