Making Learning Visible: Doodling Helps Memories Stick

Doodle of a feedback protocol of adults and students by Shelley Paul.

Shelley Paul and Jill Gough had heard that doodling while taking notes could help improve memory and concept retention, but as instructional coaches they were reluctant to bring the idea to teachers without trying it out themselves first.

To give it a fair shot, Paul tried sketching all her notes from a two-day conference. By the end, her drawings had improved and she was convinced the approach could work for kids, too.

“It causes you to listen at a different level,” said Jill Gough, director of teaching and learning at Trinity Schools. Doodling has long been seen as a sign that students aren't paying attention. But it may be time to give doodling an image makeover.

Paul and Gough began introducing the idea to teachers at their school slowly. A group would meet before school and listen to a TED talk, trying to sketch the big ideas. They would then share their drawings with one another and talk about why and how they represented ideas. Understanding that it’s important to model risk-taking for both teachers and students, Paul next tried taking sketchnotes in high school-level classes.

“I sat through two 45-minute lectures in high school social studies and not only was I super focused because I was doodling, I could also basically give the lecture afterwards,” said Paul, who is director of learning design at Woodward Academy. “And if I look at the doodle again today for three to four minutes, I can basically remember it all again.”

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These experiences convinced Paul and Gough that something powerful happens when auditory learning is transposed into images. It didn’t take much to excite students about the idea.

“It really is amazing how much, with just a tiny bit of introduction, most kids will take to it,” Paul said.

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Teachers were more skeptical at first, but the approach and its results slowly won many of them over. A fifth-grade science teacher at Trinity was convinced when a student left his understanding of how magnets work on her desk -- a sheet of paper covered in drawings.

“What they can produce is beautiful and it makes them better listeners,” Gough said.

The practice also makes student learning visible and provides a valuable formative assessment tool. If a student sketches an interesting side note in the lesson, but misses the big themes, that will show up in her drawing. And when students share their drawings with one another, they have the chance to fill in the gaps in their knowledge, and drawings, while discussing the key ideas. Going over the drawings also solidifies the information for students.

“We’re using the collective brain to deepen all of our learning,” Paul said.

BASED IN NEUROSCIENCE

While doodling has often been seen as frivolous at best and distracting at worst, the idea of sketchnoting has grounding in neuroscience research about how to improve memory. When ideas and related concepts can be encapsulated in an image, the brain remembers the information associated with that image. William Klemm, a professor of neuroscience at Texas A&M University, says the process is akin to a zip file.

“This is a way to get your working memory to carry more,” Klemm said at a Learning and the Brain conference in San Francisco.

A ninth-grader's doodle of a discussion about Mark Antony's rhetorical strategies in Act 3 of 'Julius Caesar.'(Courtesy of Shelley Paul)
A ninth-grader's doodle of a discussion about Mark Antony's rhetorical strategies in Act 3 of 'Julius Caesar.'(Courtesy of Shelley Paul)

Klemm advocates thinking in images and stringing them together into what he calls “story chains,” to vastly improve how much students can remember. Sketching notes makes these story chains visible and tangible.

“Teachers were amazed at the depth and diversity of what the kids produce, even the first time we tried this,” Paul said.

Gough and Paul were originally inspired by Sunni Brown’s TED Talk, in which she tries to convince listeners that drawing plays a central role in learning. Later the two educators took Brown’s webinar, which helped give them useful tricks and, most importantly, the license to mess up, share their failures and keep practicing.

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And, while students take copious notes, they may not be retaining much of what they write down. When a student doodles, on the other hand, he is synthesizing the information, making choices about what’s important and encoding the memory in a new way.

“If we draw or sketch, that’s activating the visual pathway, so we’re using our audio senses to take in information. But our output is visual, so there isn’t that traffic jam,” Gough said.

It can be hard to sketchnote in real time and keep up with the flow of a lectures. But even that isn’t all bad. “Even the things you cut get attached to the things you did choose because you can take yourself back to that choice,” Paul said. The two educators have also experimented with using little sketches as ways to take notes in the margins of books.

DOODLING IN THE DIGITAL AGE

It may seem like doodling will become a thing of the past as schools increasingly move towards digital textbooks and notetaking. But Gough and Paul say there are always ways to adapt the practice and new affordances that technology can offer. Since many public school students can’t write in their paper textbooks anyway, perhaps they can sketch when they take notes virtually. Sketching with a stylus on a tablet, for example, could also offer some interesting new avenues for color and design that pen and paper don’t.

More than anything, Paul and Gough want to offer multiple entry points for students to access learning. While doodling works for some kids, it might not for others and that’s fine. What’s most important is that teachers allow for variation in learning styles, even when it is unfamiliar to them.

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“If we are going to model lifelong learning for and with children and our colleagues, sometimes we have to be uncomfortable and try it,” Gough said.

Sketchnoting has become an important learning tool for these two educators, but they say it was just as important to practice public risk-taking.

Both women tweeted out their sketches from the very beginning -- a scary thing to do when the first pictures were mostly stick figures running off the page, but one that immediately helped generate support from other doodlers. Now Paul and Gough regularly share both their own drawings and their students’ work and growth.

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