Sketchnoting the Path to Better Notetaking: An Interview with Carrie Baughcum

Sketchnoting the Path to Better Notetaking: An Interview with Carrie Baughcum

Carrie Baughcum (@HeckAwesome) is a Special Education Teacher at South Middle School in Arlington Heights, Illinois.  Carrie is one of the leaders in the education world when it comes to sketchnoting, a notetaking strategy designed to use both sides of the brain to aid in retention, recall, and comprehension.  In this conversation, Carrie and I discuss the benefits of sketchnoting, and the best ways to implement it in the classroom.   

1. Tell me about your education journey. How did you get to where you are today?  1:18

Carrie’s 19-year education journey begins in 5th grade.  She was an assistant in a mobile classroom that helped students with severe and profound disabilities.  Carrie knew then that her calling was to be a special education teacher.  For the last twelve years she has been in an extended resource program, helping students whose academics, abilities, or skills are years below grade level. 

Carrie teaches a little bit of everything.  She teaches two ELA blocks, math, social studies, and a resource class.  She also writes IEPs for her students and gamifies her class.  I asked her what the secret to doing so much and being so successful was and she responded with organization.  Carrie and her teaching assistants created binders for their students, called “Dashboards” because it fit with the theme of their game set in space, which contain space for students to store their items, badges, data points, grade sheets, summaries of their IEPs, and assessment pieces for the entire quarter.  She said being so organized from day one was really a game changer for her classroom.

Photo courtesy of Carrie Baughcum


2. What is sketchnoting? 10:32

First and foremost, when Carrie first discovered sketchnoting five years ago, she was not an artist.  She could never remember drawing for fun.  Carrie’s journey with sketchnoting starts in her kitchen with her daughters, Tricia and Annabeth, doodling and drawing while she was making dinner.  Carrie is also a blogger (now a vlogger), and whenever she would get her computer out, her girls would start getting into trouble.  So Carrie started writing her blog posts by hand so she could better engage with her daughters.  She added doodles to them, then shared them out on social media.   She discovered two things: first, it was really fun!  Second, there were other people doing the same thing and they called it sketchnoting.  So Carrie did her homework, she found research that pointed to the success of sketchnoting and decided to include it in her own classroom.

She started simply.  Carrie and her students would read a page of a book, then reread it paragraph by paragraph, then Carrie would ask her kids, “When you read that paragraph, what movie plays in your head or what do you imagine?”  After discussing the question, Carrie would draw what the students pictured on the board, and students would copy it.  She noticed that her students’ skills such as visualization, comprehension, and retention improved because of these images.  Once her students got comfortable with these images they started creating their own.  These icons as they are called offered Carrie a glimpse into each student’s understanding of the story at hand.  One side note: Carrie mentions that she first experimented with sketchnoting with one of her toughest classes ever, a group of all boys, and it was wildly successful. 

3. What does the research say about sketchnoting? 14:53

Carrie says that the research on sketchnoting is based on three things.  Firstly, human beings are visual creatures.  I doubt anyone would argue with this, especially since companies pay millions of dollars to make sure they get the visuals on their ad or the colors of their restaurant just right.  Secondly, is the idea of metacognition, or thinking about what you’re learning, synthesizing it, then making it your own in some way.  Lastly, Carrie mentions dual coding.  This is where the magic happens.  Dual coding combines the visual side of the brain with the word-based side and adds the motor of drawing, allowing the brain to store and recall information more effectively.  Carrie has experienced this firsthand in her classroom.

4. How do you deal with students who say they can’t draw? 18:35

Carrie makes all of her students sketchnote, at least at first.  Students have responded very well to sketchnoting, and after they practice and improve their skills, they always stick with it.  Carrie adds, “When people say they can’t draw or they draw like a five year old, it is because that’s the last time you drew.”  Drawing is a skill and a muscle that can be exercised.  Carrie works on developing her students’ visual libraries (visual vocabulary).  These are the things that your brain knows how to draw automatically.  As you add to your visual library, drawing becomes significantly easier.

