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Is Visual Note Taking Worth a Try?

Monday, May 23, 2016 -- Scott Sterling

When we talk about teaching students good note taking practices, we often focus on strategies and graphic organizers, particularly tactics like Cornell notes. And while those methods are a vast improvement over students haphazardly writing down everything they think may be important (and wasting a lot of effort in the process), what if there were a simpler way?

Many students like to draw. Even if it isn’t a passion or outstanding skill, they will often doodle in class (and subsequently get in trouble for it). But there is a movement afoot to integrate those doodles into note taking.

Called visual note taking, graphical note taking, or sketchnoting, this approach encourages students to write key thoughts and accompany them with doodles. And surprisingly, whether the doodles correspond with the information being recorded apparently doesn’t matter. Read on to learn more about the science behind this technique, and how you can start putting it to use with your students.

What the science says

You may know that studies have shown people who write notes longhand retain more information than those who type notes using a computer or mobile device. The thinking is that because people can type faster than they can write, when a student types notes they simply take down what their teacher says verbatim. Longhanders, meanwhile, have to edit what they write, mentally selecting and refining the information before writing it down. The same principle is thought to be at work for visual note taking.

There is another study out of the University of Waterloo that actually validates visual note taking. In the study, subjects were better at remembering a list of words when they made simple, quick drawings, rather than writing them down or looking at pictures of the words. Quality of the drawings didn’t matter.

How to get started

As you have probably guessed, it’s easy to get started in visual note taking. All you do is doodle. However, there are several best practices:

  • Have students turn their paper to landscape orientation (so that it’s wider than it is tall). This way they have more space for drawing.
  • Give students creative freedom. Encourage them to use their own words and their own pictures in ways that make sense to them. Make sure students understand they can organize the page however they see fit.
  • Try having students use different colored pencils, crayons, pens, or markers in their visual notes. Use of color bolsters the thought processes.

Want to learn more about visual note taking? Check out this TED talk from visual note taking expert Rachel Smith. Looking for a few more new ideas to change up your classroom routine? Check out these 21 Tips, Tricks, and Ideas Every 21st Century Teacher Should Try!