Sketchnoting in School for Increased Retention and Understanding

By Susan Daniels, Ph.D., author of Visual Learning and Teaching: An Essential Guide for Educators K–8

Sketchnoting in School for Increased Retention and UnderstandingSo . . . what exactly is sketchnoting, and why sketchnote in school?

Sketchnoting is a form of visual note-taking that includes words and images. Mike Rohde, who coined the term sketchnote, wrote and illustrated The Sketchnote Handbook: The Illustrated Guide to Visual Note Taking, a book designed for use in the business world. He developed the sketchnote approach after becoming stressed and frustrated with traditional note-taking that is entirely based on words and numbers. He felt he couldn’t get everything down fast enough. As an alternative, sketchnoting evolved. Rohde developed his method to integrate words and numbers with simple visual images—most often in the form of simple sketches or doodles.

Rohde organizes his sketchnotes with a title—usually with hand-drawn bold letters—and then related information, examples, and supporting details, which are represented with simple drawings and words or phrases clustered around the page.

Sketchnoting in School for Increased Retention and Understanding

You might wonder how this applies to our students and our classrooms. Well, integrating words and doodles or simple sketches enhances attention, retention, and learning. The process of dual coding—thinking in words and images—has deep roots in cognitive psychology and research to back it up. Multiple research studies have shown that using words and images—together—results in increased learning.

Visual and Verbal Processes—Together—Enhance Learning
Professor of psychology Allan Paivio’s dual-coding theory for cognition and literacy development is of particular significance as it pertains to sketchnoting. Paivio asserts that we perceive and retain information best when it is presented visually as well as verbally. The brain is engaged in two ways and therefore has increased power to increase retention. Dual-coding theory research supports the use of visual and verbal recording and expression together in the classroom to increase engagement, understanding, and retention.

Similarly, research on the picture superiority effect shows positive effects from working with pictures and words. Researchers Jeffrey Wammes, Melissa Meade, and Myra Fernandes conducted multiple experiments to test the benefits of drawing to aid in remembering information. They found that drawing enhances memory and that this is achieved through the integration of words, images, and motor processing, suggesting that creating notes by hand using images and words has benefits for later recall. And this effect holds true whether or not the student has artistic talent.

Another study by Pam Mueller and Daniel Oppenheimer suggests that we remember more from lectures and lessons when we listen and write notes with pen and paper rather than typing them. That was a big aha! for me and clearly has applications for teaching.

Quick! Let’s pick up our favorite pen, pencil, or stylus and start drawing!

But I Can’t Draw!
There is a small glitch here in terms of using visuals in the classroom. Many teachers who come to my workshops or trainings will say, often with a sigh, “But I can’t draw.” I want to assure you that using sketchnotes effectively in the classroom does not require any advanced drawing abilities. We can use simple drawings. Doodles—or simple sketches—are quite effective as a part of the visual note-taking process. And over time, a range of doodles and icons can be designed, collected, and used again and again as part of developing a visual vocabulary.

Sketchnoting in School for Increased Retention and Understanding

Jackie Andrade, who researches the effects of visuals on learning, documented the effects of doodling on retention and recall in an article titled “What Does Doodling Do?” Andrade determined that even abstract doodling while listening to material that was not of interest to the listener increases retention by 29 percent over listening without doodling. Doodling increases retention and recall.

From Doodles to Sketchnotes
Incorporating doodles into the sketchnoting process is significant. Quite simply, it is the antidote to “But I can’t draw.” Why? Because everyone can doodle. And doodling increases learning. Further, Sunni Brown, author of The Doodle Revolution: Unlock the Power to Think Differently, says there is no such thing as a mindless doodle. She defines doodling as “making spontaneous marks to help yourself think.”

Sketchnotes do not require advanced drawing ability. Mike Rohde tells us that sketchnotes are created with simple sketches and that “even with the roughest drawings” we can express complex ideas effectively. Sketchnotes are about capturing ideas in simple images, and they are not meant to be a form of art. Rohde also tells us that instead of worrying about what we can’t draw, we should start with simple items that we can draw—or doodle. Further, he said that a “bad” drawing can be as useful for representing an idea as a “good” drawing.

