“You’ve got multiple things happening in your brain at once,” says visual note taker and educator Wendi Pillars. “You’re not just taking words and writing them down because you also have to hold what you want to write and draw while you’re listening.”
How to get started with sketchnoting
Like all new skills, using sketchnoting as a tool to actively engage with classroom information takes a bit of practice for teachers and students alike.
“I always love to start with scribbling. That’s the groundwork for students,” says Berman who likes to focus on how art can access students’ emotions. He uses the scribbling exercise as a way to check in with students at the beginning of his classes, often having students scribble for the duration of a song and inviting them to put their creations up to the camera when they’re finished.
For teachers who are new to visual thinking, Pillars recommends that they identify ten key words or concepts in their lesson plans or week-long unit.
“Take those ten words and create your little visual library. And then, instead of a bullet point or maybe even at the top of your notes for that week, you have one icon or one little sketch,” she says. “It’ll already look different.”
Teachers don’t need to come up with a visual library on their own either. They can crowdsource the class’s insights by putting students into groups and asking them to come up with drawings that represent main concepts. “It gets their juices flowing,” says Pillars. “And then you have a co-created visual vocabulary that everybody can refer to when they take their own notes during that session of the unit.”
To get students more comfortable with sketchnoting, Pillars starts with audio. For example, she uses a scaffolding exercise to encourage students to translate what they hear into cohesive visual notes. First, she has the class listen only to the audio of a video (about ten minutes long) and write down ten key words without illustrating at all. Then, she’ll play the audio again, this time allowing students to add visuals and connect their ideas. Lastly, she’ll have the students watch the full video, so students can compare any images they may have drawn with the visuals they see the speaker used in their presentation.
“The number one skill is listening,” says Pillars. “It’s being able to focus and listen in a different way when you don’t have those physical cues of letters and highlighted information. You’re listening first and then from there you have to distinguish, ‘OK, well, what’s important and why do I think that?’”
After her students have become more comfortable with visual note taking, it’s common for Pillars and her class to take notes simultaneously with Pillars piecing together sheets of paper on the whiteboard or beneath her overhead camera during distance learning and students creating their own individual notes.
“As we take the notes together, I will ask students, ‘How would you represent it?’ And they’ll shout out ideas like, ‘You could draw this or this!’ And sometimes I tell them ‘I can’t draw that! You want to come on up here and show them?’”
Sketchnotes can be a “stealth check-in”
Teaching over Zoom makes it difficult to know whether students are really paying attention. In lieu of walking around the classroom to look over students’ shoulders, teachers with remote learners can ask students to hold up their sketchnotes to the camera to get insight into whether they are understanding new concepts. Pillars refers to this as a “stealth check-in” because students who tend to keep their videos off often feel more comfortable turning on their cameras periodically to show their sketchnotes.
“One of the benefits is having everybody on the same page, literally and figuratively,” says Pillars.
Alternatively, students can also create sketchnotes collaboratively with their peers to help each other understand new material. “There are days where I’ll have kids go into breakout rooms and one person has to create a visual for the group. That way they’re talking about it,” says Pillars. “They can come back with their synthesis of the information.”
Permission to think differently
Sketchnoting allows both teachers and students to see the nuances in how people process the same information.
“If I give you instructions or if I give you information, I’m going to assume that everybody heard it the same way. And one of the most magical outcomes of creating visual notes is that everybody has the same exact input and everybody’s output looks so different,” Pillars explains.
Inviting students to interpret key concepts and make different connections gives students more agency over their learning. With sketchnoting, there’s more freedom to explore note taking techniques that work for their specific learning needs. Pillars notes that when learners see their decisions leading to better recall and retention of information it builds their confidence.
“It’s giving them permission to say, ‘You know what? Here’s the key concept. Here’s the key information.’” she says. “And knowing that, ‘OK, if I get the basic information right, however I express it or make those connections is what’s important.’”