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Sketching can help students learn, research shows

"This is a step in creating software that can communicate with people as flexibly as we communicate with each other," said researcher Ken Forbus.

By Brooks Hays

April 14 (UPI) -- Researchers at the University of Northwestern think sketching exercises are underutilized in school classrooms.

Sketching can help students process and absorb information, studies show, but drawing exercises can be difficult for teachers to monitor and assess.

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"Intelligent tutoring systems, which enable students to receive feedback on their work anywhere and anytime, rarely are capable of understanding sketches," Ken Forbus, a software engineer at Northwester, said in a news release.

Enter "Sketch Worksheets," a new software program designed by Forbus and his colleagues. Sketch Worksheets can analyze a student's progress and offer feedback in real time.

Researchers recently detailed the technology in the journal Topics in Cognitive Science.

The software system relies on spatial analogies to grade student sketches. The system compares the positioning of components from the student's sketch to the teacher's -- confirming, for example, that Earth's core is positioned inside the mantle or that the heart's aorta is placed above the left atrium.

As part of the study, Northwestern researchers had some 500 students use the software during sketch exercises related to biology, geoscience and engineering. Researchers at the University of Wisconsin-Madison have already composed 26 sketches for instructional use in introductory geoscience classes.

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"We hope that others will follow the lead of the geoscientists and create Sketch Worksheets to help their students learn," Forbus said. "This is a step in creating software that can communicate with people as flexibly as we communicate with each other."

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