Sketchnoting in School for Increased Retention and UnderstandingLet’s recap what we know.


  • applies the use of simple drawings, or doodles, along with words
  • engages the brain visually and verbally
  • improves engagement, understanding, and recall

My recommendation: Go forth and sketchnote in school. Sketchnote, doodle, and write with your students. Let them know that they can doodle and draw in your class—and in fact they must! And that you will do so, too, and everyone will learn more!

Susan DanielsDr. Susan Daniels is a professor, an author, a consultant, and an educational director of a psychoeducational center that specializes in the needs of gifted, creative, and twice-exceptional children. She has been a professional development specialist for over 20 years, regularly providing workshops and training on creativity and visual learning and teaching. Susan is an avid doodler who enjoys working visually in her journals, and she is dedicated to supporting teachers’ development of visual literacy and enhanced understanding of visual learning and teaching strategies. She lives in Berkeley, California.

Visual Learning and TeachingSusan is the author of Visual Learning and Teaching: An Essential Guide for Educators K–8.

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Enter to Win the Our Emotions and Behavior Series!

Enter to Win the Our Emotions and Behavior Series!This month, we’re giving away all 12 books in the Our Emotions and Behavior series. The books include stories that help children understand how their feelings and actions are related—and how children can get better at managing them both. A special section for adults at the back of each book suggests discussion questions and ideas for guiding children to talk about their feelings. One lucky reader will win:

To Enter: Leave a comment below describing how you help small children deal with big feelings.

For additional entries, leave a separate comment below for each of the following tasks you complete:

Each comment counts as a separate entry—that’s five chances to win! Entries must be received by midnight, January 25, 2019.

The winner will be contacted via email on or around February 1, 2019, and will need to respond within 72 hours to claim his or her prize or another winner will be chosen. This giveaway is in no way affiliated with, administered, or endorsed by Facebook, Twitter, Pinterest, or Instagram. Winners must be US residents, 18 years of age or older.

We welcome your comments and suggestions. Share your comments, stories, and ideas below, or contact us. All comments will be approved before posting, and are subject to our comment and privacy policies.

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The Upside to Conflicts in Middle School

By Stephanie Filio

The Upside to Conflicts in Middle SchoolI’m sitting at a busy lunch table full of sixth graders. There is energy you can’t put your finger on and a deafening hum that continues from the first lunch all the way to the last. All 150 students are engaged in the same activity at the same time: communicating. With each word expressed in this lunchroom, lessons are being learned that will be filed away and used the next time there is a similar social situation. Sound confusing and overwhelming to keep up with? Just ask one of these sixth graders, and they will tell you that it absolutely is!

Teachers in middle school will often comment that being with their students from one day to another is like playing tug-of-war. For every day a student makes progress, the next day he or she might fall behind, have a behavioral slip-up, and/or refuse to work. Parents might say they have never seen their children so sullen at times, and they miss the carefree nature of their son or daughter. However, these things only mean that adolescents are acting appropriately for their age.

Middle schoolers are constantly making big connections, which lead to big lessons. These students will leave the lunchroom and continue communicating their way through endless life lessons until they can stand on their own two feet and approach independence. It’s going to be rocky at times, but if students can pick up the right tools along the way, they will be able to face challenges and overcome obstacles with ease. Luckily, they have supportive adults to help them learn how to navigate through struggle and resolve conflicts throughout these tumultuous years!

Conflict and a Changing Mind
Because middle school students are fighting for their place in adulthood, they need to have a lot of practice with properly resolving conflict. This not only smooths out the edges of their communication, but it also gives them plenty of practice to work out issues within themselves. In elementary school, it was more socially acceptable to react emotionally to express dissatisfaction. In leaving the uninhibited freedom of childhood, adolescents are entering a whole new set of social standards to live by. The desire to fit in grows stronger, and they have to learn how to do so while retaining their true selves.

