Why Use Sketchnotes in the Classroom?

Update, 7/16/23: This post is still getting hundreds of views, even after nine years! If you’re using sketchnotes in your classroom, I would love to hear from you about it! And maybe share your story in a follow-up post. Thanks!

Back in April, I was invited to give a workshop on sketchnotes in the classroom at Indiana University by IU’s Center for Innovative Teaching and Learning. Blog readers may recall that I posted a short lit review of the research on student notetaking back in February. That was part of my prep work for this sketchnotes workshop. I really wanted to blog about the workshop shortly after it occurred, but between wrapping up the Vanderbilt Center for Teaching’s “Students as Producers” theme year and preparing for the CIRTL Network MOOC scheduled to launch this fall, time for blogging has been scarce. (In fact, this is my first post since April, when I blogged about the Coursera Partners Conference in London.)

Better late than never, I wanted to share here on the blog the Prezi I used for the workshop, along with a few annotations and reflections on the workshop, mainly focusing on reasons why sketchnotes might have a place in the classroom. My memories of April are a little fuzzy, so if you were there at the workshop and have something to add, please do so in the comments.

First, the Prezi itself:

Next, the question I addressed first during the workshop, a question you might be asking at this point: What are sketchnotes? As I did in the workshop, I’ll let Mike Rohde, author of The Sketchnote Handbook, answer that.

Sketchnotes are rich visual notes created from a mix of handwriting, drawings, hand-drawn typography, shapes, and visual elements like arrows, boxes, and lines.

See the Prezi for lots of examples of sketchnotes. Here’s one from my own practice:

Sketchnotes for "Centers in Transition" at the 2013 POD Network ConferenceSee? Handwriting, drawings, arrows, color, all working together (more or less) to capture the big ideas from a panel at a conference. I learned about sketchnotes a few years ago when I started reading more about visual thinking, and I first tried my hand at sketchnoting back in 2011. I’ve found the practice incredibly useful, both for focusing my attention during talks and for capturing ideas from talks for later reference and use. You can see some of my conference sketchnotes over on Flickr. See also the Sketchnote Army blog, where Mike Rohde and his collaborators share sketchnotes from many different notetakers.

The Indiana workshop was my first opportunity to talk with instructors about possible uses of sketchnotes in the classroom. I knew sketchnotes were useful for my own professional practice, but I wasn’t sure how useful they would for students taking notes in the college classroom, so I did a little homework. Thus, the lit review on student notetaking research I mentioned above.  I couldn’t find any research on the use of sketchnotes in the classroom, and what notetaking research I did find was limited in scope. Most studies mentioned in the lit reviews I read focused on the role of notetaking in short-term factual recall of information presented in college lectures. Only a few studies looked at long-term factual recall or other learning outcomes, such as conceptual understanding, ability to apply knowledge to new situations, or critical thinking. And none of the studies considered how students might take notes during, say, discussion courses.

However, I identified a few general findings that seemed relevant to the potential value of sketchnotes in the classroom…

Ghost WriterIn one study that’s received a fair amount of attention this year (Mueller & Oppenheimer, 2014), longhand notetakers outperformed laptop notetakers on measures of conceptual understand and long-term factual recall. Students in the study weren’t able to, say, check Facebook during class, so the problem wasn’t with a laptop’s potential for distraction. No, the researchers posited, based on their study, that students taking notes on laptops tend to act as scribes, whereas students taking notes longhand have to do more active processing, which appears to aid in learning. Sketchnotes require quite a bit of active processing, so this study would indicate potential value in sketchnotes in the classroom.

Trellis“The most effective notes highlight an overall framework for a lecture and embellish that framework with critical specifics.” That’s Williams & Eggert in their 2002 lit review. This conclusion was based on several studies, mostly by researcher Kenneth Kiewra, where students who balanced main ideas and specific details did best on post-lecture assessments of learning.  As with the laptop study, copying down all the details, without attending to the main ideas and structure of a lecture, doesn’t seem to help with long-term recall or other learning outcomes. This, too, points to the potential value of sketchnotes. Finding a good visual metaphor for a key idea can help learners attend to those main points, and the nonlinear structure of sketchnotes can nudge learners to think more actively about the structure of a lecture.

Bookshelf SpectrumOn the nonlinear point, in their 2005 paper, Piolot, Olive, and Kellogg review a number of studies of notetaking practices and conclude that “nearly all non-linear note-taking strategies… benefit learning outcomes more than does the linear recording of information, with graphs and concept maps especially fostering the selection and organization of information.” Again, a standard practice in sketchnoting is to find some way to visually organize the information in a lecture or presentation. Sometimes those visual organizations are linear, but quite often they’re not. Mike Rodhe and others suggest that the visual organization one uses should match the structure of the information one is capturing. Doing so is likely to help students develop more robust “knowledge organizations,” to use a term from How Learning Works (2010) by Susan Ambrose, et al. They write, “When students are provided with an organizational structure in which to fit new knowledge, they learn more effectively and efficiently then when they are left to deduce this conceptual structure for themselves.”

