Tips and ideas for teaching high school ELA

A Teacher's Quick and Easy Guide to Using Visual Notes in the Classroom

We’ve all been there. We present information. Students take notes. Then, those notes end up in the bottomless abyss that is their bookbags, never to be looked at again. If, by some miracle, the notes do see the light of day again, they’re just a jumble of bullet points or haphazardly copied sentences from our ancient PowerPoint. 

What if there was a better way? A way to get students to not only take the notes but ::gasp:: maybe actually like them?!?!? Enter visual notes. Visual notes (sometimes called sketch notes) are a way to capture ideas and make connections in engaging, creative, and meaningful ways. 

I’ve recently started trying to incorporate visual notes in my lessons, and the results have been surprisingly positive. Keep reading for a quick and easy guide to using visual notes in the classroom. 


An intro to visual notes

First things first: What are visual notes? A quick Google search will reveal a ton of resources detailing all the ins and outs. I’m here to break it down for you. 

In short, visual notes (aka sketch notes) are, at their core, simply a combination of text and drawings. One of the great things about these types of notes versus other styles (such as Cornell style) is that there’s no right or wrong way to create them. For some students, this may be overwhelming. For others, this freedom is exactly what they need. 

Visual notes. Doodle notes. Sketchnotes. Whatever you call them, these notes are based on the scientific concept of dual coding: the idea that the brain retains information better when it’s presented both verbally and visually. (For more information on sketchnotes, check out Mike Rohde’s website  here). 

Think about it. How many times have you seen a student doodling on their paper? You think there’s no way they’re paying attention, only to learn that they have a solid grasp of the material. Now imagine harnessing that same habit into productive notetaking. Instead of doodling just to doodle, students now have a purpose – the notes are for THEM, not for the teacher. 

tips for creating visual notes

When first creating visual notes, the process can be overwhelming. Here are some tips for helping students use visual notetaking: 


  1. Use symbols and icons to represent key concepts: This can help you remember the information and also make your notes more visually interesting.
  2. Draw pictures or diagrams to explain complex ideas: This can help you understand the information better and also make your notes more engaging.
  3. Use color to highlight important information: This can help you quickly find key ideas and also make your notes more visually appealing.
  4. Don’t worry about being artistic:  Visual notetaking is not about creating a masterpiece, it’s about capturing key information in a way that makes sense to you.
  5.  Simplify information: The whole point of visual notetaking is to simply information, so it’s important to not get too caught up in the details. Focus on the main ideas and use visual aids to help remember them. 

Sometimes, students may not be ready to take the plunge into creating their own notes. My students need a lot of scaffolding and modeling, so my visual notes journey has involved slowly introducing my students to the idea through guided notes that I created for them.

If you want to keep it simple, you can use the basic shapes available in programs such as PowerPoint. If you’re looking to take it up a notch and/or use graphics specifically designed for visual notetaking, I highly recommend Sarah Pecorino and Bricks and Border  on TeachersPayTeachers. Both have a plethora of clip art and doodles that are perfect for sketchnotes. Below are examples of two visual notes that I’ve used these talented ladies for: 


So there you have it. A quick guide to using visual notes in the classroom. 

Looking for some ready-for-you resources? Check out these popular resources: