A Conversation with Sandra Seekins: on ancient mark-making and learning through drawing

By Bettina Boyle

How one instructor uses sketching, drawing, visual assignments to enhance student learning and the student experience.

I meet Sandra Seekins in her cozy office in Fir on a rainy Monday morning. Books, papers, posters and art fill the room and create a sense of warmth, creativity and academic rigor all in one. I wonder if this is what it feels like to be in her classroom too. Sandra drew as a kid, but – as many of us – stopped drawing at some point.

Then, a few years ago she came across Sketchbook Skool online. She took four courses, started practicing and was hooked. It became a habit, she says, it totally changed the way I view the world. Next thing, she started using drawing in her art history class on graphic novels.

Visual Journals & Gwennie the Encouraging Greyhound

Sandra teaches Arts History 430. This course is not about enhancing students’ drawing skills per se but it’s evident that students in this course are in for a true hands-on learning experience.  Each week kicks off with a drawing exercise and students create an ePortfolio glossary of key terms and keep a visual journal throughout the course. Throughout the semester, as her students practice drawing, they begin to be more astute in their comments when looking at others’ work. They notice composition more, how the author arranges materials and begin to see things in a different way. At the end of the course, they put all the course content into practice with a final hand or computer-drawn visual project. Many of the students continue with their visual journal after the course has ended.

As Sandra shows me her weekly class handouts I get a sense of the learning experience she creates and the practice she models for her students. The handouts are hand drawn, simple, yet profound, funny, encouraging and informative. I discover how the cute, but deadly, Goat of Procrastination turns into Gwennie the Encouraging Greyhound from one week to the next and I have to admit that she captivated me. This is amazing!

Not Just for Artists

But what if you or your students are not artists? And how do you mark a visual assignment? Sandra smiles like she has heard these arguments before. In another class on 20th Century Art where the topic was German Expressionism, she gave students a choice of creating a self-portrait using elements of German Expressionism rather than a written assignment. Many chose the self-portrait. I marked how well they’d understood the elements, not how good the self-portrait was. Non artists tend to do a really good job, it helps them manifest learning, understand art practice, and bypass habitual ways of thinking. And even if they are not satisfied with the result, there’s productive failure.

As the conversation unfolds I start to see how Sandra’s passion is grounded not only in praxis, but also in sound research on brain science and learning. Her keen interest in left brain versus right brain thinking and neuroscience supports what she observes in her classroom: Drawing facilitates retention of learning and enhances focus, observational skills and problem-solving. Mark making is ancient human behavior, it’s a part of being human that’s not often valued as much, explains Sandra. By drawing, using our hands and making marks, we access part of our brain and part of ourselves that everyday logic doesn’t. We use the non-verbal intuitive right-side brain, which thinks in patterns and whole things. There is a lot of research out there right now on the benefits of doodling and visual notetaking for thinking and learning. In fact, Sandra is presenting at the upcoming Sketching in Practice (SKiP) symposium in Vancouver, which will bring together educators from a broad range of disciplines that think through drawing and use drawing as a method for teaching.

Blown Away by the Beauty of their Arguments

When I ask Sandra about her best teaching moment at Cap, she mentions a class where no one liked the graphic novel she had chosen. Why? The students had the most amazing things to say about how the novel was drawn using the language and the skills they could only have acquired through their own visual practice. They accurately pin-pointed trouble points visually and showed how the novel was male centric and how its overall storytelling in the relation between images and words was weak. I was blown away by the beauty of their arguments, she says.

Perhaps Gwennie (who is, by the way, real and one of Sandra’s two rescued ex-racing greyhounds) helped students get there. I’m convinced she did.

Inspired by Sandra? Here are some ways to get started:

And encourage your students to join Sandra for a fun introduction to drawing at Chat Live here at CapU on Thursday October 11th, 11:30am-12:30pm in LB188.


Quick Facts:

Which faculty/department are you in?
Art History & Women’s & Gender Studies, Faculty of Arts & Sciences

How long have you been teaching at CapU?
Since 2001

How many sections do you teach?
Usually 4-5/year + coordination role

Favorite thing to do when you’re not teaching?
Playing Ukulele. Sandra can be found playing and singing in a club at the Heritage Grill in New West. She hasn’t taken the ukulele to the class room yet, but yes, she did play at a division meeting once.