Carrie shares a story of a student who was very adamant about not being able to draw.  Carrie could tell that she wouldn’t convince this student easily, so she decided to take the student through the process of sketchnoting, minus the drawing.  This student took notes just like everyone else, but instead of drawing the icons, she printed out images on the internet to represent the things she was picturing in her head.  The best part about the story is that since Carrie took the student through the same process as all the other students who were drawing, once the student was ready to draw, she already had all the tools and skills to be a good sketchnoter.  Side note: this student did eventually start drawing.  This was in 2016, the year the Cubs won the World Series, and she drew a ‘W’ to represent the end of World War II similar to the Cubs’ winning flag.  The Cardinals fan inside me is disgusted.

5. What are the parts of a sketchnote? 24:20

Carrie states that some people see sketchnotes done by professionals and get really intimidated because many people lack artistic confidence.  “Sketchnoting is always for yourself, and nobody else.”  The images drawn are not nearly as important as the meaning behind the images.  If a student understands what a drawing means and it helps them to store and recall the information well, then it doesn’t matter what the image looks like.  Carrie encourages teachers to start small with sketchnoting.  There are so many aspects of it that it can seem overwhelming, but if you start small, success will come easy because each aspect of sketchnoting brings something positive to your classroom.  So, here are the different parts of a sketchnote:

  1. Topic: You can’t take notes without a subject to take notes on.
  2. Icons: Images you see on a sketchnote. What image is in your head when you are learning this information?
  3. Containers: These can be squares, triangles, thought bubbles, they organize words and information.
  4. Fonts: Different ways of writing words to show emphasis.
  5. Connectors: Arrows used to show sequences or relationships.
  6. Color and Shading: These are pretty straightforward, they can be used to show importance or to group similar concepts.

6. Do you use sketchnoting in every subject? 27:50

Carrie says that she does use sketchnoting in every subject, but not all the time.  In social studies, it is the preferred method of notetaking, but she also uses it a lot in reading and math.  Her students also like to sketchnote as a group.  I asked Carrie to expand on sketchnoting in math because it seems to me that math notes are generally just definitions and problems.   She said that math, sketchnotes won’t necessarily look that different from traditional notes, she just capitalizes on visuals to help her students learn the skills.  One idea that Carrie mentions is to create a classroom or subject icon library.  Teachers can create a list of icons that when they pop up in the notes, each icon means something different.  For example, a lightbulb can represent important information, or a talk bubble can represent a mantra that students need to remember.  One thing that Carrie said here that really stuck with me was the idea of creating a playful atmosphere where students can experiment and find what works for them.  Any attempt to make our subjects more visual will have positive benefits for our students.

7. What positive changes has sketchnoting brought to your classroom? 31:43

Carrie already mentioned the improved comprehension, retention, and recall of her students because of sketchnoting.  One aspect that Carrie did not expect was the peacefulness and the calming effect of drawing.  She also mentions that when her students discover their ability to draw, it unlocked so many more positive changes.  Students wanted to explore their abilities further.  Once a week, students participate in something Carrie created called, “Drop Everything and Create!”  (I added the exclamation point, it seemed to fit)  Students get the chance to explore creative projects on their own, much like a 20% Time or Genius Hour.  Carrie said that because of sketchnoting, many students chose to be even more creative with their drawing ability, rather than exploring other options for the projects. 

Here, Carrie and I go on a tangent about 20% Time and giving students more voice and choice in general.  I love the idea of 20% Time, but I’m convinced that the voice, choice, and innovation present in those creative projects needs to be present in the general education setting.  I’m not quite sure how to make that happen while balancing the demands of curriculum.  We agreed that it is important to give your students that creative time, but it is also important for you to take that creative time for yourself.  Students will be much more willing to be creative and take risks if they see you doing the same.  If you want to learn more about 20% Time or Genius Hour projects, check out this article I wrote about it here.

8. What challenges have you faced in implementing sketchnoting in your classroom? 40:24

Carrie states that the biggest obstacle teachers face in implementing sketchnoting is themselves.  If you want to implement this in your classroom, you have to draw with your students.  You have to make yourself vulnerable, but the benefits are well worth the risk.  No matter how bad your drawing is, laugh at yourself, make fun of yourself, and most importantly have fun with it.  “Sketchnoting is a marathon.  Pick one element, solidify that with your students.”  Success builds on itself.  Once your students (and you!) have mastered one aspect of sketchnoting, it will be much easier to be successful in all the other aspects.