Positive conflict resolution helps the adolescent join the old self and the new self. Conflict resolution skills are essential to gaining empathy, learning to get along with others, and seeing that one can overcome obstacles peacefully. Every time a student is involved in conflict resolution, a piece of her or his expanding life puzzle is put into place, and the adolescent gets closer to achieving stability. Middle school students’ behavior is mainly driven by inner conflicts and simultaneous battles with peers and society. Conflict resolution doesn’t just occur between two people; it occurs between one preteen and the world. (Okay, that might be a little dramatic, but hey, when in Rome!)

Embrace the Rebellion
Ever met an adult who didn’t go through an animal-rights or antiestablishment phase? From protesting processed foods to boycotting certain brands of makeup, adolescents question what was previously accepted and make room for reformed opinions. This often comes to the counselor’s office with students who are taking a stand against a friend. To an adult, quarreling adolescents might look as if they are fighting over nothing, but these fights are often part of students’ changing belief systems. At home, rebellion might happen in the form of a student who refuses to do homework because she or he would rather play video games. In other words, conflict between what the student should do and what the student wants to do. In each of these conflicts, students can benefit from learning how to find common ground with others and how to think through consequences.

The Arguing Is Good
Think of the verbal and nonverbal communication you used with your parents when you were in middle school. The eye rolls, the groans, the disgusted facial cues, oh my! These hallmarks of adolescent communication might make us adults rip out our hair, but they are actually healthy signs that students are searching for an identity that is separate from that of their parents. By constantly questioning and exploring the world around them, they are making cognitive, personhood, moral, and social connections. As this happens with authority figures, ever-shifting friendships, environment, and peers, students can learn healthy ways to embrace change and accept others.

Working Through the Turmoil
Perspective is by far one of the greatest things anyone can learn from conflict. Students who are in a social conflict gain empathy by trying to see things from another person’s point of view. I always remind students that understanding someone else’s perception of something is not admitting defeat or excusing what they have done to you. Switching perspectives is simply taking a step back and closely evaluating where some lines of communication may have been crossed or misconstrued.

How can educators and parents best provide an environment that will help adolescents through this rough time? Give students space to work things out on their own. Provide a safe space and a compassionate mirror for them to view themselves through. Once a resolution has been reached, walk back through what worked to reinforce the lesson learned. Common conflict resolution steps are stating your experience, listening to the experience of others, finding middle ground, and making commitments to aid future behaviors. By breaking down the steps with students, you can teach them to take a step back and view the situation through a more inclusive lens.

Know When There Are Other Things in the Mix
While conflict is a natural part of adolescence, strong defiant behaviors might also be a window into more serious troubles that are brewing. Though it is natural for a young student to battle for autonomy, overly argumentative behavior might mean an adolescent is struggling with a deeper loss of control. It’s here that a counselor might ask pointed questions to elicit some information and see if there is another layer to the frustration. My go-tos are:

  • Has anything changed at home?
  • I can’t remember, do you live with mom or dad?
  • Do you have friends to vent to?
  • Do you find that you are angry often?

Frustration and rebellion are a natural part of adolescent changes, but it is important to also gauge when students are crying out for help in a situation that is beyond their ability to tackle. Resolving conflict breeds resilience and culminates in healthy individuals who can handle obstacles and work peacefully with their environment. While developing these skills, adolescents will experience failures but will also find surprising and rewarding successes.

Stephanie FilioStephanie Filio is a middle school counselor in Virginia Beach. She received her undergraduate degree in interdisciplinary studies from the University of Virginia and her M.Ed. in counseling from Old Dominion University. In a discussion with one of her UVA professors about her desire to stay in school forever, her mentor wisely responded, “If you want to be a lifelong learner, go into education,” and so she found her place. Prior to her six years as a school counselor, Stephanie worked in private education, specializing in standardized tests, test preparation, and future planning. She writes about her career and hobbies at her blog, Weekend Therapy, and can be found on Twitter @steffschoolcoun. Stephanie also enjoys spending time with her books, crafts, and family.

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Being Flexible with Flex Classroom Seating

By Shannon Anderson, author of Coasting Casey: A Tale of Busting Boredom in School

Being Flexible with Flex Classroom SeatingThinking about using flex seating for your classroom? I’m a huge fan. That being said, I’ve learned over the years that not all students do well with all seating scenarios.

