Goals for next year: Visual note-taking and further exploration

I suspect we all have one (at least). Some project we were hot on going into March, 2020, and have left dangling since. Please bear with me while I share my dropped passion project here, to get myself geared up for next year; I encourage you to share yours in the comments below to kick-start your own enthusiasm!

Note-taking has been an interesting animal: not one that interests me a lot, or that I was ever trained to teach, but a skill that definitely falls by the wayside in an age of copy-and-paste-into-a-Google-Doc availability. We are a proud NoodleTools school (which the students love-we literally have a cohort of Seniors pushing to endow NoodleTools to graduates in perpetuity as their Senior Gift, that is how much they love it), but we have needed some additional ways to help students read meaningfully. In particular, our Middle School teachers focus heavily on plagiarism, and have started thinking about its relationship to reading comprehension. So, we began wondering what kind of note-taking lessons we wanted to offer as a strategy for asking students to slow down and prioritize understanding.

Our experimental solution: visual note-taking.

By some bit of luck, I got to work with both our seventh grade science class and our seventh grade history class on a pilot of this endeavor.

In Science, students were preparing to design experiments for our Middle School science fair. Often, when researching and writing their proposals, their teacher noted a tendency to parrot language that they did not understand. So, as part of the lesson when we talked about NoodleTools and writing citations as a form of source evaluation, we also practiced drawing for comprehension:

  • Slides I made for class included samples made by my Research TAs when I was testing the usefulness of the approach, and then took a passage on transpiration for which the class assisted me in collaboratively build a visual note (none of us knew what it meant when we started, but we did when we finished).
  • Drawing together on the whiteboard and then showing my notes let me emphasize the “very drafty” nature of my notes, as opposed to something one might create for an art show.
  • Small groups has short passages on circulation systems and respiratory systems in insects and earthworms. Their prompt was to draw notes that they could understand to help them unpack the meaning of their reading.

Many of the students were vocal about hating the process — they found it so much slower than just writing down random words and sentences from their reading. However, their visual notes made it clear that they understood their reading very well:




Some weeks later, we returned to this strategy in History. Students were doing research for a Renaissance Dinner Party: They each learned about an assigned historical figure, created a class presentation, and then had to seat ten people covered by the presentations around a table at a dinner party in such a way that no fights would break out and all guests would be entertained.

For the research stage, we returned to the idea of visual note taking. This lesson was a longer process, covering several days, and including a number of different strategies for communicating learning in a manner where the language of the articles they read would not suit (such as a fake Twitter where the historical figures chatted and threw shade).

  • At the end of the first day, the students compiled a list of advice for visual note-taking.
  • We once again practiced as a class with drawing “messy stick figures,” and students started comparing and bragging about the messiness they achieved.
  • Students did note that they wanted to demonstrate emotions/interactions and to be able to tell individuals apart. I brought in iconography from the amazing Good Tickle Brain* and looked at how Mya Lixian Gosling’s very simple drawings of Shakespeare characters (for example, Cleopatra and Juliet), which seemed to help a lot.

Some students still felt frustrated (particularly those who felt more successful and comfortable memorizing and repeating), but some really interesting feedback did come my way. It is anecdotal, but impressive:

  • The day that students had to hand in their visual notes on three articles they read for homework, a bunch were waiting for me at the library. They explained that they had found it boring to re-draw the same material, and wanted to check if it was ok that they took all their notes on one set of pictures.
  • Let me rephrase: They synthesized their notes from several sources onto one set of images. Students naturally moved from a linear set of pull quotes, article-by-article, to integrated knowledge.
  • An elated student stopped by to tell me about how her “super-smart, intimidating” uncle had come by for dinner. She often felt nervous with him, because he always wanted to know what she was learning from school: “and I remembered everything, without even *looking* at my notes!”

This pilot felt meaningful to me. Genuinely understanding and remembering content, paired with natural synthesis is a holy grail I will happily continue to pursue. Later, I developed (but have not tested) a theoretical self-grading rubric to use with visual notes, based on a Verbal to Visual post:


I was able to take another brief stab with our Chemistry classes when they were supposed to be looking at how a range of experiments were conducted, but students tended to focus on the outcome because they often could not visualize the experiments themselves. Sixth grade Science took on a drawing project this year to practice understanding relative dating and geology. And, with our History department’s Advanced Topics Research & Writing class, we now how three years of evidence of many students radically relearning note-taking for deep research.

But I really want to develop a much deeper understanding of note-taking, and get our students experimenting with different methods to find the best fit for themselves. I’ve also been dreaming of doing an exhibit of employee’s notes — showing students that the adults on campus have developed a range of methods that work personally for each of us. I worry that the hurry to “get through the workload” makes more work as students develop frictionless paths that feel like less work…but since they tend to sidestep understanding, I suspect they end up taking much more work in the long-term, with less actual learning.

So — that is something I am excited to get back to work on. How about you?

*And don’t forget to check out Good Tickle Brain — I doubt you will regret it!

3 thoughts on “Goals for next year: Visual note-taking and further exploration

  1. I was super excited to read this post. I am always looking for ways to connect with my middle grades teachers and students – and this may be the ticket!
    Thank you.

    • Tracy–I would love to hear about your experiences and innovations. Added a bit about a rubric to the post above, if it is useful.

  2. This is fantastic. I was working in a classroom today with students who should be at the outlining phase. One of the 8th graders said, “we don’t need the library; we have books already.” And I immediately thought about all the additional roles libraries and librarians can play in the research process. It’s fascinating with that age group because many students can talk knowledgeably about their topics in great depth but struggle more when putting words to paper.
    In regards to my own projects, I’m thrilled that we are building on a History/Biology collaboration with all the 9th graders that gets closely into source literacy!

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