Opinion
Education Opinion

The Power of Visual Notetaking

By Sherrill Knezel — December 28, 2016 5 min read
BRIC ARCHIVE
  • Save to favorites
  • Print

As teachers, we may never know the breadth or depth of impact we have on our students, but sometimes we are fortunate enough to learn that we have shared something valuable with our colleagues. It is even more exciting to find out that a colleague has, in turn, shared that technique or tool with her students.

I have been a passionate advocate for visual notetaking in the classroom since I stumbled upon author and designer Mike Rohde’s book, The Sketchnote Handbook, about two years ago. As an elementary art specialist, I saw that, after incorporating the book’s techniques into my classroom, using simple images to synthesize content and demonstrate understanding came naturally to students. Kids learn to draw before they write, and pictures are how they make sense of the world.

A previous generation referred to this form of notetaking as doodling, but that is starting to change. One reason this effective tool—which uses a combination of images and text to make meaning of verbal or text-based information—hasn’t made its way into many teachers’ hands is that the data-driven testing craze has usurped the time and energy to explore or try any new creative literacy strategies. With new math and reading curricula rolled out frequently, districts barely have time to train teachers the basics, much less explore creative literacy tools.

BRIC ARCHIVE

I decided to affect change within my immediate circle of influence and utilize these visual skills on a daily basis with my elementary art students. For the past two years, I have offered professional development workshops on visual notetaking and literacy to colleagues in my district to increase awareness of this literacy tool. These collaborations span across content areas and grade levels—with teachers in special education, teachers in social studies, and teachers in elementary through high school.

The Science of Memory

The success of visual notetaking is backed by science. The Picture Superiority Effect refers to the phenomenon that we remember pictures better and longer than words or text. If students read text alone, three days later they only remember 10 percent of the information—but adding a picture to the text increases recall to 65 percent. And dual-coding theory says that our brains process and store visual information differently than verbal or text-based information. When students use images and text in notetaking, it gives them two different ways to pull up the information, doubling their chances of recall.

Yet, when I first learned about visual notes, a teacher in my building made a student redo multiple worksheets for “doodling” in the margins, and other students would echo that they would get in trouble with their teacher for drawing.

Why aren’t more teachers providing students with this option? And just as importantly, why are students actually being reprimanded for their natural instinct to record ideas visually?

See Also: The Benefits of Using Doodling and Sketchnotes in the Classroom (Opinion)

A Picture Is Worth a Thousand Words

One recent experience helped me realize the powerful ripple effect of teacher leadership and collaboration. I met Ms. G., who teaches English at the Juvenile Detention Center in Wauwatosa, Wis., during a notetaking workshop I led this summer. She invited me to her classroom to teach her students the technique in a simple way.

A dozen teenagers settled in and opened Beverley Naidoo’s Out Of Bounds, an anthology of short stories about apartheid. For this class, they would read aloud and draw out the storyline on whiteboards. Ms. G. gently encouraged students—there were all levels of reading ability, ranging from elementary to high school—when they stumbled on a name or difficult word. When she stopped the reader, she asked, “What just happened, and what pictures could we draw to show that?”

In notes left on the board from the previous class, I could see that Ms. G. taught her students several techniques from my workshop. They had gotten the hang of using literal images to communicate complex concepts and emotions. They had made effective use of stick figures to show relationships between characters and used words and arrows to add clarity and meaning to their drawings. They had even used different fonts to stress the importance of main concepts and word bubbles to show who was saying what or to give meaning or detail to an idea.

BRIC ARCHIVE

For those 45 minutes, the marker became a transfer of power and a voice in the classroom. Most of the students offered to read a section of the book out loud or suggested visuals that would bring life to the text. Personal expression, demonstration of comprehension, and confident engagement were visible through a dry-erase marker. Students who would have not been able to engage with the text in other ways could still do so through the drawings used to represent concepts. Developing visual vocabulary is just like increasing verbal or textual vocabulary—it takes practice to move it into working memory.

Visualizing Success

The class left me with a reminder that visual notetaking could have infinite possibilities for so many students—minority students, students on the autistic spectrum, students with dysgraphia or dyslexia, English-language learners—if we could just put this tool into their toolboxes as another means to demonstrate their understanding.

Can a simple literacy tool like visual notetaking support learning in the classroom and even increase personal agency for incarcerated students who struggle academically? Ms. G. provides proof: Since that first class, she has used visual notes as an integral part of helping her students learn vocabulary from the books they read and give students the option to respond to a writing prompt with a visual answer first to help them think more deeply and communicate more clearly. One English-language learner who struggled with written definitions of vocabulary drew out his understanding and was able to visually communicate the definitions correctly.

BRIC ARCHIVE

When teaching students to use visual notes, it is so important to foster a safe space for students to take risks and try. In workshops, I find that the main obstacle for teachers is their fear of drawing. Teachers use the “but-I-can’t-even-draw-a-stick-figure” excuse, but I encourage them and let them know that it is actually better if they draw poorly because it isn’t about art—it is about ideas. If a teacher is brave enough to step up to the board and draw poorly while still communicating what she needs to relay, it gives students permission to do the same.