Through grants, garage sales, and gifts, I’ve added many comfy seating options and various table spaces to my classroom. There were many challenges when I jumped on the flex-seating bandwagon:

  • How to fund the furniture (and replace it when worn out)
  • Where to store the kids’ “stuff” with no desks
  • Logistics of choosing who sits where and for how long

I managed to sort out these things and wrote about them in a past blog post.

But this year, I have a different class—a class with many challenging behavior issues (probably the most I have ever had in one class in one year!). Some of my students came in with social anxieties, anger management issues, and attentional demands. I had to figure out a way to have our class function as a family with this family-room style of seating.

I tried tackling the problems individually. It became a lot to manage on a daily basis.

I tried to use classroom incentives to have all kids work for the common good and help each other earn rewards. There were enough students making poor choices that they ended up rebelling against those making good choices. They didn’t take kindly to “polite reminders.”

I finally decided that a small-team approach might work. Each team received a team color, and an assortment of comfy furniture was clumped in areas around the room. I brought back a desk for each team to use for shared supplies, and I hung paper lanterns matching the colors of the teams above them.

Using star magnets that match the team colors, I can keep track of teams’ behavior and can reward teams for being on task, for tidying up, for using growth mindset, and for making other good choices. When a team’s stars reach a certain point across the whiteboard, the students can enjoy a special reward together as a team. It could be lunch in the room, a special treat, or a special privilege.

It isn’t a race against other teams. All teams can move their star to the end many times each month and can enjoy many positive rewards. The mind shift came with students’ having a smaller group that they are accountable to. Just changing this one thing has made a big difference in students’ ability to motivate others to work as a team. We keep the same teams for a month and then I mix it up for the next month. So far, this has been a great way to carefully place students in groups where they have just the right mix of kids with various strengths to be successful.

Shannon Anderson, author of Penelope PerfectShannon Anderson has her master’s degree in education and is currently a third-grade teacher, high ability coordinator, and presenter and a former first-grade teacher, adjunct professor, and literacy coach. She loves spending time with her family, playing with words, teaching kids and adults, running very early in the morning, traveling to new places, and eating ice cream. She also enjoys doing author visits and events. Shannon lives in Indiana with her husband Matt and their daughters Emily and Madison.

Free Spirit books by Shannon:

Coasting Casey Penelope Perfect: A Tale of Perfectionism Gone Wild

We welcome your comments and suggestions. Share your comments, stories, and ideas below, or contact us. All comments will be approved before posting, and are subject to our comment and privacy policies.

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How to Motivate Students with Effective Praise

By Amanda C. Symmes, LICSW

How to Motivate Students with Effective PraiseMotivating students can be a challenging part of the work we do in schools. Kids often report not liking school, and when asked what they do enjoy, they often answer with video games or some other form of screen technology. While this is not always the case, it is a reality that many kids can benefit from assistance with motivation. Educators can choose to view the gap in motivation as a deep trench, impossible to traverse, or we can reframe it and see it as an opportunity to have fun and be creative.

PBIS and Formal Systems
There are mixed feelings about schoolwide programs such as PBIS (Positive Behavioral Interventions and Supports). It is reasonable to prefer that children be motivated intrinsically to do what they “should be doing,” and not simply motivated because they will be getting some extrinsic reward or praise. However, children who lack motivation need to start somewhere. Even if their motivation was first activated through extrinsic rewards, would it not seem plausible that these expected behaviors eventually would become second nature?

I have witnessed school culture enriched by these schoolwide frameworks. They offer opportunities to provide effective praise and rewards to individual students who display expected behavior as well as to the whole class when the collective is functioning well. I see kids feeling genuinely proud of their accomplishments and motivated to continue on this path. Plus, the rewards are fun and motivating (for example, “paw parties” where kids can wear PJs and bring in a stuffed animal, show-and-tell days, board games from home days, movie and hot cocoa days, etc.). These joyful in-school experiences build a positive school culture and increase the odds of seeing more preferred behavior.