Carrie is very upfront with her students.  Anything lesson or strategy she uses in class she takes time to explain her reasoning to her students.  Change isn’t always easy, and it is important for you to explain the reasoning behind certain pedagogical decisions, but also to include them in the process.  “It is so important for our students to see that we haven’t settled in life, and are being intentional in our own growth, and we want to change and continue to learn too.”  Carrie also shared an amazing analogy that relates to teachers changing and growing.  One of her teacher friends mentioned that they would never want to go to a doctor or a hairdresser that hadn’t changed what they were doing since the seventies, so why would teachers want to teach the same way as in the seventies? 

9. What would you say to a teacher who prefers more traditional styles of notetaking? 47:04

Carrie doesn’t necessarily think that sketchnoting is the best form of notetaking.  What she does believe, is that the methodology and the elements behind it enhance other notetaking strategies.  All notetaking strategies help students organize information.  Sketchnoting could be the preferred method for certain students, but it doesn’t necessarily have to be.  What we do know is that having students add visuals to any notes will help them retain and process information more effectively.  Carrie adds, “Taking in information, microsynthesizing it, making it our own and then putting words on paper and connecting it to an image in our head is super powerful.”

10. Do you find that some content gets lost when students are sketchnoting? 51:37

“Yes and no.”  Every sketchnote is personal to the learner.  Two people can watch the same keynote address and they can each take away five completely separate things from that speaker.  Sketchnotes are the same way.  They are really only going to be valuable to the learner, because students are synthesizing information in their own head and then representing it visually on paper.  So some of the content might get lost, but the student is connecting to the information in a way that is meaningful to them.  There might be more information on a page of Cornell notes rather than a page of sketchnotes, but are the students really retaining all of the information on the Cornell page?  Are they connecting with the material in a meaningful way?  Sketchnoting allows students to do just that.  So perhaps a blend of sketchnoting and a more traditional notetaking strategy is appropriate in classrooms where content is still a heavy focus. 

11. What advice would you give to teachers who want to start using sketchnotes in their classrooms? 54:58

Carrie starts with two things: summarizing and icons.  She makes sure her students can summarize a block of information and then take that same information and visualize something to associate with it.  Carrie says that with those two skills as a background, her students are well on their way to being great sketchnoters.

12. What is your number one tip for shawesome educators? 56:30

“There are no rules when it comes to bringing out the best in our students.”

My Top Takeaways

  1. Eliminate boring practices

I don’t buy into the idea that there are things that students don’t enjoy learning.  I think there are things students find boring.  What I love about what Carrie is doing is that she has taken something that is traditionally boring and turned it into something that is meaningful and fun.  Each student in Carrie’s class probably looks forward to taking notes because they get to draw and doodle all while learning important concepts and skills.  In our education system, there are a lot of boring practices.  It is time to eliminate these practices and replace them with engaging ones.  Or, if that can’t be done, it is time to help all students engage with material in meaningful ways.  If a student doesn’t like reading, well, we should probably find them a book that would be interesting to them.  Once that student reads something he or she enjoys, picking up the next book won’t be nearly as hard.

  1. Personalize the process

The American education system is very standardized.  We try to teach all thirty students in our class in the same way.  What Carrie is doing is giving each of her students the voice and choice in what goes into their sketchnotes.  In a traditional classroom, almost every student’s notes are going to look the same.  But in Carrie’s class, each one will be reflective of the artist.  This is really important.  Students are much more likely to become avid learners in our classroom if we allow them to be themselves.  No two students are going to learn in the exact same way.  So, let’s personalize learning as much as possible.  I understand giving our students this voice and choice can be scary and overwhelming, but by starting with one small step at a time, we could have a huge impact on our kids.  

What do you think?  How do you make learning visual for your students?  Will you make the change to sketchnoting?  Let me know in the comments below!


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