Sketchy Students?

Visual-OompfIn a recent search for information on concept maps I came across fellow blogger Martha’s 2011 post Concept Maps, and Notetaking. Reading the post and watching the videos illustrating the topic, I found myself making a connection to some Twitter posts I’d seen from the SXSW conference. Several SXSW participants posted a synopsis of the workshops and panels they attended though a visual note taking technique called Sketchnotes.

SXSW Sketchnote

Mike Rohde, Photo courtesy of Flickr

Sketchnotes are exactly what they sound like – notes that are sketched (obviously, someone has created a sketchnote for the description of sketchnotes).  This process of note taking has been used in creative circles for several years, but recently it seems to have invaded all realms of popular culture. Many high profile events and conferences have even started to hire live Sketchnote-takers to document key ideas and information takeaways. This past year, celebrated designer and sketchmaster Mike Rohde even penned his first “how-to” book entitled, ”The Sketchnote Handbook”.

Re-reading Martha’s post, I began to think that perhaps educational theory was ahead of its time. Could concept maps be considered the forefathers of today’s Sketchnotes? To me Sketchnotes are at their bones just fancy concept maps- structuring, relating and developing a hierarchy of information all connected to a broader topic or idea. The hype around Sketchnotes as a rich (and lets face it cool) vehicle for information makes me also ponder – is the university lecture hall is ready for these renegade note takers?

For some students, the answer is a resounding yes! Students and learners across the globe are pushing the boundaries of note taking and are using Sketchnotes to rethink their lectures. Renate Martin, a medical student from South Africa uses Sketchnotes in her neurology class and reflects on the blog Sketchnote Army that, “in general I have noticed that I remember more from class than I used to… I am also much more enthusiastic about going to class than I used to be!”

Renate Martin Sketchnote

Renate Martin photo courtesy of

Think about it, for today’s multitasking student there may be some pay-off in this nonlinear form of note taking. Satisfying the need to participate beyond passively recording information, making a Sketchnote provides students a way to connect with the material on a more creative and personal level.

Application wise, some subject matters appear naturally better suited to Sketchnote-taking than others. For example, lectures that are more narrative in structure would lend themselves well to this visual depiction of text and ideas. There is also the challenge (that I quickly encountered upon experimenting with Sketchnotes) that creative doodling is not a talent possessed by all. Not to be deterred, Mike Rhode argues in his book that visual note taking is not just for the artistically inclined student, and explains that the Sketchnote-taking technique can be adapted by drawers and non-drawers alike! Regardless of skill, learning to Sketchnote takes some time and practice, so perhaps a mathematical physics course is not the best environment to hone your typographic and caricature skills.

While there may be some speed bumps slowing down the uptake of Sketchnote-taking, I believe there is enough to gain from rethinking the process of note taking that these funky notes should be given a second look. Having a set of notes, which one would actually want to look at, would (for me at least) be a scholarly boon. For the doodle nerds among us, it would make the whole process of note taking more enjoyable. Finally, there is the subtle benefit Sketchnotes possess in their innate ability to connect people. Even if one does not engage in the Sketchnote-taking process, the final product is a something that is easy to relate to, share and connect over.

Kelly Sketchnote

My first sketch "quote" attempt


Visual Oompf!

Post 3: Video Killed the Faculty Star

You remember the feeling from your elementary school days. That all to perfect moment when, the teacher stepped away from the chalk board, rolled out the a/v cart, hit the play button (or, gasp, fed in the film reel to the dusty projector) and retreated to the back of the class for…. a movie.

However, the longer we are in school, those precious opportunities to spend whole periods engrossed in Bill Nye episodes obviously dwindles. In higher education especially the impetus of knowledge transfer, critical thinking and philosophical pondering often takes priority over entertainment. Is there something to be considered when a six-minute Funny or Die “Drunk History” clip   can not only explain the history behind father of western technology, but also make it memorable?

My Visual Ooompf! dribble today aims to reposition our beloved “video” as a useful lecture and learning tool.

Videos have a place in the university classroom

This past winter, I attended an engineering lecture on the titillating topic of pumps. As I sat in Convocation Hall, amongst the 300 + young and occasionally distracted undergrads, I witnessed first hand the power a College Humor video had on re-engaging a group. During the traditional lecture part of the lesson, some students tuned in an out, impressively talking to their friends, playing games on their phones, and eating breakfast, all the while jotting down the odd lecture note. About a quarter into the lecture the lecturer switched gears, clicked on a pre-loaded video link and suddenly things changed.  More students looked to the front of the class and some actually laughed. While many still talked to their friends, I heard a couple people actually talking about the video!

