What is My Process for Drawing Sketch Notes for My Students? Here’s A Step-By-Step Guide!

You’ve Used Prepared Sketch Notes & Doodle Notes But You’d Like to Create Your Own…. But How?

I’ve been creating Sketch Notes for my students for several years (ever since I had a student in AP Bio whose first language was Arabic and I drew cartoons for her… I was desperate to help her understand the concepts!).  See this blog post for more info.

Pretty soon, almost my entire class would come back during my conference block for our “cartoon reviews”. One day, I looked around an almost full classroom, and realized that sharing information via simple pictures was helping students make very complicated connections in their learning. It was my desperation to help my Arabic student that paved the way for using Sketch Notes with all of my students.

If you’re like me, you might have reviewed the research on the effectiveness of using Sketch Notes in the classroom. See this blog post for more info on the research.   But, research is one thing and practical implementation into the classroom can be quite a different thing….

The Research Says Students Should Create Their Own Sketch Notes In Order To Learn Something….

Part of me agrees with this, but the real-life teacher who tried (and failed several times) to get her 9th grade non-honors Biology students to create Sketch Notes on several topics last year, disagrees. It’s one thing to take simple notes on a lecture, speech, or reading passage using Sketch Notes…. But, it’s a whole different ballgame when you are faced with a complicated, multi-faceted scientific topic or process. In my experience, you really have to have a good conceptual understanding of the WHOLE topic (especially a complicated scientific topic!) before you can create a graphic that represents it visually in a simple way.  Think about the process of Cellular Respiration. You have to understand the “big picture” of what happens in the whole process before you can visualize the individual steps involved in the process.  I’m a “whole-to-part” kind of learner. I need the overview so I understand why the individual parts are important. While some students might come into your class prepared, on grade level, with the previous year’s science standards mastered, sadly most students do not (or at least they don’t in my class). With my 9th graders last year, I tried having them create their own Sketch Notes several different ways:  1) at the beginning of a topic (so I could possibly see their misconceptions about it) 2) after our discussion/exploration of a topic (I tried after an inquiry lab so I could possibly see the connections they were making) and 3) as a review at the end of a topic (I thought they might be able to apply their knowledge of a topic to another situation). How did it turn out? Epic FAIL in all 3 situations! While #3 (as the review) was slightly more successful than the other 2 situations, I still wasn’t really impressed with the results my students produced. See my reflection of last year in this blog post.

So, What Was I Missing With My Students?

To help me help my students, I took a good look at the steps I used to draw Sketch Notes for them.  I understand that my subject matter knowledge of most scientific concepts is greater than my students, so I really needed to figure out a way to help them learn to draw Sketch Notes for themselves.  I decided to change my approach with our current Cardiovascular unit for my Anatomy & Physiology students and be more deliberate in developing the skills they might need (Blog post on this coming soon!) In the meantime, here is the process I personally use in drawing Sketch Notes for my students…..

1. Pick ONE Topic for Your Sketch Notes and Take Notes On That ONE Topic

Learning is messy. My initial notes are messy. I’m only interested in gathering information about a topic, not creating anything.  As an example, here are my initial notes for my latest Sketch Notes on how opioids/opiates work and how Narcan can reverse their effects (We are studying Toxicology in Forensics and I’ll use it in A & P with the Nervous System). I watched 3 videos on Youtube and utilized 2 different books for this topic.  img_2736

2. Refine and Polish Your Notes

I’ve done this ever since I was in high school. I ALWAYS go back and re-copy/reorganize the notes I took in class. I think this is key to helping me understand something new.  Here’s what my notes look like at this step: img_2735

I also look up anything that needs more clarification in my mind (for this topic, one of the things I looked up was the respiratory feedback loop).  I try to make connections and have my notes paint a picture in my own head.  I use doodles and anything I can think of to help me visualize what the words actually mean. It’s these connections that help me create my Sketch Notes. I also usually type up these notes and try to keep them to no more than 2 pages. This limit helps me be concise with my explanation of a topic.

3. Produce A Rough Draft

I tend to sketch out my ideas on a piece of paper to make sure I get all of the important concepts included.  I also put them in the general area on the page I think will work best. This is my rough draft for the Opiates Sketch Notes. img_2738-1

Since I now use my iPad Pro with Procreate to draw my Sketch Notes, I will use the picture of my rough draft as a guide as I draw.

4.  Create Final Sketch Notes

For a long time, I drew my Sketch Notes in pencil, then inked them in with permanent pens.  One of my absolute favourite things is not knowing exactly how they are going to turn out until everything gets erased lol. When the new iPad Pro came out in November, I decided to use the money I’d been saving and purchase one and the new Apple Pencil. … Game.Changer! I love drawing on it. I use the Procreate App and it creates Sketch Notes that print beautifully clean lines. It’s really a fabulous combination. Here are my final Sketch Notes on Opiates img_0285 The Procreate App allows you to draw in “layers” so it is really easy to hide labels and words on the Sketch Notes.  It really makes creating fill-in-the-blank versions of my Sketch Notes really easy!

Concluding Thoughts

If you are interested in creating your own Sketch Notes, or guiding your students as they develop their own, I have a couple of words of advice……

  1. Find an example of a font you like (maybe bubble letters), along with some basic arrows, page dividers, frames, etc. and print them out or pull them up on your computer.  Having a few examples of things to look at as you create can make a blank page less frightening!  There are a lot of great ideas on Pinterest.  I especially like the simple step-by-step instructions for drawing basic doodles. Check out my “Journaling” board on Pinterest if you need ideas to get you started.
  2. Do your research FIRST before you start to draw.  Your notes = your plan.  It’s very difficult to create Sketch Notes on a topic if you don’t have a clear, big picture of the idea you want to convey to your students.
  3. Practice!  It gets easier, I promise! You don’t have to be an artist (goodness knows I’m not haha). Much of the impact will come from the way your Sketch Notes are set up in an orderly, logical arrangement.  They should tell a story in pictures.
  4. Use the graphics in your Sketch Notes to “connect the dots” for your students.  Make connections.… Give them concrete, simple examples to associate those complicated concepts with so they can recall and remember.  That’s the point right?  My students use their Sketch Notes to study for exams more often than they use printed or handwritten notes.  They always tell me it’s so much easier to remember pictures than words.
  5. Finally, HAVE FUN using Sketch Notes!  This tool has truly transformed my classroom! My classroom environment is so different now. Students are relaxed. We color together and talk about complicated processes.  It really brings the stress level down a notch.  My students love it!


To see all of the Sketch Notes I have developed for my students, please visit my new website www.biologysketchnotes.com  (subscribe to my newsletter and download a FREE  Sketch Notes sample) and also my TpT Store at https://www.teacherspayteachers.com/Store/Drm  Make sure you FOLLOW ME to be notified when I post new Sketch Notes!

About Edgy Instruction

Science Teacher (Biology, AP Biology, and Forensic Science), Anatomy Professor, and former Instructional coach.
This entry was posted in Anatomy & Physiology, biology, Forensics, Instructional Coaching, Sketch Notes, Strategies, Teaching and tagged , , , , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

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