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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