The author Margaret J. Wheatly writes, “A leader is one who ... has more faith in people than they do, and ... who holds opportunities open long enough for their competence to re-emerge.” This is true for teacher and student leadership as well. We should strive to show our students and colleagues that we will hold space for them until their competence and creativity emerge. Visual notetaking is one small but powerful way to enable students—and their teachers—to take the lead.

Images provided by the author.


Commenting has been disabled on edweek.org effective Sept. 8. Please visit our FAQ section for more details. To get in touch with us visit our contact page, follow us on social media, or submit a Letter to the Editor.


Events

This content is provided by our sponsor. It is not written by and does not necessarily reflect the views of Education Week's editorial staff.
Sponsor
Teaching Webinar
What’s Next for Teaching and Learning? Key Trends for the New School Year
The past 18 months changed the face of education forever, leaving teachers, students, and families to adapt to unprecedented challenges in teaching and learning. As we enter the third school year affected by the pandemic—and
Content provided by Instructure
This content is provided by our sponsor. It is not written by and does not necessarily reflect the views of Education Week's editorial staff.
Sponsor
Curriculum Webinar
How Data and Digital Curriculum Can Drive Personalized Instruction
As we return from an abnormal year, it’s an educator’s top priority to make sure the lessons learned under adversity positively impact students during the new school year. Digital curriculum has emerged from the pandemic
Content provided by Kiddom
This content is provided by our sponsor. It is not written by and does not necessarily reflect the views of Education Week's editorial staff.
Sponsor
Equity & Diversity Webinar
Leadership for Racial Equity in Schools and Beyond
While the COVID-19 pandemic continues to reveal systemic racial disparities in educational opportunity, there are revelations to which we can and must respond. Through conscientious efforts, using an intentional focus on race, school leaders can
Content provided by Corwin

EdWeek Top School Jobs

Teacher Jobs
Search over ten thousand teaching jobs nationwide — elementary, middle, high school and more.
View Jobs
Principal Jobs
Find hundreds of jobs for principals, assistant principals, and other school leadership roles.
View Jobs
Administrator Jobs
Over a thousand district-level jobs: superintendents, directors, more.
View Jobs
Support Staff Jobs
Search thousands of jobs, from paraprofessionals to counselors and more.
View Jobs

Read Next

Education More States Are Requiring Schools to Teach Native American History and Culture
Advocates say their efforts have gained some momentum with the nation’s reckoning over racial injustice since the killing of George Floyd.
3 min read
A dancer participates in an intertribal dance at Schemitzun on the Mashantucket Pequot Reservation in Mashantucket, Conn., Saturday, Aug. 28, 2021. Connecticut and a handful of other states have recently decided to mandate students be taught about Native American culture and history. (AP Photo/Jessica Hill)
Education Judge's Temporary Order Allows Iowa Schools to Mandate Masks
A federal judge ordered the state to immediately halt enforcement of a law that prevents school boards from ordering masks to be worn.
4 min read
Iowa Gov. Kim Reynolds speaks to reporters following a news conference, Thursday, Aug. 19, 2021, in West Des Moines, Iowa. Reynolds lashed out at President Joe Biden Thursday after he ordered his education secretary to explore possible legal action against states that have blocked school mask mandates and other public health measures meant to protect students against COVID-19. Reynolds, a Republican, has signed a bill into law that prohibits school officials from requiring masks, raising concerns as delta variant virus cases climb across the state and schools resume classes soon. (AP Photo/Charlie Neibergall)
Education Hurricane Ida Deals New Blow to Louisiana Schools Struggling to Reopen
The opening of the school year offered teachers a chance to fully assess the pandemic's effects, only to have students forced out again.
8 min read
Six-year-old Mary-Louise Lacobon sits on a fallen tree beside the remnants of her family's home destroyed by Hurricane Ida, in Dulac, La., on Sept. 4, 2021. Louisiana students, who were back in class after a year and a half of COVID-19 disruptions kept many of them at home, are now missing school again after Hurricane Ida. A quarter-million public school students statewide have no school to report to, though top educators are promising a return is, at most, weeks away, not months.
Six-year-old Mary-Louise Lacobon sits on a fallen tree beside the remnants of her family's home destroyed by Hurricane Ida, in Dulac, La., on Sept. 4, 2021.
John Locher/AP
Education Massachusetts National Guard to Help With Busing Students to School
250 guard personnel will be available to serve as drivers of school transport vans, as districts nationwide struggle to hire enough drivers.
1 min read
Massachusetts National Guard soldiers help with logistics in this Friday, April 17, 2020 file photo, at a food distribution site outside City Hall, in Chelsea, Mass. Mass. Gov. Charlie Baker on Monday, Sept. 13, 2021, activated the state's National Guard to help with busing students to school as districts across the country struggle to hire enough drivers.
Massachusetts National Guard soldiers help with logistics in this Friday, April 17, 2020 file photo, at a food distribution site outside City Hall, in Chelsea, Mass.
Michael Dwyer/AP