When I was in grade school, I doodled in class. I got in trouble for it sometimes, because drawing in class can look a lot like goofing off and daydreaming. What I never managed to explain to my teachers is that my abstract swirls and shapes helped me repeat almost word-for-word the lesson I’d heard. Every part of the doodle brought to mind what I had been listening to while I drew it—whether it was the finer points of grammar or the history of the Spanish Inquisition.
Fast forward about three decades. Now I’m a graphic facilitator, which means that I put a huge sheet of paper on the wall and conduct a meeting while taking large-scale visual notes right onto that sheet of paper. I do this not for myself, but for the whole group. While other people invent their corporate strategy or brainstorm new product ideas, I listen closely, write what they say, and draw quick, relevant pictures that add nuance and depth to the words. I use visual and information design skills to capture and organize what’s going on and make it visible to the room. The visual record helps the group stay focused and keep moving forward while I work with them to refine their ideas. And every time I do it, people come up afterward to tell me what a difference it made to see their work emerge on the paper in real time while they were talking and thinking.
These experiences, along with research and conversations with students, teachers and others transformed by the experience of visual note-taking, have convinced me that many people benefit a great deal from drawing what they hear. Using simple words and pictures helps us to see connections between pieces of information, get a better idea of what we understand and what we don’t, and remember what we’ve learned later on. Now I’m on a mission to get students to draw in every class and every subject—from kindergarten all the way up through college, and into their professional lives.
When we show students how to take notes, we prioritize outsiders’ ability to look at the notes later and understand what was said. But as someone who takes notes for other people professionally, I can tell you two things that are wrong with this approach. First, it’s really difficult to take notes so that they are clear to other people. And second, that’s not the best way to understand and remember information.
The most important function of class notes should be for the note-taker to recall 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. If we need to evaluate whether notes are useful to the student, ask the student to repeat the lecture back using his or her notes.
Some people, like me, are better able to read their own notes and recall what was said if they are not required to write everything down in words, but instead can add drawings and organize everything visually on the page. The act of deciding what to draw and where to put things, and even what color to make things, gets linked in my mind with whatever I am hearing. When I see the results of my decisions, I remember what I was hearing when making those choices.
There is a substantial body of research on visual language and visual literacy, though not much of it focuses specifically on note-taking. Some recent studies do point to interesting conclusions, however.
For instance, two researchers at Princeton University and the University of California, Los Angeles have found that writing notes longhand is more effective for understanding and retention than typing notes on a computer. That’s true even though students who take notes on their computers tend to get a lot more down on the page than those who make handwritten notes. Students who took notes longhand did better when tested on conceptual understanding and recall of what they had learned, even when everyone was allowed to study from their notes before being tested.
Interestingly, the researchers found that the typed notes often repeated the professor’s lecture word-for-word, while the longhand notes included more of the students’ own phrasing. Since it isn’t possible to capture everything when writing longhand, students tend to listen, digest, and summarize. The researchers surmise that the act of choosing what to write, and then physically writing it out by hand, helps learners process and reframe the content, giving them an edge in conceptual understanding and recall.
Another 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. Creating a four-second drawing was enough to help retention. This suggests that we needn’t consider ourselves artistic geniuses in order to benefit from drawing in class.
Visual note-taking blends these two approaches. By using a combination of words and quick images, the note-taker listens, digests, and captures on paper the essence of what has been heard.
If you’re a teacher or a parent of a student who likes to doodle, try introducing them to visual note-taking and see what happens. If you need more information, you can watch my TEDx talk Drawing in Class.
This is not about learning styles—a controversial concept that may or may not have any factual basis. Visual note-taking is about how people generally listen, take notes, and recall information.
I want educators to understand that just because students are doodling doesn’t mean they’re failing to pay attention. Rather than scold students for drawing pandas and band logos in the margins of their notebooks, it would be far more beneficial to introduce them to visual note-taking. Imagine what would happen if they were able to take notes openly in a way that helps them create meaning, build connections, and deepen understanding and retention.
So many students have come up to me after I’ve given a talk on visual note-taking to say, “I finally understand why I have such a hard time listening.” It’s so powerful for them to realize that there’s an alternative way to absorb information that’s just as valid as any other method. If this rings true for you, practice visual note-taking while you listen to the TV or a podcast. Show the notes to a teacher or parent and explain what you were listening to. Show them how your notes help you remember more of what you heard, and ask if you can try taking notes in class that way.
A few helpful tips if you’re inclined to try out visual note-taking: Turn your paper 90 degrees so it’s longer than it is tall. Pair images with your own words. Arrange them on the page in a way that makes sense to you. The images don’t have to be complicated. They don’t have to be art. They don’t have to make sense to anybody else. They just have to be meaningful to you.
Personally, I think adults should draw in meetings, lectures, conference halls, and video conferences, too. If you’re an adult doodler, try taking some visual notes along with your doodling. Use simple images and words, and see what happens.
Visual note-taking won’t be right for everybody. But for kids who’ve struggled to remember their professors’ lectures—and adults who zone out during important presentations—a few key words and squiggles can spark a whole new way of engaging with the world.