Visual Notetaking as a Way to Illustrate Learning

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By Laurie Couture
Pedagogical consultant, EngagED Learning

Among educational researchers, there is no consensus about the definition of the word “creativity.” However, among the various definitions of this ability, concepts such as production, ideas, connections, and new creations are common. We can therefore conclude that a teacher seeking to promote creativity in their students must create situations in which they can express their own ideas, in their own way, with the flexibility of choosing which tools to use.

Visual notetaking is one of the numerous existing strategies that are used to stimulate students’ creativity. This method provides direct and privileged access to what the learners have retained, and to the connections they have established between the concepts. Students convey their vision of what they have learned using words, images and symbols of their choice.


According to author Emily Mills, author of the book The Art of Visual Notetaking, “Visual notes are used to get an overview of what has been retained. They can be taken by hand, in video/photo format or even in the form of diagrams that combine images and written text.”

The objective behind the use of drawing and text is to render the personal interpretation of a concept, a notion, a skill or knowledge as accurately as possible. Thus, the choice of image or word is not an issue, because if either one does not suit the notetaker’s intent, there is a second option to demonstrate understanding. For example, if I want to illustrate the concept of “nomadism,” here’s what it could look like using three different methods:

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Steve Masson, a researcher and professor at Université du Québec à Montréal, (UQAM), specializes in everything related to the brain’s processes of learning and information retention. 

He explains that for a neural connection to be strong, the brain must be able to recall the knowledge or skill from its memory multiple times. As a result, all situations that place students in a position to recall, remember, and consolidate learning, help them to last over time. In short, this strategy has scientific foundations proving its effectiveness, and it can be easily used in the classroom because it is accessible to everyone and is simple to carry out. All you need is a sheet of paper and a few pencils at hand. You can go even further by using technological tools.


There are several techniques used to visually account for what has been understood and integrated. No single technique is better than the other; on the contrary, they can be complementary and used according to individual needs and contexts. Each learner integrates the concepts at their own pace and in a different way. It is therefore fair to recognize that the way to demonstrate what is going on in one’s thoughts will also be adapted to one’s own perceptions.

In order to choose the right strategy, you have to ask yourself what the basic intention is. Is it to summarize? To learn? To remember? Depending on the answer, the teacher will be able to choose what seems to best meet their intention. Afterwards, students who have used different ways of illustrating their learning can choose the method best suited to their needs.

Whatever the method, what matters most is the reflection that occurs before the production of the visual notes—not the beauty of the result. How the notes visually appear is not the main focus – the aim is practicality and effectiveness! 


The Sketchnote
Sketchnote is a portmanteau term, meaning that imperfect images are assembled with notes in order to synthesize information. It is therefore a notetaking technique that helps you visualize your thoughts.

The Concept Diagram
Also called a concept map, it is used to relate elements that revolve around a theme, are interrelated or must be prioritized. Again, this is a notetaking strategy whose purpose is to demonstrate the connections that are made in the learner’s brain.

The Educational Collage of Images 
Not all students enjoy using pencils. Remember that it is their thinking behind their choice of image that makes visual notetaking relevant, and they can simply construct a montage of thoughtfully-organized images to make an educational collage.

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For effective notetaking, here are seven steps to successfully illustrate your learning. Once the strategy has been chosen, it is relevant to make students aware of these steps so that they create a result that represents their understanding.

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A thousand-and-one digital applications can support you in class when taking visual notes. 

  • Check that students have access to the tools.
  • Give them time to learn how to use the ones they want to implement (10 minutes can be enough). 
  • Give them a few small challenges to complete while they are exploring.

Tayasui Sketches School
The Sketches School app is available for free on Android and iOS, and provides blank pages upon which you can draw using your finger or a stylus. It’s a must-have for sketchnoting.

This application is already included with Apple devices and the iOS operating system. Pages enables you to create several types of digital documents, such as books, posters and flyers. Within the platform itself, you can draw, and import images and videos as well as write and integrate pictograms. As a result, Pages becomes an application of choice giving free rein to your imagination and your creativity.

Google Drawings
The Google Drawings platform, available online, enables you to combine images of all kinds and freehand drawing. Touch Chromebook users can use it to take notes and enhance them with pictures. In addition, like all applications powered by Google, this tool is collaborative, which means that several people can work on the same project.

Jamboard / Whiteboard
“Whiteboard” type tools are interesting because of their collaborative aspect and because they allow elements to be organized freely in a creative space. Google Jamboard or Microsoft Whiteboard feature interesting drawing and integration options. Reminders are also relevant to use when you want to clear your head and get organized later!


Play with it Yourself
Teachers who do the exercise themselves before asking their students to complete it go through the same challenges, thinking, and difficulties as their students. This will make it easier to guide them. In addition, the teachers will be able to use the templates they have created to encourage their students to think about the possibilities.

Time Space… and Time
In the beginning, students will need more time to think and try different methods. They will even potentially be unhappy with the results. You will then need to plan longer periods so that the students can hand in work that they like and maintain their desire to start the process again later. On the other hand, it is good to remind them that this is not a purely artistic exercise.

From Smallest to Biggest Tasks
For the first few tasks, it is recommended to let the students illustrate words and concepts while they learn the strategy. The more they use pictures in their note-taking, the easier it becomes. They will then be able to illustrate more complex notions or create more elaborate summaries.


Mills, E. (2019). The Art of Visual Notetaking: An interactive guide to visual communication and sketch-noting, Quarto Publishing Group.

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