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


Recommended Reading

Welcome  to CTSI’s feature on recommended reading. Once a month, a U of T faculty or staff member will suggest books or articles on teaching, learning and higher education.

Our inaugural recommendation comes courtesy of John Percy, Professor Emeritus, Astronomy & Astrophysics, and Teaching Academy member:

Tobias, Sheila (1990), “They’re Not Dumb, They’re Different”, Research Corporation, Tucson AZ, pp. 94, paperback, ($3.99 on Amazon)

Sheila Tobias is a social scientist who has made deep and constructive studies of the teaching and learning of science and mathematics, and written many books and articles on these topics.  Research Corporation is a non-profit foundation which, through its support of this work, made it available at a very low cost. This book is “a study of why students abandon science for other disciplines”. The core message is the following: especially in introductory courses, the students are not “like us”; they are unlikely to do graduate work and eventually become a professor in our discipline. They don’t necessarily want the course content to be dumbed-down, but they do want to see its connections and applications to society and to other disciplines.  This is a special problem in physics, which is too often taught in a narrow, analytical way.  No wonder physics enrolments are going down across the continent!

Sheila Tobias book cover