Using Sketch Notes in the Biology Classroom

I confess…. I’m a doodler. If I’m sitting in a meeting, I’m drawing in the margins.  If I’m studying, I draw goofy cartoons to help me remember things.  Last year, I had a student in AP Bio whose first language was Arabic.  She spoke absolutely no English when she came to our school and was fluently speaking English by the time she was a senior in AP Bio. But, even though she could speak conversational English fluently, she still had a lot of difficulty reading and listening in English. Although she was definitely a hard worker, there were so many abstract aspects of Biology that she just couldn’t grasp. I was totally at a loss as to how to help her understand and, in frustration one day, I started drawing little pictures (that she called my “cartoons” lol) to represent the concepts.  Finally, we had found something to “bridge” the gap between a picture that she might know the Arabic word for, but not English, and an abstract concept that she didn’t have a word for at all in Arabic or in English.  She told me often that the only thing that helped her was my “cartoons” I drew when I tutored her during my conference block.  It didn’t take long before our tutoring sessions grew into more than half the class showing up for my “cartoon reviews”.

A Picture is Worth a Thousand Words…

Everyone has heard the old saying “A picture is worth a thousand words” right? Well, in my classroom, we believe it!  This is my 22nd year to teach high school (I teach Bio201 at night).  It seems that every year, my students’ attention spans get shorter… and shorter… and shorter.  Students just don’t seem to be able to concentrate long enough to listen in class and take appropriate notes.  {I blame technology and the ability to “Google” something and have the answer within 4 milliseconds! Lol} In our society, we are inundated with  pictures, memes, gifs, and graphics…with little text .  Students constantly ask me to explain things in “bullet points” because they crave a concise explanation without a lot of wordiness.  Everything is now predominantly visual, even my church uses graphics on big screens and the sermon is in outline form.  It isn’t bad, it’s just the nature of the technology-driven world we live in, I guess.

Like most teachers, I’ve tried a myriad of ideas to help keep my students’ interested and engaged in my science classes.  This year, I wanted to make a conscious effort to move away from the use of PowerPoint in my classes.  I know, I know… But, before you ask, no, I didn’t go back to traditional lecture with students taking notes from what I say.  🙂 I wanted something totally unexpected and different from anything they have experienced in a class before.  That’s when I decided to see if Sketch Notes would fit!

So How Do I Use This in My Classroom?

First, I condensed my students’ notes into a page or so per topic.  Yes, I give them their notes pre-printed.  I have found that the more they have to write for notes, the less they actually hear.  Often, I give them the notes in complete format.  Other times, I leave blanks for key concepts or key words and we fill them in as we explore a topic.

Then, using their condensed notes for a topic, I drew their Sketch Notes.  I tried to use symbols, characters, and graphics that would help them make connections to things they already knew.  I tried to use memory aids such as mnemonics.  I tried to incorporate anything I possibly could to help them recall the topic we were studying… It was a tough job!!

After I had gotten the graphics down on paper, I had to decide the best way to incorporate them into my classes.  This year, I teach 9th grade General Biology and 11th & 12th grade Forensic Science.  Hmmm, with 120 ninth graders, many of them not the most “studious” students, I knew that whatever we did had to engage them or else they’d treat this just as a “coloring sheet”.

So this is what I have done….

  • I have the students take out their pre-printed notes and their Sketch Notes
  • Sometimes, I have them do a Guided Reading Sheet before our discussion day.  Usually it consists of a few questions to ensure that they at least skim over the material before class.
  • In my preparation for discussion day, I decide which parts of their Sketch Notes that we can “color code” by using the same color for particular sections, arrows in cycles, titles, vocabulary terms, etc.  It varies with the topic and the Sketch Notes I use but I try to visually link concepts together using color as much as possible.  I also decide where to begin on the Sketch Notes and into which logical order the topic flows.  Sometimes, it follows the progression of the pre-printed notes, sometimes it might not. The important part is, it paints a logical big picture of the information for the student.  The minute details are not necessary at this point.
  • I use my document camera and color as the students color.  Sometimes, I begin with the title, especially if I can talk about important terms or processes related to it as I did with the Photosynthesis Sketch Notes below.  This is where we discussed what photo- and -synthesis meant.  🙂 
  • It’s also helpful to use colors to help students associate graphics with processes.  That’s why we used green for most of the title (chlorophyll; occurs in plants, most plants are green) and colored the sunshine Os yellow.  Anything to help trigger a student’s memory…
  • I also don’t always start from the top of the Sketch Notes and go down.  For the Photosynthesis Sketch Notes above, I actually started at the bottom and discussed the differences in autotrophs and heterotrophs (which we color-coded and underlined the meaning with the same color so it would be easy to associate), followed by a discussion of the properties of light.  For the Aerobic Cellular Respiration Sketch Notes on the right, we started with Glycolysis and covered the title/purpose last as a summary.  It really depends upon the topic and Sketch Notes, but I do think about how I will logically paint the picture to my students before we ever begin.
  • Whenever there is a cycle or a progression of ideas, I use the same color to color the arrows that join them together.  I also use the same color to color the title of the section or cycle.  This is probably easiest to see in the Glycolysis Sketch Notes on the right in the photo above.  In Glycolysis, all the arrows are yellow (and the title should also be yellow, but apparently, this student colored ahead and messed up lol).  In the Krebs Cycle, the arrows are green and the title for it is also green.  Blocking the color for sections just seems to help visually encapsulate a topic.
  • Different Sketch Notes require different approaches, but I always have a deliberate plan for how I will cover the topic.
  • After we have finished coloring together, then I have students look at their pre-printed notes.  Since they are 9th graders taking General Biology (I probably wouldn’t do this for Honors or advanced students), I put their pre-printed notes under the document camera and we compare how they are represented on their Sketch Notes.  I have found that this step really helps make those associations with my students.  I let them guide me through their notes and we highlight the important things on their pre-printed notes with a highlighter.  This helps me assess them formatively.  It also helps them to summarize the topic.

