Shelley Paul and Jill Gough had heard that doodling while taking notes could help improve memory and concept retention, but as instructional coaches they were reluctant to bring the idea to teachers without trying it out themselves first.

To give it a fair shot, Paul tried sketching all her notes from a two-day conference. By the end, her drawings had improved and she was convinced the approach could work for kids, too.

“It causes you to listen at a different level,” said Jill Gough, director of teaching and learning at Trinity Schools. Doodling has long been seen as a sign that students aren’t paying attention. But it may be time to give doodling an image makeover.

Paul and Gough began introducing the idea to teachers at their school slowly. A group would meet before school and listen to a TED talk, trying to sketch the big ideas. They would then share their drawings with one another and talk about why and how they represented ideas. Understanding that it’s important to model risk-taking for both teachers and students, Paul next tried taking sketchnotes in high school-level classes.

“I sat through two 45-minute lectures in high school social studies and not only was I super focused because I was doodling, I could also basically give the lecture afterwards,” said Paul, who is director of learning design at Woodward Academy. “And if I look at the doodle again today for three to four minutes, I can basically remember it all again.”

These experiences convinced Paul and Gough that something powerful happens when auditory learning is transposed into images. It didn’t take much to excite students about the idea.

“It really is amazing how much, with just a tiny bit of introduction, most kids will take to it,” Paul said.

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Teachers were more skeptical at first, but the approach and its results slowly won many of them over. A fifth-grade science teacher at Trinity was convinced when a student left his understanding of how magnets work on her desk — a sheet of paper covered in drawings.

“What they can produce is beautiful and it makes them better listeners,” Gough said.

The practice also makes student learning visible and provides a valuable formative assessment tool. If a student sketches an interesting side note in the lesson, but misses the big themes, that will show up in her drawing. And when students share their drawings with one another, they have the chance to fill in the gaps in their knowledge, and drawings, while discussing the key ideas. Going over the drawings also solidifies the information for students.

“We’re using the collective brain to deepen all of our learning,” Paul said.

BASED IN NEUROSCIENCE

While doodling has often been seen as frivolous at best and distracting at worst, the idea of sketchnoting has grounding in neuroscience research about how to improve memory. When ideas and related concepts can be encapsulated in an image, the brain remembers the information associated with that image. William Klemm, a professor of neuroscience at Texas A&M University, says the process is akin to a zip file.

“This is a way to get your working memory to carry more,” Klemm said at a Learning and the Brain conference in San Francisco.

A ninth-grader's doodle of a discussion about Mark Antony's rhetorical strategies in Act 3 of 'Julius Caesar.'(Courtesy of Shelley Paul)
A ninth-grader’s doodle of a discussion about Mark Antony’s rhetorical strategies in Act 3 of ‘Julius Caesar.'(Courtesy of Shelley Paul)

Klemm advocates thinking in images and stringing them together into what he calls “story chains,” to vastly improve how much students can remember. Sketching notes makes these story chains visible and tangible.

“Teachers were amazed at the depth and diversity of what the kids produce, even the first time we tried this,” Paul said.

Gough and Paul were originally inspired by Sunni Brown’s TED Talk, in which she tries to convince listeners that drawing plays a central role in learning. Later the two educators took Brown’s webinar, which helped give them useful tricks and, most importantly, the license to mess up, share their failures and keep practicing.

And, while students take copious notes, they may not be retaining much of what they write down. When a student doodles, on the other hand, he is synthesizing the information, making choices about what’s important and encoding the memory in a new way.

“If we draw or sketch, that’s activating the visual pathway, so we’re using our audio senses to take in information. But our output is visual, so there isn’t that traffic jam,” Gough said.

It can be hard to sketchnote in real time and keep up with the flow of a lectures. But even that isn’t all bad. “Even the things you cut get attached to the things you did choose because you can take yourself back to that choice,” Paul said. The two educators have also experimented with using little sketches as ways to take notes in the margins of books.

DOODLING IN THE DIGITAL AGE

It may seem like doodling will become a thing of the past as schools increasingly move towards digital textbooks and notetaking. But Gough and Paul say there are always ways to adapt the practice and new affordances that technology can offer. Since many public school students can’t write in their paper textbooks anyway, perhaps they can sketch when they take notes virtually. Sketching with a stylus on a tablet, for example, could also offer some interesting new avenues for color and design that pen and paper don’t.

More than anything, Paul and Gough want to offer multiple entry points for students to access learning. While doodling works for some kids, it might not for others and that’s fine. What’s most important is that teachers allow for variation in learning styles, even when it is unfamiliar to them.

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“If we are going to model lifelong learning for and with children and our colleagues, sometimes we have to be uncomfortable and try it,” Gough said.

