What Does the Research Say About Using Sketch Notes in the Classroom?

DrM Mendel PUnnet Sq Sketch NOtes

(c)copyright 2018 DrM

What Does the Research Say About Using Sketch Notes in the Classroom?

Good question!  Since I’ve been using sketch notes with my students this year, I’ve been asked this question many times.  My dissertation work was rooted in learning theory so I generally look to the research before I begin using different pedagogical methods in my classroom.  Deciding to use sketch notes was no exception.

What did I find?  Many books, articles, and papers have been written promoting the use of methods to “make thinking/learning visible”.  Some promoted the use of “mind maps’, graphic organizers, and models in order to accomplish this.  Sketch notes were also highly recommended to enable students to make cognitive connections.  So, I gave them a try in my classroom.

A Little Background Info

This is my 22nd year to teach at a secondary level (almost 10 in higher ed as an adjunct now and 5 as an Instructional Coach before I requested to return to the classroom last year). My classroom composition is probably pretty similar to many other classrooms.  My school is approximately 80% free/reduced lunch.  Most students live with only 1 parent, some actually reside at a residential facility for boys that is located within our district lines. Families tend to move around a lot and there are many rental accommodations around us, most in poor condition.  To read more about my community, visit this blog post I wrote when I was an Instructional Coach a couple of years ago (before I requested to return to the classroom) https://ateacherontheedge.wordpress.com/2014/10/12/before-you-can-meet-them-where-they-are-you-need-to-know-where-they-come-from/ Some years, I teach honors and AP and other years, I teach students from the bottom portion of the spectrum.  This year, I have the “struggling learners”.  In fact, some of them are just not capable of performing at a 9th grade level (I have a couple who cannot even read or copy simple letters from the book). All of my classes are 30 students. Many of my students have IEPs (I have 8 in one of my classes of 30, 6 in another), and several speak very limited English and test on a 1st grade level for EL (and do not read English at all).  Many spent much of their 8th grade year in alternative school for problems with discipline.  A couple enjoyed 9th grade so well last year that they decided to repeat it again this year. 🙂 Sound familiar to your teaching situation? Maybe….. maybe not.  However, this is my teaching situation this year and I am determined that my students will experience success and LOVE learning Biology this year…. despite what they might’ve previously been told or labeled by someone else.

My classroom composition spurred me to seek a “non-traditional” method to help them understand difficult concepts.  We are VERY hands-on and I try to provide several phenomena in the lab (or as a demo) in order to help them “see” the abstract.  However, science is not learned by laboratory experiences alone, especially when my students have little/no prior knowledge to construct their understandings upon–I have many who have never been out of our town… or out to eat at a real restaurant… or seen the ocean or the beach. 😦   My students must have some sort of instruction/ explanation/ opportunity to have things explained in a “big picture” sort of way.  Part of my dissertation work was the incorporation of inquiry methods into the classroom, however, students still need instruction, even in this culture of “hands-on” everything.

So, how to ENGAGE my students, while providing them with the cognitive structure they will need in order to make sense of our inquiry/hands-on activities?  THIS is the niche I needed sketch notes to fill in my classroom.

Mendel Patterns of Inheritance DrM Sketch Notes

(c)copyright 2018 DrM

What Worked and What Didn’t

At first, I tried giving my students the assignment to create their own sketch notes after we did an inquiry lab– It was the properties of water lab where you put water drops on a penny and alcohol drops on a penny and try to figure out which properties of water allow the results to occur the way they do.  Should have been an easy one to start with right? Apparently not. During the lab, they were engaged, asking questions, creating hypotheses, and all around having amazing conversations about the phenomenon they were witnessing. Unfortunately, however, even though they tried, I checked many blank sketch notes.  I could see that, despite just participating in an inquiry lab, they simply did not have the experiences and background knowledge that is required to create sketch notes on the topic.  Now what?

I confess, I tried having them do their own a couple of other times  with pretty much the same results.  Students who were artistically-inclined loved being able to draw but most students just worried that theirs looked “terrible” or “I’m going to fail because I can’t draw”. I had to have another plan and they had to be actively ENGAGED and not just frustrated (some frustration is productive, this situation was not!). Next plan… I condensed their student notes into a 1-2 pg outline per topic.  Then, drew their sketch notes on the topic we were covering.  We used these (instead of PowerPoint or a fill in worksheet) and colored them together as we discussed the topic for the day. Giving my students their notes pre-printed seemed to help my slow/struggling readers (or non-readers in some cases).  It also allowed me the opportunity to put them under my document camera and have them “help” me find the main idea or work on reading skills.  We also always refer back to our sketch notes so they can see the correlation between the written notes and the pictures.  This has been a huge help to my EL kids (and my struggling readers too).  Mendel DrM Sketch Notes(c)copyright 2018 DrM

Because we use sketch notes as a TOOL instead of as a “coloring sheet”, my students have really excelled in their understanding in Biology this year.  I confess, it’s difficult teaching 9th grade “non-honors” Biology sometimes! It’s so much easier teaching students who are advanced and (most of the time) enjoy learning.  The student population that I teach this year often has silliness and behavior issues that make classroom management difficult. As a result, ENGAGING them is crucial to helping them understand and succeed.  The way we use sketch notes as a tool seems to be the best fit for my students– They were no longer so intimidated by drawing their own (They now have no hesitations creating their own at the END of a unit- they’re still having troubles doing it at the onset).  They have relaxed about Biology being so “hard” and complex.  They are actively engaged as we color code some things the same color (to show similarities and differences if applicable).  They participate more freely in class (and ask/answer questions more readily) I think because it doesn’t feel like a “traditional” classroom~ it simply feels like we are having a casual conversation about difficult topics. DrM Meiosis Sketchnotes(c)copyright 2018 DrM

Sketch notes used in this way might not work for everyone, but they have really worked for my students.

Want to Read the Research for Yourself?  Check out these resources!!

  1.  Kathy Schrock’s Guide to Everything- Sketchnoting in the Classroom —- (AWESOME comprehensive resource!!!)


2.  Why Use Sketchnotes in the Classroom?


3.  Making Learning Visible: Doodling Helps Memories Stick


4.  Sunni Brown- Doodlers, Unite!  (TED talks)

5. The Benefits of Using Doodling and Sketchnotes in the Classroom


Want More Information About How I Use Sketch Notes in My Classroom?

Check out these blog posts:

  1.  Using Sketch Notes In the Biology Classroom


2.  Using Sketch Notes with the Cell Size Lab (Potato & Iodine Version)


3.  Sketch Notes in Forensics- Blood and Bloodstain Pattern Analysis


Where Can You Find My Sketch Notes?

Check out my TPT Store https://www.teacherspayteachers.com/Store/Drm

I generally upload them as I draw them.  Most have the Teacher’s Guide as well as the condensed Student Notes.  However, I am currently planning to upload the condensed student pre-printed notes to some of my earlier ones very soon.

NEW! Make sure to visit my website at www.biologysketchnotes.com

About Edgy Instruction

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

1 Response to What Does the Research Say About Using Sketch Notes in the Classroom?

  1. 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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