The first time I heard about visual note-taking (also called sketch notes or doodle notes), I thought letting kids draw in class was crazy!

How could students remember information if it was drawn in their books?

How would kids remember all the facts, stats, ideas, and content they were supposed to?

And worst of all, how was I supposed to get them to draw notes when I can’t draw.

Chalkboard with detailed owl drawing and smiley face drawing

What I didn’t understand

What I didn’t understand about visual note-taking is that it’s one of the most powerful ways for students to remember information.

This article examines the effect on memory of writing words and drawing pictures vs only writing words. It suggests that drawing helps memory because it uses three learning processes at the same time:

  • the word-knowledge (semantic knowledge)
  • the visual knowledge (the drawing)
  • the motor processing (the movement your body makes to create the drawing)

Visual note-taking works because it forces students to comprehend information in words, synthetise information and create pictures to represent it, and then use their bodies to demonstrate their learning.

Add to this the fact that visual note-taking gives students ownership over their work, and you have a recipe for success.

So I tried it

I still remember how much my hands shook the first time I drew in front of a class. Sweat trickled down my back from the lethal combination of desert heat and abject fear.

I felt every mocking eye behind me as I drew a simple feudal system social structure diagram on the board.

But, when I turned around after drawing the diagram, all I could see was a room full of tweens copying what I’d drawn.

What kept me drawing after this initial fearful attempt? On their exit tickets, all of the students could remember the diagram, but not the other notes they had written.

What is visual note-taking?

Visual note-taking is exactly what it sounds like – notes that are taken visually and not just words written down. Visual notes might take a variety of different forms:

  • Graphic organisers combined with text
  • Drawn storyboards
  • Written notes with embellishments and illustrations
  • Use of colour to show different types of information
  • Mind-mapping
  • Other styles of note-taking (eg: Cornell notes, mind maps, or outline notes) combined with visual elements such as organisers, images, illustrations

photo grid with visual note-taking including a colourful mind map, storyboards, and visual notes with a mixture of  words and drawn images.

Who can use visual note-taking?

Many students (particularly those in high school) may feel that if they can’t draw, they can’t take visual notes.

But the beauty of visual note-taking is that you don’t actually need to be able to draw to take notes.

Visual note-taking is about organising information in a visual way: think graphic organisers, arrows showing connections, and colours to show types of information.

Teachers can even provide templates or scaffolded notes to get students started.

How can you use visual note-taking?

You can use visual note-taking in any situation you would take ordinary notes.

Students can take digital notes using apps such as Squid Notes and Evernote (see this blog post for more info on these options).

This is great for online, distance, or digital learning. But it requires students to have access to reliable internet, some kind of device, and the tech-savy to use the app. It also privileges students with greater economic means.

Students can also use good, old-fashioned pen and paper. It has the advantages of being cheap, generally available to most students, and portable.

What have other teachers said about visual note-taking?

Now, I’m going to paraphrase here, but my colleagues have told me that they enjoy visual note-taking because it encourages students to take ownership of their work.

It also gives those students who are artistic a chance to display their skills and forces verbal learners to use different styles of learning and thinking.

And, as a creator of visual note-taking resources, I have had lovely feedback from students and teachers alike that visual note-taking is “helpful” as it “keep[s] them [students] engaged” (links to product reviews).

Turns out I was the crazy one – I should have been using visual note-taking all along.

How to create visual notes if you can’t draw?

If you are not artistic, or not a confident drawer, you may like to look online for scaffolded visual note-taking worksheets.

Math Giraffe also has a fantastic freebie doodle notes handbook you can download, as well as a set of templates available for purchase.

Freeology has many free graphic organisers that you may be able to tweak to fit your needs.

Or, check out our no-prep companion worksheets to the CrashCourse Literature and Study Skills YouTube videos if you are an ELA teacher. Or our first day of school get-to-know-you activities may be more useful to you.

CrashCourse Study Skills visual note-taking worksheet bundle

Ready to try it, and you can draw, but want to find out more info?

If you are artistic or a confident drawer, the best place to start may be to create graphic organisers for your students based on the content you are teaching. Things to consider when creating the visual notes:

  • What content is the most important
  • How does the content fit together
  • What visual cues can you use to trigger students’ understanding

Look around on Pinterest and you will find lots of inspiration for your visual note-taking (or follow our visual note-taking board for ideas). Things to consider when creating visual notes:

  • Styles of writing and fonts
  • Banners, boxes, and headers
  • Embellishments like curlicues, lines, and squiggles
  • Arrows, lines and other connecting (or dividing) devices
  • Use of colour to improve understanding and retention

Still want more info?

Check out these three free videos to help you get started teaching your students to take visual notes.

coloured pencils and a blank notebook with the text 'a tired teacher's guide: what you need to know about visual note-taking"