Sketchnoting has become an important learning tool for these two educators, but they say it was just as important to practice public risk-taking.

Both women tweeted out their sketches from the very beginning — a scary thing to do when the first pictures were mostly stick figures running off the page, but one that immediately helped generate support from other doodlers. Now Paul and Gough regularly share both their own drawings and their students’ work and growth.

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Making Learning Visible: Doodling Helps Memories Stick 2 June,2016Katrina Schwartz

  • A very interesting and unique concept! I work in an elementary school and I wonder how this idea would apply to kindergarten through 4th graders. It is certainly something to consider.

  • Indrani Wikk

    I have given opportunity to my home school son , to sketch while teaching him maths and reading. He did a marvolus job he started sketch pictures that is unbeliveable . I completely agree with this Learning tool

  • Chev

    Sketching is definitely a good idea. I would go further and pause at certain points in teaching a lesson to allow the students to do a a sketch. I would also direct them to sketch particularly important concepts. (I.e “draw a sketch of the 3 layers of skin and each of their functions.)

    Pausing would allow them a moment to sythesize their thoughts. Also it would make sure they were able to focus their attention on the next concept since they wouldnt be focusing on drawing out the last one.

  • Dan Weinstein

    Yes! My teaching career is devoted to visual notes and mind mapping. Check out my website for a ton more info and samples: http://www.thecreativitycore.com

  • Lisa W

    Seriously? This had to be developed, tested, and then named “sketchnoting”, like it’s some revolutionary new technique? We took notes like this way back when.

  • rc2121

    Have taught many undergrads. I’ve co-taught with teachers who forbid any type of notetaking since they didn’t want students to stress about remembering details, unaware that for some people – doodling/notetaking makes it easier to “tune in” and stay interested in the conversation. Have had students who have taken verbatim notes, others who doodle, some who audio record (with permission) then listen to it later. Recognizing that students can use external tools, signs, notes, activities to help them focus is really important as a teacher instead of stressing a “one approach for all.”

    I personally listen and “tune in” to meetings and conferences better when I can keep my hands active. Doodling, notes, even crocheting/knitting all help me immensely.

  • Mary Lund

    I always allowed students to doodle. I knew they needed this outlet….this changed with the new teacher evaluation system that went in place. Suddenly administration could walk into a classroom and give a teacher feedback about your teaching that WOULD state…23 kids where engaged with the teaching and two students were drawing pictures as you taught. That said…”HOW many administrators have doodled during an inservice and how many have checked their phones. This is sooo wrong on so many levels.I am now retired.

  • Mary Lund

    Every child is different- we all take in information in different ways..this is what is expected…We need to quit telling teachers how to teach. They are professionals and know their content.

  • bonydutch

    My school notes were covered in doodles – not actually related to the class topic, but anything I felt like doodling. Words, names, shapes. Even now my kids catch me doodling. I never made it such an “intentional act to help learn”, but I always felt it did keep me mentally awake enough to listen rather than dozing off.

  • Marvin D. Hernandez

    “And if I look at the doodle again today for three to four minutes, I can basically remember it all again.”
    ‘… I could also basically give the lecture afterwards.’

    I looked at the samples provided in this article and I am not at all confident I could reconstruct the lecture or pass an exam. Using doodles in lecture notes is a great idea, but what is lacking is how different doodles in a sketch are connected to each other or even a sense of the order the ideas were presented. In short, the sketches lack structure.

  • Shirley Kroneman Crippen

    Knowing that dyslexia is technically a language based disability, this makes perfect sense!! I am a speech pathologist that has several students with dysnomia, and most also have dyslexia. I frequently have them doodle their thoughts when trying to recall information, and it ALWAYS works! I have been looking for connections to link dyslexia and dysnomia, and this article is a perfect link! Thank you! I’ve already shared this article with a mother of one of my students!.

  • I love this idea. Lines up with universal design for learning http://www.thinkinclusive.us/flexible-pathways-to-success-universal-design-for-learning/#sthash.d5vWDKmF.gkPLKGlw.dpbs and building on students’ strengths. I think allowing students to do this would be greatly beneficial.

  • Moral Max

    I have been looking for connections to link dyslexia and dysnomia, and this article is a perfect link!Casquette NY

  • Is it the doodling or do we need to focus on teaching kids how to approach take notes? This seems similar to the articles that support handwriting over typed notes – http://www.ariyares.com/2016/06/01/do-i-have-to-put-my-laptop-away/

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Author

Katrina Schwartz

Katrina Schwartz is a journalist based in San Francisco. She's worked at KPCC public radio in LA and has reported on air and online for KQED since 2010. She's a staff writer for KQED's education blog MindShift.

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