I’m not saying that videos are better than live humans for engaging a group.  I only mean to illustrate that the act of breaking up the lecture with a visual tool, using a wildly different tone, is an awesome way to re energize and draw more of the class’s attention to the topic.

The example I witnessed in the engineering lecture was also a good illustration of general video showing best practices:

  •  the faculty member set up the video asking a question to help guide the viewers while they watch (showing videos does not mean people get a brain break)
  • this is an obvious one, but the video was related to the lesson topic
  • the video was relatively short in length
  • at the end of the clip, the faculty member asked a question and invited student reactions (this could even be done in groups as a collaborative exercise or dare I say, “Think-Pair-Share?)


Moving from thinking about using video clips to actually using them in your class requires a necessary (and, I admit, somewhat cumbersome) discussion on Copyright. If you are going to show a clip in class you are automatically entering the realm of Canadian Copyright Act.

The surest way to navigate this area is to use Media Commons to access your video clips. The Media Commons online record’s details tells you plainly the terms of use for each item. In some cases, you may be required to contact the copyright holder to obtain permission. For clips you find outside of Media Commons (on websites etc.), make sure to read the specific terms and conditions of use.

While it may be tempting to gloss over the question of Copyright, it is important to remember that Canada’s Fair Dealing (or what some dangerously think of as a “get out of jail free” card) is much more strict within the categories of education and teaching than the US’s Fair Use.

If you have questions about Copyright always err on the side of caution and contact the Copyright holder directly or CTSI ( for guidance. Avoid a fight, use it right.

Getting the Goods

One of the major hurdles that can dissuade faculty from using video is the stress of finding quality video for a class. Chris O’Neal, a blogger from, calls YouTube a “giant video flea market,” which gives you the gist of the type of labour  involved in retrieving useful clips with what can seem like

a big mess of junk.

There is no way around it – using videos to add oompf to your lectures does require extra effort. Below are several sites, which may help you in building your “classroom clips” library.

External Sources – scientific research clips – philosophical discussions on “big issues” amazing source for independent movies free to use as an educational tool, on demand! – public lectures by some real visionary people

UofT Libraries

AV Catalogue searching
 Search Media Commons AV holdings in the Library catalogue by broad research topic.

AV Subject Searching
 Connect to Media Commons AV holdings in the Library catalogue by broad research topic, such as gender diversity or visual arts.

Online Video Resources 
A growing number of online video resources is now offered by U of T Libraries, available for classroom and individual streaming.

Resources & Links

New Arrivals

Embracing videos in university classrooms beyond the level of instructional “bells and whistles” does not have to pander to the nostalgic idea of a thoughtless movie period or shift anyone’s core teacher values. Punctuating every lecture with a snappy YouTube clip would (I guess) grow old.  Videos and interactive elements of visual entertainment should always support the timeless and simple goal, furthering student learning. That being said, learning about gravity is so much more fun watching Bill Nye throw stuff off of a roof. .

Visual Oompf!

Post 2: Colour Scheme

Opening a new presentation and facing the vast, white abyss commonly known as the FIRST SLIDE can be intimidating. My go-to colour scheme evokes the spirit of Chanel, Yohji Yamamoto, Apple (for those not so fashion fixated) and all the other designers who perfected the crisp, simple, monochromatic look.

Branching out beyond this clean design is not for the faint of heart. We are all aware of the faux pas attached to using those tempting presentation templates. Yes they look trite, but there is just something about a seamless “look” that I believe many of us still long for.  To help those wishing to break free of template confines or to support presenters hoping to move beyond the dull humdrum of an un-styled slide, today I present Visual Ooompf’s take on colour scheme.

The most simple way to employ the classic monochromatic colour scheme involves three things: 1) use a light background 2) use black font, and 3) keep clutter (excess text, photos, colour etc) at bay.

(Example monochromatic colour scheme) Continue reading

Visual Oompf!

Like it or lump it, PowerPoint is a necessary tool for most presenters. While the software boasts efficient, easy to create presentation capabilities, it also runs the risk of sending your audience into a bullet-point induced coma. To bridge the gap between the time-strapped presenter and the weary-eyed audience, I (full disclosure: an untrained, non- graphic designer) offer my own take on Presentation Zen – ideas I use to add oompf to PowerPoint, Keynote, Google Presentation, Slide Rocket, etc.

In this first post for “Visual Ooompf – Designing With a Non-Designer”, I offer three practical tips to successfully use pictures in presentations.

Not just pretty to look at, pictures are the ultimate “oompf adder” as they can also help your audience retain information. A well-chosen image is an opportunity to reinforce your point AND strengthen students’ brains’ synapses.     Continue reading