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The Benefits of Using Doodling and Sketchnotes in the Classroom

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I have always been a doodler, drawing figures and squiggles in the margins as I talk on the phone or sit through a professional-development lecture. It might look like I’m not paying attention, but nothing could be further from the truth.

Doodling while I listen helps me focus; in fact, I find it difficult to focus on audible information if my hands aren’t engaged with pen and paper. But I’d never given serious thought to the educational benefits of doodling until I saw Sunni Brown’s TED Talk Doodlers, Unite! Brown makes a strong case for the benefits and legitimacy of doodling, citing evidence-based as well as anecdotal research. Intrigued, I quickly immersed myself in the topic.

With the help of social media, I discovered Mike Rhode’s Sketchnote Army, myriad online articles at MindShift and Edutopia, and more recently, Wendi Pillars’ new book Visual Note-Taking for Educators. I spent last summer practicing my own doodling and sketchnoting skills, drawing inspiration from the visual note-takers I’d seen at national conferences that seemed to effortlessly capture big ideas on giant canvases while the speaker presented. Their work, similar to the animation in an RSAnimate video of Sir Ken Robinson’s Changing Education Paradigms TED Talk, convinced me that doodling and sketchnoting were powerful learning tools that belonged in my classroom.

It turns out that various forms of doodling have all kinds of benefits for our brains. Doodling is actually a form of mnemonics, connecting images with information and significantly increasing our ability to remember what we’ve learned. In a 2009 study published in Applied Cognitive Psychology, 40 participants were asked to listen to an extremely boring recorded telephone conversation. Half of them were instructed to doodle as they listened, and half were given no such instructions. At the conclusion of the study, people who doodled remembered 29 percent more information than their counterparts who did not doodle.

In 2014, psychologists Pam A. Mueller of Princeton, and Daniel M. Oppenheimer of University of California, Los Angeles, published their research on the benefits of hand writing notes (as opposed to typing them). Their findings indicate that students learn more and retain it longer if they write their notes by hand. Capturing important ideas by hand, whether writing words or creating images, stimulates neural pathways between motor, visual, and cognitive skills. In other words, writing and drawing can make us smarter.

Drawing Lessons

This is my first year including doodling and sketchnoting in my classroom, and it hasn’t always been easy. For one, I never realized how firmly wrong ideas about the purpose of doodling are entrenched, nor did I anticipate getting flak from colleagues who felt I was encouraging students to daydream. Here are a few lessons I’ve learned thus far:

Start slowly. As tempting as it might be, don’t jump into doodling and sketchnoting without first laying a solid foundation. Get comfortable with your own sketching so you can share your work with your students. I make a habit of including images in my note taking at conferences and meetings, which helps me grow and provides an example for my students to follow. I deliberately incorporate opportunities for my students to try doodling and sketchnoting as part of my lesson. It’s easy to make the mistake of introducing something new and then forgetting to give students time to play with it and get comfortable.

Make it fun and stress-free. Anticipating possible student trepidation, I bought inexpensive 4x5” colorful notebooks and boxes of good black ink pens for my classroom. On the first day, I gave each student a notebook and pen, explaining these were theirs and could be used inside—and outside—my classroom. To introduce our new learning strategy, I invited our school’s retired art teacher (an accomplished doodler) to share simple techniques we could use to improve the images we were creating. Engaging “how to” videos on Kathy Shrock’s Guide to Everything site and the Braindoodles site provided even more inspiration (and were easy to link from my class website so students could access the lessons from home).

Expect pushback from students. Often students want to stick with the “tried and true” when they’re presented with a learning strategy that seems risky (i.e., something that has the potential to embarrass them if they “get it wrong”). I believed if I gave my students the opportunity and freedom to be creative, they would embrace it. And some students did just that. But many responded as though I’d ask them to recite Shakespeare in front of strangers. Naked. “I don’t know what to draw,” or “I’m not artistic” were the most typical responses. Other common responses included concern that notes would be incomplete, or they would get in trouble with teachers.

Provide opportunities for students to use their doodles in real time. In my teacher academy (a course for students considering a career in education), students use their doodle skills to play a modified version of Pictionary with academic vocabulary. They enjoy the competitive nature of the game, but more importantly, they know it’s essential to have a strong grasp of the vocabulary concepts in order to play well. If you don’t believe me, try playing Pictionary with terms like formative assessment or operant conditioning without using a single word, only images.

It’s important to note, doodling and sketchnoting are not synonymous. Doodling infers creating repetitive images such as spirals, circles, and boxes, or perhaps stick figures and flowers. It is used primarily to help maintain focus and retain information. Sketchnoting allows the listener to supplement written notes with drawn images to reinforce a key concept or connect big ideas. It can be a great way to synthesize and study written notes, using visuals to recreate and condense pages of notes as you review them.

Sketchnoting and doodles aren’t for everyone. One of my seniors gets reprimanded each time she tries to incorporate sketchnoting in her government course. The images help her remember events and dates for when she’s testing. But her teacher firmly believes she is daydreaming, even though she has asked him to call on her more frequently so she can demonstrate that doodling is the antithesis of daydreaming. Some of my students still prefer traditional note-taking, but I suspect these future educators will not reprimand their own students for doodling.

Understanding the brain science behind doodling will equip my students—the educators of tomorrow—with the ability to differentiate instruction and assessment for their students, whether or not they personally use doodling to learn.

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