Ideas, not Art - Students learn how to use sketchnotes to improve their note-taking in lectures

Ideas, not Art - Students learn how to use sketchnotes to improve their note-taking in lectures

This is an article prepared by Prof. Dr. Katharina Theis-Bröhl, sharing her story of teaching university students how to use sketchnotes to take notes in class. It’s a fascinating look at student progression, complete with samples! Enjoy!

— Mike Rohde and Steve Silbert


In the Summer Semester 2018, almost 20 students from the University of Applied Sciences Bremerhaven, Germany enrolled for the "Visual Notes" seminar, offered by Prof. Dr. Katharina Theis-Bröhl, as an optional course. The aim of this seminar was to learn how to apply sketchnotes to increase understanding in University lectures. All of the students were highly motivated at the start of the semester.

For their first task, Prof. Theis-Bröhl asked the students to design the cover page of their notebook. Their cover should include the title of the seminar and doodles representing various hobbies, experiences, and characteristics that describe them.

As an example, the professor prepared her own cover in advance to show them. The students enjoyed the task and did very well. Through this task, the group discovered that some of the members of their class were quite artistic and liked to draw. Prof. Theis-Bröhl thought that most of the students probably had better drawing skills than herself and wondered if she was still able to teach this group. Figure 1 shows some sample cover pages, including the one by Katharina Theis-Bröhl.

Fig. 1 Sample of cover designs of student notebook

Fig. 1 Sample of cover designs of student notebook

The students quickly noticed that being able to draw well does not automatically translate into being able to make good sketchnotes. When the students were asked to submit lecture notes done in sketchnote style, most of them came to the realization that there would be a long journey ahead of them. As a result of this observation, the students realized that they still have a lot to learn to be able to take notes this way on a regular basis.

Figure 2 shows two examples: “Visual notes from a Math Course” by Svenja Simajchl and “Visual notes from a Biosignal Processing lecture” by Courtney Gerke.

Fig. 2 Two examples of lecture notes done in a sketchnote style.

Fig. 3 Sketchnote by Katharina Theis-Bröhl summarizing the content of the first seminars.

Fig. 3 Sketchnote by Katharina Theis-Bröhl summarizing the content of the first seminars.

It became obvious that the students had to learn how to sketchnote step by step. Figure 3 shows a summary of what Katharina Theis-Bröhl taught the students in the first few of the seminar. The level of homework for the course kept them quite busy. In the beginning, they were asked to draw a variety of symbols. Then they were asked to do their first real sketchnote on an article about the positive and negative effects of digitalization in education. Some of them did quite well – like Alina Hanke (see Fig. 4 - left) but others had some difficulties.

Fig. 4 Sketchnotes on a dispute about what is more important for students to learn in school for future success (left) and on a video in the children’s channel about the origin of thunder (right).

Fig. 4 Sketchnotes on a dispute about what is more important for students to learn in school for future success (left) and on a video in the children’s channel about the origin of thunder (right).

The students also realized that good drawing skills are not sufficient for a successful visual note taking. Notes and doodles have to be combined in an effective way. The next step in their practice of taking better notes was to sketchnote videos. The group started with a simple video about thunder from the children’s channel “The Show with the Mouse.” Prof. Theis-Bröhl played the video twice so that there was adequate time and opportunity to capture the important content. Fig. 4 shows an example sketchnote by Svenja Kröner.

Fig. 5 Sketchnotes from a video by Harald Lesch about climate change.

Fig. 5 Sketchnotes from a video by Harald Lesch about climate change.

The highlight of the seminar was to sketchnote a video on Climate Change by the famous German physicist Harald Lesch. The importance of this topic motivated the students to make great sketchnotes. Due the success of these sketchnotes, Prof. Theis-Bröhl displayed their work for the University to see. She also published them in the “Sketchnotes Germany” Facebook group and received very positive feedback.

Fig. 5 shows sketchnotes by Vanissa Khairani and Dina Aulia Agustina. Dina’s sketchnote is beautifully drawn, however, Prof. Theis-Bröhl suggested that she should include more text in future sketchnotes.

Fig. 6 Sketchnotes from a mini sketchnote workshop video and one made for a seminar on decommissioning nuclear power plants.

Fig. 6 Sketchnotes from a mini sketchnote workshop video and one made for a seminar on decommissioning nuclear power plants.

Students were asked to sketchnote Mike Rohde’s Mini Sketchnote Workshop. Comparing these sketchnotes to their first attempts, one could really see how much they had improved. Shown in Fig. 6 is an example by Mareike Piesnack. Also included is a sketchnote by Frank Grünberg. He submitted this page in a seminar he had to give on decommissioning nuclear power plants.

One assignment the students found particularly fun was to do a sketchnote on a topic chosen by themselves. Many of them created planning sketchnotes, like to-do lists or packing lists, while others did recipes or sketchnoted another lecture. Fig. 7 shows several examples of this task.

Fig. 7 Sketchnotes of the students about a topic chosen by themselves

Fig. 7 Sketchnotes of the students about a topic chosen by themselves

For their final examination, the students were asked to sketchnote from a video of an interview of Andrea Brücken with Peter Schmidt on the topic of how he used sketchnotes in his studies. Prof. Theis-Bröhl thought that the students had improved a lot and she encouraged them to continue to work on sketchnotes in the future. Fig. 8 shows sketchnotes by Courtney Gerkey (the high grade in the seminar) and Malte Schmidt.

Fig. 8 Exam sketchnotes about an interview of Peter Schmidt on Flow TV by Andrea Brücken.

Fig. 8 Exam sketchnotes about an interview of Peter Schmidt on Flow TV by Andrea Brücken.

World Sketchnote Day 2019!

World Sketchnote Day 2019!

Thank You for a great 2018, from the Sketchnote Army Crew!

Thank You for a great 2018, from the Sketchnote Army Crew!