Get Started with Sketchnoting

Use visual note taking to build understanding

image of visual notetaking

Were you one of those students who always reached for a pen while listening to teachers or classmates? If so, you likely also remember being told to “stop doodling and pay attention!”

Thankfully, students today are far less likely to be chastised for doodling, and in many classrooms learners are being taught how to doodle purposefully as a way to record and internalize the salient points of a lesson.

This purposeful doodling is now referred to as sketchnoting, and it is now considered a useful technique to support information recall and build understanding.

In Sketchnotes 101, author Craighton Bermandescribes sketchnotes as “visual notes that are drawn in real time.” By drawing pictures of what they are hearing, students’ minds are engaging multiple modalities, often leading to increased retention of information. In Visual Note-Taking for Educators, author Wendy Pillars writes that sketchnoting or ’edusketching’ — can improve retention by up to 55%.

In this video, my fifth-grade student Samantha explains how doodling engages “all four ways learners learn: audio, visual, reading/writing and kinesthetic.”

Sam's TED ED Talk from MJGDS Classrooms on Vimeo.

I can imagine the protestations many of you have, so I will reassure you in advance: you do not need to be able to draw to introduce sketchnoting to your students! Sketchnoting isn’t about art. The important concepts, shares Silvia Tolisano, are “ideas, connections, thinking, about the process, visualizing and organizing your thinking.”

Although I don’t consider myself a natural artist, I was fascinated by the visual notes other people take and decided to learn to sketchnote. I also wanted to understand the process so I could help my 4th and 5th grade students add this technique to their toolkit of learning strategies.

sketchnote by author Andrea Hernandez

Anxiety about my artistic shortcomings, coupled with a lack of personal experience with the process, left me wondering how to give my students the best possible experience, so I reached out to art teacher Shana Gutterman for ideas about implementing this style of note taking.

We began by having students watch Claudine Delfin’s Sketcho Frenzy: The Basics of Visual Note-taking. Shana then modeled the process by creating a sketchnote on the classroom whiteboard as I read aloud a chapter from a book my class is reading.

Despite being a skilled artist, Shana had never taken visual notes before. She was surprised at how natural it felt and found herself “thinking as I was drawing and retaining more information from the chapter than I would have if I just listened.”

Next, we distributed paper and colored pencils and asked the students to try sketchnoting. While some students preferred careful listening to sketchnoting, many loved the strategy and asked to be allowed to sketchnote during read-aloud time in class.

sketchnote by author Andrea Hernandez

Many of my students who continued to sketchnote elected to use Wixie and other digital tools available in my classroom. Students also used sketchnoting during listening activities such as Skype calls with experts and with students in other classrooms.

I was delighted to see that many of the students who struggled to some degree with recall or other areas of listening comprehension were drawn to sketchnoting. Their sketchnotes aided them with writing assignments and appeared to enhance their enjoyment of listening.

Introducing Sketchnoting to Students

  1. Remember that neither you nor your students need to be artists to sketchnote.
  2. Show your students examples of sketchnotes. Practice “reading” and interpreting someone else’s sketchnote to make meaning from their doodles.
  3. Model how to take visual notes with another teacher or student volunteer.
  4. Have all students practice sketchnoting during read-alouds, test review sessions, instructional videos, or other activities where note-taking can be useful.
  5. Let students share their notes in small groups or with the whole class and reflect on the process. What did they enjoy about this strategy? What was challenging? Is this something they would like to try again? Point out and affirm the variety of ways students can interpret and record the same material.
  6. Try the process using a variety of tools. If students used pencils or markers the first time, encourage them to use a computer or tablet. Reflect on which techniques students found most valuable.
  7. Implement sketchnoting for those students who find it helpful. Remind students to use their notes while studying or writing.
  8. Avoid using sketchnotes for assessment. They are a cognitive tool to support understanding and recall, not an evaluation of it.

We live in a visual world. We all learn differently and demonstrate mastery in unique ways. Though many of us do not feel artistic, giving students opportunities to express their ideas visually using sketchnoting provides them a powerful strategy they can use to take ownership of their learning.

Andrea Hernandez

by Andrea Hernandez

With a business card that reads "Passionate Educator", Andrea Hernandez has enjoyed (and is still enjoying) a long and winding career in education. With a Master's Degree Instructional Technology and coaching certificate, Andrea continues her learning journey by working with students and teachers, reflecting, blogging, tweeting (@edtechworkshop), collaborating, mistake-making, reading, creating and sharing. Her professional passions include student-centered learning environments, literacy and documenting growth using blogfolios.

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