Have Sketch Notes Been Effective in My Classroom?

Yes….Yes…Yes!  My students have shown more growth in understanding (and achievement) since we began using Sketch Notes in our class. I’ve also begun to see most of my students choose to study their Sketch Notes over the pre-printed textual notes (even though they contain most of the same information).

Do we use them every day? No.. We spend most of our time in inquiry-based investigations and activities.  However, it is still necessary to have class discussions and time for explanations in an inquiry-based classroom (or at least it is with my students).

Do we use them with every topic? I have tried to draw them for most of the important ideas in Biology (I’m drawing as I go this year so I’m not finished with the whole course lol). I have also drawn 1 or 2 to go with lab investigations that we have done (like the Bubble Lab for cell membranes and Cell Size lab).  They usually color these on their own (without my direct guidance). I’ve found it helps them just reflect upon what they did in lab.

Are students engaged with this type of instruction? Absolutely!! Since most of my 9th grade students aren’t the most “angelic” kids, behavior in the classroom can be challenging at times.  With traditional discussion, I am always having to correct behavior for somebody (especially in my 1st block that has 22 boys and only 6 girls lol).  Since we have been using Sketch Notes in place of traditional instruction, rarely ever is a student off task.  It’s amazing how less “frightening” a difficult subject like Biology can be when students feel like you’re all in class just having a casual conversation about enzymes and the energy of activation 🙂  I’ve also found that some students who wouldn’t dare speak up to ask a question during traditional class are more likely to say “Hey, what color did you color the title for Passive Transport again… and can I make your ‘Hypo Hippo’ fatter?  I feel like he’d be much fatter if all the water rushed into him like it would a cell in a hypotonic solution.  {Actual convo with the shyest student in one of my 9th grade Gen Bio classes lol)

Do I still use PowerPoint in my classroom? Sometimes, but usually only as an additional tool to show diagrams or a photograph as a reference.  The days of PowerPoint slides that students take notes from in my class are history.

In conclusion, as I reflect upon this semester, I feel that the use of Sketch Notes has proven to be a wonderful tool that I added to my “instructional toolbox” this year.  What started as “cartoons” to help one EL student understand AP Biology concepts has grown into something that has proven beneficial to most all of my students.  This year, I have 5 EL students who speak no English at all in my Biology classes, in addition to approximately 10% of my students who have IEPs.  Using Sketch Notes has been a life-saver for these students who tend to struggle in a traditional, or even inquiry-based class.  On several occasions this semester, I have asked the students to create their own Sketch Notes for things we have studied.  Unfortunately, it has not been a very successful assignment for them.  Maybe they do not have adequate background knowledge and experiences to be able to do it? I don’t know but if I was teaching honors-level classes, this would definitely be something I would have them do as a review.  Overall though, I feel that it has made a positive difference in my students’ understanding of Biology.  Since many of my students this year have had academic and disciplinary difficulties, it has also helped them feel more comfortable about speaking up and asking questions in class, working with lab groups, and generally feeling confident that they can DO science.

Where can you find my Sketch Notes?  Check out my TPT Store

I generally upload them as I draw them.  I am currently planning to upload the condensed student pre-printed notes very soon.

NEW! Make sure to visit my website at

About Edgy Instruction

Science Teacher (Biology, AP Biology, and Forensic Science), Anatomy Professor, and former Instructional coach.
This entry was posted in Instructional Coaching, Strategies, T.I.P Theory Into Practice, Teaching and tagged , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

6 Responses to Using Sketch Notes in the Biology Classroom

  1. Love your doodle notes please let me know when more are available

  2. Kimberly Middleton says:

    This blog post and your sketch notes are fabulous. I can’t wait to see your preprinted, guided notes. I think this is an excellent resource and would be wonderful for my 9th grade SpEd/EL students also. Thank you!!!

  3. Pingback: What Does the Research Say About Using Sketch Notes in the Classroom? | Edgy Instruction

  4. jesstars says:

    I tried this technique out in my anatomy class for the Urinary System Unit, and the kids seemed to enjoy it. I videoed myself doing it so the kids that were absent could also follow along. Since reading your blog I also created sketchnote reviews for each unit in anatomy. I really enjoy making them for my classes. Thank you for sharing your experience and helping other teachers.

  5. Pingback: What is My Process for Drawing Sketch Notes for My Students? Here’s A Step-By-Step Guide! | Edgy Instruction

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