Sketchnotes: Why you should draw your lecture note

04 May 2018
By Unite Students, Staff writer at The Common Room

Considering how much time we spend doing it, it’s weird that nobody teaches us how to take notes. Did anybody teach you the Cornell Note-Taking System? Me neither.

Did they teach you how to use diagrams and sketches to make the connections between things more memorable? Thought not.

You can sketchnote even if - like most people - you’re convinced you can’t draw.

So let’s look at sketchnoting, and how it can make exam revision easier than ever.

What is sketchnoting?

You can sketchnote even if - like most people - you’re convinced you can’t draw.

Sketchnoting is when you combine drawings, diagrams and shapes with written notes in order to capture the information from a lecture.

Sketchnoters abandon the idea of writing down everything. Instead, they focus on getting the big ideas on paper and bringing them to life visually.

You can sketchnote even if - like most people - you’re convinced you can’t draw.

How can you sketchnote?

Do you underline certain words? Highlight others? Use arrows to connect related ideas? If you do, you’re already using sketchnote techniques.

But there are three easy ways to take it to the next level:

1) Mind maps. Start with a single sheet of blank paper. Write the lecture title in the centre. Get the big ideas down as an offshoot of the central title, and add further detail around and near each one.

2) Flowcharts. Similar to mind-mapping, but consider starting with your lecture subject in a corner of the page. Capture the lecture as a process, from start to finish, with everything flowing back to your original subject.

3) Traditional + images. Use lined paper, in portrait mode. Like you always do. Write your subject at the top. During your lecture, capture the big ideas and essential detail. After the lecture, add summaries and questions that will jog your memory of the finer detail.

Which approach is best?

Mind maps and flowcharts are ideal for showing how things connect. They’re best done on a single sheet of paper, turned to landscape. To try these, get yourself a spiral-bound A4 sketchbook with blank pages.

The more traditional approach is great if you still want to record lots of information. It’s done across multiple pages, in portrait - similar to how you’ve always done it. Stick with your usual notebook, but leave more space between your notes for sketching.

So, when do I add the sketches?

You can sketch during your lecture, or when you review your written notes after a class. Or a combination of the two. Whichever works best for you.

As you become a more confident drawer, you’ll be able to quickly make sketches that visually represent what you’re hearing - as you hear it.

Remember, sketchnoting is about listening intently and getting only the big ideas down, rather than trying to frantically transcribe everything with just words.

What should I draw?

Aside from a pen and paper, all you need to start sketchnoting is a visual vocabulary. This is a set of shapes and icons you’ll use to symbolise certain types of information.

For example, your text. Words can be brought to life with basic sketching techniques. Consider starting out with three simple text styles:

  1. a large block style, in caps, for your lecture subject or title
  2. a smaller block style, also in caps, for each ‘big idea’ or heading
  3. ‘normal’ written text for detail or anything that’s not a big idea

Next, your basic shapes. Why would you draw a rectangle around a key term? And when or why would you use a cloud instead? Use different shapes to distinguish between different types of information.

The same goes for arrows. When would you connect certain words and images with a dashed arrow instead of an unbroken one? What would a bold arrow mean? Or a red one?

And finally, create your own unique icons. These will change over time as your drawing skills develop. But start with a list of the main types of information you hear in lectures.

For example:

  • Date
  • Person
  • Quote
  • Event
  • Legislation

Draw an icon for each type. Something that’s easy to replicate. For dates, you could just copy the calendar app icon from your phone. An act or piece of legislation? A simple scroll.

Once you’ve got this basic vocabulary, just give it a try. It might help you focus more on the important ideas, and take clearer notes that are easier to revise with.

Want to find out more about sketchnoting?

On YouTube, look for the Verbal to Visual channel from Doug Neill. You’ll get a great introduction to sketchnoting, plus tutorials to develop your skills.

Or grab a copy of The Sketchnote Handbook by Mike Rohde. Rohde is the guy who coined the term sketchnote.

Read more: Get better grades with these five pointers

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Staff writer at The Common Room