Sunday, October 9, 2016

4 Quick Mythbusters About Using Visual Notes in the Classroom

Ever wonder if visual notes can “fit” into your classroom? Do you worry they are too childish? Take up too much time? That your content doesn’t align with the idea of visual notes? Or that you can’t draw?
If so, you’re not alone. Many colleagues I‘ve spoken to have the same concerns, and today’s post is designed to give you a small glimpse of how visual notes in the secondary classroom can be used.
1.     Myth: I can’t draw.
Buster: Who cares?
If you’re worried about not being able to draw, then you’re the perfect person to edusketch! Our brain is a marvelous thing and needs to recognize only a small percentage of a sketch to understand what it is. A squiggly line can represent a snake, a rope or a winding road, depending on context provided. 

Counterintuitively, students are more apt to give it a try when you can’t (or don’t) draw well. They feel more confident and willing to show you up, dear teachers, so go on, have some fun. Draw horribly on your whiteboard/ paper and you will have plenty of volunteers to come up and “fix” what you did. Little do they know it’s stealth learning. And besides, laughter and fun help to cement the learning, too. 
2.   Myth: Those notes must have taken forever.
Buster: But we drew them together.
When providing context, one of my favorite things to do is to sketch my way through information for students. What might be a normal 15 minute lecture, or reading assignment, now becomes an interactive activity.  The idea is to get students thinking about what I am saying or what they are reading, as they sketch their own representations.
Even though these notes look detailed and possibly chaotic, imagine them as the lesson outline, and each image created in real-time as a talking point throughout the lesson. At the end, everyone has a full-page (or two) of visual notes. The sense of pride is palpable, and by being part of the process, students typically gain quite a bit of confidence, as well as understanding about the value of edusketching. Students remain engaged in acquiring new information, which is always a pleasure.
Here you can see student notes based on mine as we sketched together in Earth Science class: 
Student notes.
My notes, drawn in real time using a document projector.
Continually ask students how they would represent a concept
and use their ideas. Great validation, and encourages their thinking
in new ways. 
Create notes in black and white. Revisit notes the
next day to highlight key ideas with color. 
3.     Myth: I don’t have time to do this.
Buster: It's about their learning, not your content. 
If you have concepts you want students to remember, using visuals will improve their retention by 55%. Just by using visuals. That’s enough for me to give it a try.
Here’s the key: Constraints.   Whether time, paper size, or chunking the task by sections, giving students boundaries will encourage them to do even better. 

Photos below show students sketching a summary of a text they had read. We had folded our papers into 4 sections, and had divided our reading into 4 sections. Each section had a visual representation, and that made it much more feasible for my language learners to be successful without being overwhelmed. We also had students come up to the board to share their sketching. 

Even our sketch on the board has 4 sections. Allow students to
create their own, but also allow them to copy ideas until
they are more comfortable. 

Use words to supplement the sketches, especially new vocabulary. 

Have students then use their notes to retell the information. Doing so serves
as a confidence boost, particularly for language learners. 

Time is another key constraint. I typically allow 2-3 minutes for quick sketches. As you walk around, you can see who needs more time, and you can also shorten the time when you see that everyone has got it. 2 minutes is an extremely long time, and can provide you with a lot of formative assessment information!
It’s also a fantastic brain break! Teachers shouldn’t be talking more than 10-15 minutes at most without students responding, synthesizing, or producing in some way. Recapping every 10-15 minutes helps students cement their learning and provides us with a solid glimpse of their understanding at that point and time. 

4.   Myth: I can’t fit it in anywhere.
Buster: Use visual notes in a variety of ways.
Here you can see how students used small visual notes to create name tags for themselves, with three things they are passionate about as a way to introduce themselves. This simple activity was thought-provoking, and the information will be used as a reference throughout our semester. 

Other ideas? Students can sketch their goals--and even better, sketch themselves and their reaction once they achieve their goals; sketch a representation of one main idea in a lesson; or use their visual notes to retell information they have learned. Use sketching as a warm-up or bellringer to summarize or retell one fact they learned yesterday or as a pre-assessment to dig into their background knowledge. Have students work collaboratively on larger paper to connect thoughts from brainstorming in a visual format. Use visual notes as a shared reference, akin to a word wall, in which students can keep referring back to the information throughout the semester. The ideas are endless.

You can see how students with different levels of language proficiency
can still access the same activity, with pride. 

Now, about those concerns of yours? Do you see a way you can squeeze in visual notes into your content area? Visual notes are far from childish, and in fact, require far more critical thinking than most realize. But there's no way to know that until you try it. And with smiles like those above, why wouldn't you give it a try?


  1. Working with Doodle Challenge and visual notes in my world language classes. Thank you for sharing your work!

    1. Excellent! Please feel free to share your work with us--we'd love to see more examples.