Education CTQ Collaboratory

Visual Notetaking in the Classroom

By Wendi Pillars — September 24, 2013 4 min read
  • Save to favorites
  • Print

Ever heard of the “affect heuristic”? Short version: How we feel is how we think. Positive feelings lead to higher motivation and willingness to try new things.

I’ve never been a doodler but I sketch frequently in class to aid comprehension. The kids laugh at my silly drawings but also learn from them. I began to wonder: How could I build on that joy?

I decided to learn more about visual notetaking (also known as graphic visualization or sketchnoting) and began practicing at home. Yes, practicing. Building my own “visual library” has been oh-so-helpful—a creative activity that keeps me thinking about the best ideas to represent in the curriculum.

During our plant unit, student-directed drawings of important concepts served as a helpful reference that we built upon each day. —Wendi Pillars

Rewiring the Brain

Sure, I could sketch concepts in advance. It would be expedient—and more polished.

But instead, I started drawing in class more frequently: sketchnoting while we were reading complex ideas and sequences out loud, while we were learning vocabulary. I even built these “visual moments” into bigger sketches in front of the kids. Near-instant synthesis! The kids were gloriously engaged and interested.

There was just one problem: I was learning more than my students.

Thinking in metaphors. Viewing content through a new lens. My retrieval and consolidation of information were improving, the connections easier to create. Here was neuroplasticity in its finest form—my brain was learning new skills quickly, rewiring neural connections as I changed my habits of thought.

Getting Started With Visual Notetaking

Visual notetaking was making me think differently. But shouldn’t my students be experiencing that cognitive stretch, too? Here’s my advice on how to scaffold this, helping students use quick sketches to synthesize and summarize:

A sketch in progress as my 3rd grade ELL students learned about North Carolina's native peoples. —Wendi Pillars

While reading together, stop at predetermined places and briefly discuss how you could visualize that part of the story or passage. Yes, it’s merely a simple twist on “what just happened?"—a time to gauge comprehension. But it’s also an opportunity to incorporate discussion etiquette, build on others’ ideas, and draw conclusions (pun intended).

Begin with simple sketches kids “direct.” You draw, but elicit input from your students. Talk about the best way to encapsulate an event, a feeling, or other point of focus.

Let your students see you make mistakes or draw imperfectly. This gives them permission to do the same. Conjuring up visual metaphors is not easy; it requires us to tap deeper into our imaginations and link ideas together into larger patterns. Constructing the “big picture” interactively, in the moment, is challenging.

It's always exciting to have a real author visit our school! Later, reviewing the event, visual notes sparked memories. —Wendi Pillars

Some students will be ready to sketch independently, so offer opportunities to do so after the group discussion. A one-minute time limit discourages perfection while encouraging an immediate and reflexive response. It’s crucial to let students know that craft matters far less than concept here. Emphasize the essence of the sketch over artistic detail and, if you add an oral component, focus on the act of summarizing over perfect grammar.

Invite those who are struggling to copy your sketches. The act of copying may not be creative but it allows students the benefits of processing time and helps them gain confidence.

Advanced Practice

Limit drawing space. Depending on the number of stop-and-draw points I’ve planned for a class, I sometimes ask students to fold their papers into four, six, or eight squares. The limited space is far less daunting than a full sheet of blank whiteness—and keeps our lessons on track.

Ask students to explain. Extend and cement students’ learning by asking them to write brief sentences about their visual notetaking and to share out loud with a partner or the group.

Use graphic visualization as a strategy for mindful engagement. Reel students in for one-minute thinking rallies, as a scaffolding tool for muddling through tough ideas and as a transition or change of pace.

Learn from what they produce. My students surprised me, conjuring images as if they’d always done it. For many, visual assignments were their “way in” to the content. Listening to their discussions of details demonstrated their critical-thinking skills were more advanced than I’d realized—and I could better help them transfer these skills into writing and verbal communication.

Why Does This Work?

ELLs summarized major sections of The One and Only Ivan by Katherine Applegate in visuals and sentences. —Wendi Pillars

What characteristics make visual notetaking such a powerful approach? The “armchair neuroscientist” in me can explain the benefits:

  • Holism. It exercises students’ kinesthetic, auditory, linguistic, and verbal modalities.
  • Feedback. Visuals offer tangible, immediate insight that teachers can use to gauge and build upon comprehension.
  • Chemical changes. It can generate a much-needed dopamine surge for pleasure, oxytocin surge due to love and trust that undergirds success, and a decrease in cortisol associated with stress.
  • Connectivity. Ideas filtered through visual notes leap off the page and nourish the brain’s love for connections, imagery, and storytelling.
  • Fun. Big-picture comprehension. Deep thinking and imagining. Synthesizing information. Cerebral satisfaction. A “brain break.” A chance to revisit content. Listening. Laughing.

Visual notetaking wraps up all kinds of critical thinking, synthesizing, and problem-solving goodness! What are you waiting for? Start drawing!


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.
Student Well-Being Webinar
A Whole Child Approach to Supporting Positive Student Behavior 
To improve student behavior, it’s important to look at the root causes. Social-emotional learning may play a preventative role.

A whole child approach can proactively support positive student behaviors.

Join this webinar to learn how.
Content provided by Panorama
Recruitment & Retention Live Online Discussion A Seat at the Table: Why Retaining Education Leaders of Color Is Key for Student Success
Today, in the United States roughly 53 percent of our public school students are young people of color, while approximately 80 percent of the educators who lead their classrooms, schools, and districts are white. Racial
Jobs January 2022 Virtual Career Fair for Teachers and K-12 Staff
Find teaching jobs and other jobs in K-12 education at the EdWeek Top School Jobs virtual career fair.

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 Briefly Stated: January 12, 2022
Here's a look at some recent Education Week articles you may have missed.
8 min read
Education School Bus Driver Retires After 48 Years Behind Wheel
Charles City school bus driver Betty Flick sat behind the wheel for the final time last week, wrapping up a 48-year career for the district.
3 min read
Charles City school bus driver Betty Flick poses with one of her farewell signs. Flick has been driving for Charles City School District for 48 years.
Betty Flick quickly fell in love with the job and with the kids, which is what has had her stay in the district for this long.
Courtesy of Abby Koch/Globe Gazette
Education Briefly Stated: December 1, 2021
Here's a look at some recent Education Week articles you may have missed.
9 min read
Education Briefly Stated: November 17, 2021
Here's a look at some recent Education Week articles you may have missed.
8 min read