by Valentina Gonzalez
Picture your classroom full of students. Are they a homogeneous group? Are they all alike? Do they learn the same way? Do they come with the same educational background? Do they bring the same life experiences? I’m going to guess your answer to those questions was no. In general, our classrooms are filled with students with varied backgrounds and experiences, and in turn, the way they perceive and learn may differ as well.
The Why: Neuroscience Behind Drawing
It can be challenging in a classroom filled with 20-plus varied learning styles to differentiate for each student. But one way to level the playing field is by introducing sketchnotes. Dewan (2015) asserts that “language itself rests on a foundation of visual thinking…” Visuals transcend language barriers and communicate in a way that words cannot. Because our brains are wired to code visuals dually, visuals are easier to recognize, process, and recall (Dewan, 2015). Since images are stored in two areas of the brain, they are more accessible for recall. Words, on the other hand, are singly coded, making them more difficult to remember. Furthermore, research shows that combining images with words increases memory and processing.
In fact researchers Whitehouse, Maybery, and Durkin (2006) found that when given the choice between pictures and print, people are able to recall more information with the aid of pictures. This is called the picture-superiority effect.
In the classroom, this means that teaching students to add drawings, sketches, or illustrations to text that they read or hear can aid their own recall, comprehension, and learning. Fernandes, Wammes, and Meade (2018) recently researched the effects of drawing “to-be-learned” information and came to the conclusion that it did in fact boost performance. They found that drawing promoted “the integration of elaborative, pictorial, and motor codes, facilitating creation of content-rich representation” (2018). Imagine the impact this can have on students’ academic success now and beyond the walls of your classroom. As students add visuals, they are engaged in processing their thinking, clarifying with examples, interpreting information, and more. This strategy is a tool students can take with them for years to come. An added bonus is that sketching and drawing often relieves stress and anxiety.
The How: Sketchnoting with Students
This is not about coloring books and crayons. By no means is the suggestion to give students “busy work” of coloring, cutting, and pasting. The art of combining critical thinking with imagery and placing those two ideas on paper is where the power lives. Some students are more enticed to sketchnoting by the optional use of colored markers and sticky notes, while others just require a simple pencil and paper. I, myself, enjoy both paper and electronic sketching. Either way, color enhances my thought process. I put a great deal of thought into the visual I select for each point I need to convey.
It’s Not About the Artwork
From the beginning, make it clear to students that sketchnoting is about creating purposeful notes that help them understand, remember, and convey important information from their learning. Some students will say that they can’t draw so sketchnoting is not for them. Be sure to encourage and inform them that sketchnotes are not meant to be “professional” works of art. Icons, arrows, stick figures, and basic shapes make excellent sketchnotes additions. For inspiration, I use thenounproject.com or I Google a specific icon to copy.
On the other hand, some students will get way too artistic and take too much time getting extremely caught up in the details of the sketch. This, too, can create an issue in the classroom. Remind those artists that sketchnoting in the classroom is more about the notes and less about the sketch. Some will want to go back later (after class hours) and add more detail to their work.
Besides pen, pencil, markers, and paper, there are digital options for sketchnoting as well. Not all sketchnotes must be on pen and paper. Auto Draw provides a way for students to create digital sketchnotes. There are also many apps available that do the same thing. Students can easily type text and add premade images. Canva, Buncee, and Piktochart are a few others that educators have successfully used with students.
Specific Ways to Teach Sketchnoting with Students
Sketchnotes can be a great way to scaffold writing. When students brainstorm for writing (fiction or nonfiction), using sketchnotes can help get ideas flowing and organize thoughts. With younger students, drawing and labeling leads to writing in complete sentences. This scaffold to writing helps students think of big ideas and tease out details. One way to do this with older kids is with sticky notes. They can draw ideas on sticky notes and organize them accordingly. They can label the sticky notes and easily move them around or add additional notes with ideas.
Reading and Listening
Sketchnoting can also dramatically increase the power of note taking for students. As students read a text or listen to a lecture, sketching or drawing visuals with labels enhances engagement, comprehension, and processing.
While reading texts, students stop at specific points such as paragraphs or chapters to synthesize and process by creating an image to represent what they read. Sketchnoting makes thinking and processing visual. This sketch opportunity forces students to stop and think of overarching ideas and details.
During lectures, students listen and pull out key ideas and details as the instructor speaks, adding them to their sketches as written words or visuals. Take, for example, typical notes students may take during a lecture. Usually they are all words. Some learn how to make them organized using the Cornell Notes structure. To increase recall, comprehension, engagement, and processing, students can add visual representations even within Cornell Notes.
In Teaching Science to English Learners, authors Stephen Fleenor and Tina Beene share a strategy called Vocab Breakdown (p. 23) in which the teacher takes vocabulary words and breaks them apart by prefix, root, and suffix. Each student receives a part of the word and draws/illustrates their part. Groups come together to discuss their parts and what the whole word might mean.
We can take advantage of what researchers have discovered about the power of drawing and sketching and leverage it with students in our classrooms. Sketchnoting is not limited to a particular content area or grade level. Nor is it only for students with certain cognitive abilities or languages. It is accessible to many, it’s cross-curricular, and it spans all grades.
Dewan, P. (2015). Words versus pictures: Leveraging the research on visual communication. The Canadian Journal of Library and Information Practice and Research. Vo. 10, no. 1.
Fernandes, M. A., Wammes, J. D., & Meade, M. E. (2018). The surprisingly powerful influence of drawing on memory. Current Directions in Psychological Science, 27(5), 302–308. https://doi.org/10.1177/0963721418755385
Fleenor, S., & Beene, T. (2019). Teaching science to English learners. Irving, TX: Seidlitz Education.
Terada, Y. (2019, March 14). The science of drawing and memory. Retrieved from https://www.edutopia.org/article/science-drawing-and-memory
Whitehouse, A. J. O.; Maybery, M. T.; Durkin, K. (2006, November). British Journal of Developmental Psychology. Vol. 24 Issue 4, p767-773. 7p. DOI: 10.1348/026151005X74153.