3 reasons why your kids should be using sketchnotes

A few months ago, I spent a few minutes on a quick rant blaming laptops and mobile devices for being the reason for the terrible KC Royals pitching, destroying the rainforest, causing the downfall of the Roman Empire, and ruining your students’ educational experience.

Okay. Mostly just the student educational experience thing.

A brief recap. Research is suggesting that when college students use technology to capture lecture notes, both short and long term learning declines when compared to students who captured lecture notes using the old fashioned paper and pencil method. Tech tools seem to encourage verbatim note-taking that focuses on capturing every word rather than on capturing only information that is important – on copy and pasting rather than evaluating and summarizing. Paper and pencil force the student to make decisions about what’s important and then to transform that information into a personal version of the lecture or video.

It’s this personalizing feature of paper and pencil that improves retention and learning.

And, yes, it’s college kids not K-12. And, no, you don’t lecture all of the time. But I’m gonna suggest that the experiences of middle and high school students would not be that much different from the college kids cited in the research.

So using tech to take notes is bad. Now what?

Well . . . first of all, I’m not entirely convinced that all tech is all bad all of the time when we want to kids to capture and organize information. I think we can find a few tech tools that can help our students. More on that in a bit. But I also think that this recent research supports the use of traditional paper and pencil – though with an updated twist.

First a few suggestions:

Listen to the research
The whole point of note-taking should be for the note-taker to be able to remember and understand what was said. So it makes sense to allow students to take notes in a way that is meaningful to them – regardless of what the teacher thinks. We need to pay attention to what the data is telling us. And a lot of what it’s telling us is that personalized and visual data collection is often the most powerful:

A study conducted at the University of Waterloo found that people who create simple, quick drawings are better able to remember a list of words than people who simply write words down, look at pictures of the words, or create a list of characteristics related to the words. Interestingly, the quality of the drawings was not important.

Encourage good data collection no matter what tool is used
We need to train kids how to gather and organize information. Verbatim doesn’t work. So focus on some of the strategies that we know work such as Cornell Notes and others.

All handy and effective stuff. But my new favorite “traditional” paper and pencil note-taking strategy? Something that combines all of the research and best practice? Something that I think we all should share with our kids?


Okay. Sketchnoting is not really that new. Ed gurus have been preaching the power of Sketchnoting for a while. And maybe you’re already doing it. But I’m a recent convert to the idea.

One teacher called it “purposeful doodling.” I like that. Sketchnoting is creating a personalized visual story while listening to a speaker, watching a video clip, or reading a text. It’s basically drawing pictures connected to text in a way that helps you make sense of foundational content.


There are some great YouTube examples of Sketchnoting. I enjoy this one that documents a talk by Stephen Johnson. (Powerful for me but remember, it’s much more powerful for the person who actually created it!)

You can find tons of ideas, resources, and teaching suggestions by reading what Kathy Schrock,  Vicki Davis and Wes Fryer have to share about the process. But here’s a few helpful tips for you and your kiddos:

  • Start with this video.
  • It’s about ideas, not art. It’s about having it makes sense to you. Stick figures are okay.
  • Don’t forget. Your images don’t have to be complicated.
  • It’s also okay to add text. But try to pair images with your text.
  • Use basic shapes, connectors, and boxes.
  • Arrange your design on the page in a way that makes sense to you.
  • Start with your paper horizonal (so it’s wider than it is tall). You may want to switch to a portrait orientation later when your Sketchnote skills improve.
  • Use pen, not pencil. If you make a mistake, no biggie. Draw a KC Chiefs logo over it. All good.
  • Use color if possible.
  • The teacher (that’s you) needs to understand that they will need to slow down and be more intentional about what they say.

During a quick Sketchnoting lesson a few weeks ago, this is what I came up with. And here’s the thing. It won’t make much sense to you but when I review these notes, I can still remember what we talked about:




Start with a step by step process. As you and students get better at this, you’ll want to expand your skills. There’s a ton of stuff out there but I like these two useful books:

So what about that tech?

  • If your school is using iPads, there a ton of a great apps designed for drawing. My favorite is Paper 53. A stylus is essential for these types of tools. I use the Pencil designed specifically for Paper 53 but really any stylus will work.
  • Use different digital and online graphic organizer / mind mapping apps.
  • Use digital cameras and cellphones to take photos of your final Sketchnote product, allowing for access anywhere/anytime.

(Cross-posted from History Tech.)

About Glenn Wiebe

I work as a social studies specialist at ESSDACK, an educational service center in Hutchinson, Kansas. Before coming to ESSDACK, I taught middle school US History and higher ed social science classes.

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