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

Doodle storming #TED2012 in the Classroom

A few weeks ago I did a unit on visual note-taking with my students.  I’ve been fascinated by visual notes (or #viznotes, sketchnotes, etc) for a few months now and I think they are a great way for students to get engaged with lectures.  I looked at a lot of examples and realized that TED talks were the perfect entrance into visual notetaking.  My students started by looking at examples of visual notes and then trying their own while we listened to a TED talk in class.  Then, for the next week or so they chose a TED talk to watch for homework each night and completed at least a page of visual notes.

THIS WAS AWESOME.  My kids had the opportunity to watch at least 10 TED talks about subjects they were passionate about. They started sharing TED talks and making recommendations to me and their classmates.  My more visual learners excelled at sketch notes and were great about helping their classmates. And those, like me, who aren’t artistic?  They also had a great time stretching their brains and trying something new. You don’t need to be an artist to take visual notes- you just need to be willing to try something new.

Towards the end of the unit I had the students watch Peter Diamandis’ TED talk from TED 2012: Full Spectrum.  They watched Abundance is Our Future in silence, taking their own notes.  Then, I had them collaborate on our whiteboards, coming up with one class set of notes.  It was a great experience and one I highly recommend!  Below are the results.



Some resources on visual notes/notetaking:


Learning to Take Risks- Jumping into Literary Analysis With My Freshman

A few weeks ago, I participated in the English Companion Ning‘s Webstitute “Work with Me”. (By the way, if you teach English and are not yet a member of the Ning, get yourself over there ASAP and sign up. It is free and full of ideas, networking, and just plain fun.) The best session in the webstitute, for me, was Penny Kittle’s “Craft Analysis”.  This year, I have been struggling to get my freshman to take risks in their writing.  I teach at a math, science, and technology magnet-like school and all of my students are brilliant.  However, many of them are very analytical and black-and-white when it comes to writing.  They tend to write a lot of plot summary and avoid any type of analysis.  I figured out that they were afraid of being wrong and losing points, but nothing I tried was working- they were still regurgitating plot and not analyzing and thinking on their own.

Lately, I have also been reading a lot about our students’ deficits with close, deeper reading.  (Too Dumb for Complex Texts?)  Colleges have been lamenting that students are unable to read complex texts and end up in remedial courses.  I want to make sure that my tech-driven students are readers who are ready for the rigors of the rest of high school and college.  I have spent weeks (maybe even months!) brainstorming ways to bring this to the forefront in my classroom, too.

Then I participated in Penny’s portion of the webstitute.  She shared a craft analysis project that she did with her students and I was immediately inspired.  It was exactly what I had been trying to come up with, but had been unable to pull together in any type of organized manner.  Penny was kind enough to share her handouts and I immediately downloaded them.  Over the past few weeks I have been working on tweaking the project for my particular students while also working through the project myself, in order to model it for them.  I am rereading Judy Blundell’s National Book Award winner, What I Saw And How I Lied. I’ve storyboarded about half the book while also writing my thoughts, noticings, and questions. It’s really made me work hard and notice Blundell’s craft moves, things that didn’t jump put at me on my first-draft reading. I was so excited to share this with my students and see what they came up. This past week, we started the project.

I am so thrilled with what is happening in my classroom right now!  We started with storyboarding earlier this week and it really clicked with my kids.  While they were hesitant at first (rolling eyes, mumbling about how it was for little kids), it was fascinating to watch them storyboard William Maxwell’s “Love” and then share their pages with the class.  Not one page looked like any other student’s page.  They all thought differently and displayed their ideas differently.  It was so cool to see them standing at the document camera and explaining their thinking, engaging each other. Later in the week, one of my students met me at lunch for some writing tips/help and he told me that storyboarding is really helping him because, “it’s making me stop and think a lot, and when I think about the story it’s easier to have ideas about it. Then I don’t have to just write what it’s about.”

Right now, each student should be working on storyboarding the book(s) they chose to reread.  I had each student respond to an assignment on Edmodo telling me what book they would be analyzing.  They picked some great ones!  Examples include The Book Thief, The Shadow Children series, Between Shades of Grey, The Knife of Never Letting Go, The Thief, Impulse, Paper Towns, The Hunger Games, And Then There Were None, Ender’s Game, Twelfth Night, Of Mice and Men, The Outsiders, Thirteen Reasons Why, North of Beautiful, and so many more great books!

Next week, I will have them working on the project in-class one day, sharing their craft noticings with other readers and comparing their books.  I am dying to know what they are coming up with and I can’t wait to see their storyboard notebooks.  I will be sure to share their progress here!  By the first week in March, each student will produce for me a 2-page paper analyzing the author’s craft and sharing their analysis with me.  Absolutely no plot summary is allowed!  They will use their text notes/storyboarding to draft the paper, along with any notes they take from their peer discussions.  They will share drafts with each other on Google Docs/, assisting one another.  Spending the next four weeks doing this will hopefully help them to become better risk-takers in their writing.  I am so looking forward to the results!