No More Notes! Or Why I Love Visual Notetaking

I am a terrible note-taker.  I blame it my poor handwriting, but really I just don’t enjoy taking notes.  I never go back and look at them and it drives me crazy that I spent what feels like years of my schooling being forced to outline, use Cornell notes, and otherwise take notes in class. I have nightmares of sitting in a crowded classroom, being forced to copy pages of notes from physical science, written on the chalkboard in my teacher’s tiny handwriting.  We would sometimes spend the better part of a week just copying the notes she came up with.  Then I would go home and study for the test from those notes.  I never interacted with the text, I never made meaning out of it.  And that’s probably why I can’t remember much from middle school science! It’s also why I avoid taking notes today.

Don’t get me wrong.  I do take notes, whenever I attend a conference or workshop.  But I create notes.  I don’t take them.

Create vs. take.

What’s the difference?


When I create notes I sketch, use words, doodle, and make connections.  I don’t worry about copying down every slide or asking the presenter to repeat the

jQuery Summit Notes

jQuery Summit Notes (Photo credit: Robert Banh)

statistics they said a minute ago, which I missed because I was trying to copy down every word they said verbatim. It’s not that notes don’t work. Note taking is an effective strategy to increase’ recall, comprehension, and retention of material (Kneale, 1998). It also produces a deeper analysis of the material than reading without note taking(Czarnecki et al., 1998).  But my anecdotal evidence and my own experience shows that visual note taking produces even deeper analysis of the material and more interaction with it.

I started sketchnoting a few years ago, without realizing that what I was doing had a name.  I didn’t realize other people did it until I started following TED conferences through Twitter and blogs.  Then TED started sharing the notes from various conferences on Pinterest and I was hooked.

I love sketch noting or visual note-taking because I feel like I am curating information rather than doing rote copying.  I think about the information and I make connections.  I started wondering why this format of notes works for me when traditional notes don’t (and research shows that I am not the only who doesn’t learn by copying notes).  My wondering led me to a TED talk from Tom Wujec, a Fellow at AutoDesk, who asked, ” What is it about animation, graphics, illustrations, that create meaning?”  He concluded that the brain makes meaning three ways and that there are important lessons in these visual curations.

First, use images to clarify what we’re trying to communicate. Secondly make those images interactive so that we engage much more fully.And the third is to augment memoryby creating a visual persistence

And that’s when I had my “Eureka!” moment.  Why don’t we teach kids how to do this?  Shouldn’t they be making meaning out of their lessons rather than just copying what someone else says?  Don’t we want students to engage with information and interact with it? And why do so many teachers scold students for doodling when it could be their saving grace?  This led me to do more research on doodling and the brain, and I discovered a fabulous article written by pre-eminent doodler Sunni Brown.  In “The Miseducation of the Doodle” she discusses the metacognitive benefits of doodling and encourages us to try it.  I took it one step further and began designing a unit around visual note-taking.

Sunni Brown begins her article it the story of Virginia Scofield, a celebrated immunologist credited with some of the biggest advances in the study of HIV, who almost didn’t make it out of organic chemistry.  Now let me tell you, I had a lot of friends who took organic chem in college and I did not envy them at all.  It was the type of class where they studied for days on end and would be thrilled to get a 45 on the test.  Then that 45 would be curved to a B after looking at the class average.  So when I read that Dr. Scofield struggled with the class, I understood why.  And I explained this to my STEM students.  Most of them will take orgo, or an equivalent class, and sometimes reading your notes and the highlighted portion of the textbook just doesn’t work.  Dr. Scofield began drawing the concepts in the class and she soon aced the tests.  Doodling works.  And we need to teach students how to doodle constructively.

So for the past few weeks we have been watching TED talks in class and at home, experimenting with sketch notes.  My students started with the visual alphabet and sketches, and we have no advanced to adding frames, connectors, and color.  They watch TED talks, choosing any one that interests them, and they create a sheet of notes to share with the class.  It can be a struggle at first, because they are so used to traditional note-taking.  But  doodling unifies the three major learning modes: visual, auditory and kinesthetic.  Students stay engaged and focused while playing and innovating.

And that’s the point, right?  I’ve been doing a lot of reading about the importance of play lately, and how it leads to creativity and innovation.  Too many students come to me afraid of failing, afraid of trying anything new.  They want to know how to “get an A+” and not “how do I learn more about this?”.  As Bruce Nussbaum says in ‘How Serious Play Leads To Breakthrough Innovation‘, “When we play, we try things on and try things out.”  Visual note-taking allows students to play with ideas, to play with knowledge, and to play with connections.  The material becomes more meaningful and they connect with it on a deeper level.

One of my favorite activities in my unit is a collaborative sketch noting activity.  The students watch a TED talk together and take their own visual notes.  Then, the room is divided in half and each group gets their own whiteboard.  They get ten minutes to combine their individual notes into one collaborative sketch note on the whiteboard.  It’s so cool!  They talk deeply about the topic at hand and the results are always great.  Below are some shots from this year.


(last year’s post)

We are about halfway through our unit this year and I am loving the results so far.  The students are engaged and enthusiastic and they are taking more and more risks with each assignment.  Eventually we will work up to making infographics (making meaning with visuals in another way!), but I’m content with sketch noting right now.  I can’t imagine not doing this unit and I wish I had done it with my 6th graders when I taught middle school.

Do you sketch note?  Would you be willing to try visual note-taking in our classroom?  I’d love to know!

Resources I Use:

Speak Now: Note-taking at TED

The Sketchnote Handbook by Mike Rohde

The Miseducation of the Doodle by Sunni Brown

4 Responses

  1. Serendipity! As this came to my mailbox I was designing an online lesson on visualization for nonfiction/informative text and had just finished the slides for “visualizing” difficult/dense text as a thinking map/graphic to help remember the info! Love it when that happens. Great post–and good ideas! (I remember being graded on the notes I had to take in 8th grade science and getting marked down because I couldn’t take notes in an outline format–he didn’t talk in an outline format!!)

  2. This is fascinating. Will forward to friends. PS–For students afraid of failing, you might want to check out MINDSET, by Carol Dweck.

  3. […] This week in my blog-o-sphere, I came across this post from The Reading Zone.  An answer to the essential education question — how do they learn?!  Of course, there’s no way to make our pupils take the education we give them and catch hold of it, but I tend to disagree with the idea that it’s only a matter of teaching new note-taking strategies.  Cornell Notes, concept maps, skeleton notes, double-entry diaries…none of them have worked for me.  I’ve always known how to learn, but just writing things repeatedly wasn’t the trick.  The trick was to connect thoughts and lessons to images, ideas, sounds, feelings, etc.  Learning doesn’t take place on paper, it occurs in an environment.  It’s an engagement that occurs actively, and The Reading Zone here seeks to explain why we should teach with No More Notes! […]

  4. Great idea that I need to incorporate into my 5/6 grade history classes!

    It just makes sense doesn’t it?


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