More Specific Praise
One way you can use praise effectively is to be specific in your use of it. Simply put, being recognized with precise language feels good. The praise feels more meaningful for the child, and this goes a long way. Compare the more general praise in the first example below to the specific praise of the second.

Example 1: “Good job, keep going.”

Example 2: “Wow, [Name], check this out! You are working hard to decode and also to show me clearly how you came up with your answer. You should be proud of the progress you’re making on this. Don’t back away from the challenge; your brain is definitely ready for more!”

Get excited! When you see something good happening with a student, first you must notice it. Next you must create an engaged and meaningful response. I suggest you stop and really get jazzed about what you see. Enthusiasm is a simple concept but carries a lot of weight with kids. Plus, communicating authentic praise with meaning and excitement increases the likelihood for more of what you want to see.

Focus on the Positive Whenever Possible
It is so easy to fall into the pattern of commanding students to stop doing undesired behaviors: “Stop blurting out!” “No running in the hall!” “That was so mean!” “Say you are sorry!” “Don’t give up, keep trying!”

Think about what might happen if you refrained from this practice and instead shifted your focus to praising the positive things you see—and wish to see more of.

“Wow, I love how the front of the line is keeping their bodies safe and respectful!”

“Derik, that was excellent ownership. You realized your words weren’t kind or necessary and fixed that all on your own. You can feel really good about that.”

“Janelle, I know how hard it can be to stop yourself from blurting out, and I have noticed how hard you’ve been working to reduce this. You can feel proud of this work, girl. Nicely done!”

Connecting your specific praise to the positive feelings that you’d like to evoke in children is a useful tool as well.

Mystery Student
A fantastic teacher at my school uses an effective and fun tool to motivate students. Each day she randomly selects a craft stick with the name of one of her students on it, but she keeps the identity of this student a secret. She tells the class her “Mystery Walker” for the day has been selected and then reminds them all that she will be watching this particular student while walking through the building during the day. She names the expected behaviors for these transitions and points out that everyone should be mindful of these things, because anyone could be the Mystery Walker.

At the end of the day, she reflects aloud about what she observed with this mystery student, and if it was on par with the stated expectations, she rewards the student by publicly showering her or him with specific praise and excitement. She usually offers that student five tickets (class currency) or some other reinforcement tool. She invites the whole class to rejoice in this student’s success. If the student has not demonstrated the expected hallway behavior, she does not name the student, which would be shaming. She simply tells the class that she did not observe the expected behavior on this day and they have a chance to try again tomorrow. She reminds them that because the drawing is random, any of them could be chosen as the Mystery Walker the next day.

It is a fun activity that works well in motivating students and can be adapted for academics as well. For example, before math begins, say, “Let’s see who my Mystery Mathematician is going to be today.” Draw a name and explain what you’d like to see out of your math students that day. When that behavior occurs, praise it explicitly. Let everyone share in the joy.

Quality of the Connection
Using formal systems and frameworks for positive behavior, being specific about our praise, focusing on the positive, and creating unique, fun approaches to reinforcement are some of the ways that we can use praise to effectively motivate students. Additionally, it is critical to consider the quality of your connections with students. Take time to build individual relationships with your students. Trust that it will resonate with kids when they feel like you truly care, enjoy them, and are genuinely moved and inspired by their success.

While ultimately students will be responsible for cultivating their own sense of self-worth and motivation, it is clear that educators have a huge role in helping students develop this in their early years of school. It is important to know that it is more than okay that motivation starts with us, because eventually, it will end with them.

Amanda SymmesAmanda C. Symmes, LICSW, is a social worker currently serving as a school adjustment counselor in Haverhill, Massachusetts. She adores her work with children and is continually amazed by the talented and caring staff she is surrounded by each day. Aside from her work family, Amanda lives with her supportive husband and three kids (ages 16, 13, and 6) and enjoys spending time with them taking in all the beauty and joy in the world. She enjoys writing, knitting, laughing, walking, and using mindfulness. Connect with Amanda on Twitter @LicswAmanda and on her blog

We welcome your comments and suggestions. Share your comments, stories, and ideas below, or contact us. All comments will be approved before posting, and are subject to our comment and privacy policies.

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