One of my workshop participants rightly questioned my use of this statement to justify the use of sketchnotes in the classroom. When sketchnoting, aren’t students responsible for deducing a conceptual structure for what they’re learning? Yes, that’s true. Some teachers who have incorporated sketchnotes in their classrooms provide their students with visual structures to use, not unlike how some instructors give their students lecture outlines to fill in. That’s a great option, particularly for students new to sketchnoting. I think, however, there’s value in pointing out to students that they should be thinking actively about the conceptual organization of what they’re learning. Students taking text-only notes in a very linear fashion may not be thinking very hard about knowledge organizations. Asking these students to take sketchnotes, even without providing them templates to use, can prompt them to consider how ideas and examples are related, in a way that more traditional notetaking might not.

ParaguayOutside of the literature on student notetaking, there’s a theory from neuroscience called dual coding that argues for the value of sketchnoting. Dual coding is the idea that we process incoming information through two channels, one verbal and one visual. When we activate both channels at once, so that they’re working together, we’re better able to understand and remember ideas. When a sketchnoter comes up with a visual way to represent a new idea, often through some doodle or diagram, she is practicing dual coding. Van Meter and Garner (2005) point to the value of putting pen to paper with these visual representations: “The external drawing is the learner’s attempt to depict on paper the image experienced internally.”

In summary, I see a several reasons to consider using sketchnotes in the classroom: they promote active processing of information, they foster a useful balance of main ideas and details, they help students develop more robust knowledge organizations, and they aid understanding and recall through dual coding.

There’s also at least one good reason from the literature not to use sketchnotes: For short-term factual recall, reviewing detailed notes is more important than taking notes. Williams and Eggert pointed to one study where students who didn’t take notes at all, but instead reviewed notes provided to them by instructors after class, did best on assessments of learning. So if short-term factual recall is your goal, you’re better off just giving students a copy of your lecture notes.

This post is pushing 1500 words at this point, so I won’t say too much more about the content of the workshop. See the Prezi for some “sketchnoting 101” tips if you’re interested in picking up the practice yourself. The Prezi also contains examples (and links to more information) of several ways K12 and college instructors have tried using sketchnotes in their classrooms: standard notetaking, “rewriting” notes taken in class, unit summaries, summaries of readings, and more. As I was looking for such examples, I found far more in the K12 world than in college contexts. I suspect that’s because the idea of drawing during class is seen as more acceptable in the younger grades. That’s a shame, since I think the post-secondary education experience could use more visual thinking. Thanks to the efforts of Mike Rohde and others (like Dan Roam, Sunni Brown, and Doug Neill), there are growing numbers of very smart adults recognizing the value of visual thinking in general and sketchnotes in particular.

Finally, I wanted to note that the activity I built into the workshop went really well. I asked the faculty participants to watch — and sketchnote! — about six minutes of a lecture video by my colleague Jay Clayton for his MOOC on narrative in online games. Some of the participants were highly skeptical, citing their lack of artistic ability. I pointed out that we all have at least a third grade art education, and that skill level is all that’s really required to do sketchnotes well. By the end of the activity, I think most of the participants realized that they had the artistic tools they needed to get something out of sketchnotes. (I suspect some of the skepticism was my fault: I had showed them some pretty spectacular examples of sketchnotes earlier in the workshop. Next time, I’ll have to include a few more examples of sketchnotes that aren’t pretty, but worked well anyway for their creators.)

The activity included a lively discussion by participants reflecting on their first experience sketchnoting. I really wish I had taken notes (perhaps visual ones!) on this discussion, given how perceptive many of the comments were. I know there were several participants who talked about how the sketchnoting process prompted them to pay attention to the lecture in different ways, looking for organization and structure, focusing on key clarifying examples, connecting lecture content with prior knowledge and experiences. Great stuff. I’m particularly grateful to the participants who were willing to share their first sketchnotes with the whole group via the room’s document camera. I hadn’t planned on that happening, but a few participants volunteered as a natural part of the discussion.

Again, see the Prezi for some classroom strategies for using sketchnotes. I would love to hear your stories about sketchnotes in the classroom. Please share in the comments below!


  • Mueller, P., & Oppenheimer, D. (2014). The pen is mightier than the sword: Advantages of longhand over laptop note-taking. Psychological Science.
  • Piolat, A., Olive, T., & Kellogg, R. (2005). Cognitive effort during note taking. Applied Cognitive Psychology, 19, 291-312.
  • Van Meter, P., & Garner, J. (2005). The promise and practice of learner-generated drawing: Literature review and synthesis. Educational Psychology Review, 17(4), 285-325.
  • Williams, R., & Eggert, A. (2002). Notetaking in college classes: Student patterns and instructional strategies. Journal of General Education, 51(3), 173-199.

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