Gathering Guest Post: Get Schooled: Sketchnoting, Doodling, and the Power of Visual Note Taking

Gathering Guest Post: Get Schooled: Sketchnoting, Doodling, and the Power of Visual Note Taking

By Tanny McGregor and Shawna Coppola

Our Fall online PD celebration, the #TheEdCollabGathering, is fast approaching! On Saturday, September 24, Tanny and Shawna will be presenting during session one of our gathering. You can watch them at 11:00 am EST. Learn more about their presentation here.

We’ve all experienced those cringe-worthy moments in our teaching lives that we would prefer to forget, but that we seem to fixate on during those moments when we should be falling into a peaceful slumber, or enjoying a steaming cup of coffee on the front stoop, or (ahem) writing a blog post. For me (Shawna), one of those moments that periodically pops into my brain is one that occurred during a special meeting with a student’s parents during my second year of teaching.


This student (I’ll call her Jo) was as unengaged in my class as one could get. She rarely participated in class, and when she did, it was to quietly growl at one of her classmates. Still, I knew from my limited interactions with her that she was exceedingly bright. I had asked her parents to meet with me in order to help me gauge what I could do to pique her interest and help her integrate herself more into our classroom community.

One of my “issues” with Jo was that, on the rare occasions when I was conducting a whole-class lesson, she would do “nothing” but doodle in her notebook. She wouldn’t even doodle anything related to my lesson (gasp!), but instead would draw a variety of centaurs and other fantastical beasts. I remember relaying this information to her parents this as if I expected them to shake their heads in sympathy, furrow their brows, and quietly school their daughter on the importance of paying attention in class.

Instead, they totally schooled me.

“Do you not understand that doodling helps her focus?” they asked me, gesturing to Jo as she looked up at us mid-doodle.

I remember blinking stupidly as they spent several minutes defending their daughter’s doodling ways and eventually agreed to “allow” her to continue doodling during whole-class instruction. But the truth was, I didn’t understand it. As a lifelong rule-follower up to that point, I had always been under the impression that doodling was, at the very least, a waste of time– and was at the most an act of subordination.


I don’t think I was alone–in fact, I know I wasn’t–and even now, fourteen years later, I feel a flicker of guilt when I find myself doodling during a presentation or faculty meeting. That’s right: I am a doodler. In fact, I not only doodle on a regular basis, but I have even graduated to engaging in doodling’s more cerebral cousin: sketchnoting.

What is sketchnoting you ask? At its very basic, sketchnoting is doodling with a purpose. While both doodling and sketchnoting have been proven to help learners maintain their focus, sketchnoting (also known as visual note taking) has also been shown to help increase student engagement, comprehension, and recall, among other things. Sketchnoting is not something that only “artists” can do, nor is it something that requires extensive training (although with practice, it does get easier!).

Sketchnoting incorporates both text and images (doodles) to help learners synthesize what they are reading about or listening to in order to create a visual representation of their learning. Because it involves more higher-order thinking than traditional notetaking, sketchnoting provides learners with a powerful (and fun!) way to engage with new information, leading to greater retention. While this wasn’t exactly what Jo was doing in my classroom back in 2002, I can’t help but imagine how much more powerful her learning experience would have been had I understood the cognitive benefits of doodling and helped her and her classmates incorporate this practice into their learning at school.

But my professional mistakes–and cringe-worthy moments–don’t have to be yours. On September 24 at 11:00 AM EDT, Tanny McGregor and I will co-facilitate a session during #TheEdCollabGathering on the power and possibility of sketchnoting and will provide participants with some easy and fun ways to get started on your own sketchnoting journey. Our hope is that, by the end of our 45-minute session, each of you will “walk away” with an awareness of the misconceptions surrounding doodling and sketchnoting, along with a greater understanding for how to begin to incorporate these practices into both your and your students’ lives. In honor of Jo, who I sincerely hope is still doodling some amazing centaurs at age 25, we hope you make time participate in our session–and get schooled.


Ainsworth, S., Prain, V., & Tytler, R. (2011). Drawing to Learn in Science. Science, 333, 1096-1097.

Andrade, J. (2009). What Does Doodling Do? Applied Cognitive Psychology. Retrieved from


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