Nutritional physiology includes complex biological and biochemical processes that can be difficult for students to grasp. We believe that students’ ability to visually model and explain these processes will lead to patterns of learning that increase retention of knowledge and ability to integrate and apply complex nutritional concepts. Creating visual models as a tool for learning has been used extensively in courses like physics and chemistry, but is underutilized in biological sciences. Creation of visual models helps to make learning visible and simplify complex concepts. Drawing-to-learn could have great utility in describing and deepening comprehension of physiological processes like nutrient digestion and utilization. A learning activity was prepared where undergraduate students (n = 471) created hand-drawn diagrams of nutrient digestion, absorption, and basic utilization to aid in understanding of course concepts in animal nutrition. We evaluated the effectiveness of the learning activity through reflections and Likert scale surveys. Creating visual models of nutrient digestion increased student confidence in explaining complex nutritional processes as well as confidence in their ability to integrate and apply knowledge appropriately. Effectiveness of this activity increased with the inclusion of a writing component that asked students to combine both visual and verbal cognitive processes.

Keywords: Visual modeling, model-based reasoning, functional diagrams, drawing-to-learn, dual coding theory