Drawing in College: Using Sketchnoting to Support Student Engagement

Colorful doodles fill up page

Drawing in college? It’s not quite that simple. Student engagement with course content is paramount to their understanding of course topics (Boekaerts, 2016). However, inspiring students to complete assigned readings or to share ideas during class discussions can be challenging. One strategy to support student engagement is sketchnoting, also known as graphic recording or visual note-taking.

While there are varied ways for students to take notes and interact with course content (Stacy, 2015), sketchnoting is an effective tool for enhancing interactions with course content and promoting engaging in-class discussions. Sketchnoting is a visual representation of content. It involves note-taking using words, pictures, shapes, and colors to capture essential points of course content (Baff, 2020; Erb, 2012). Sketchnoting is not about artistic ability. While that helps, the significance of the task is the connection students make with the content as they create their note. Focusing on the creation of a sketchnote can help summarize key ideas and parse out small, important details (Baff, 2020). An added layer of understanding can be developed as students share their notes with classmates and articulate important ideas the notes document. Sketchnoting is powerful because it allows students to document their connection to ideas in a manner that is meaningful to them.

Getting started

On day two of class (although it is never too late to start), I ask students how many times they have used sketchnoting in other courses (most times it’s none). Acknowledging students have no prior knowledge, I provide a brief overview and explanation of the basic tenants of the concept and review this during the first few attempts with sketchnoting.

  1. What is it?
    Sketchnoting is a way to take ideas and connections from readings, videos, and lectures and make those ideas visible using sketches, words, shapes, and colors.
  2. Why is it done?
    It helps the note-taker see the big picture, main ideas, the ways in which ideas connect, and note questions that emerge about content.
  3. How is it done?
    Sketchnoting really has no rules. The use of size, color, and shape can emphasize key points, but the main objective is to create a note that captures the essence of the content in a way that makes sense to the creator.

I complement my introduction with a brief tutorial video to clarify some of the uncertainty of the sketchnote. There are many videos available on YouTube and Google that range from quick two-minute blurbs to 30-minute detailed lessons. The tutorial video ends with a beautifully drawn sketchnote that leaves the class in silence. The finished product looks amazing! That presents the opportunity to display my personal teacher-made sketchnote sample. It cannot compare with the video sample, but it works to document the process of sketchnoting and captures the essence of a particular piece. Showing my sample and explaining my initial trepidation with the process reduces the students’ anxiety and sets the stage for a practice round.

Example of a sketchnote

Private practice

For the first practice, I bring a collection of markers, crayons, and colored pencils to class and present a topic that is really simple and inconsequential—no course work, yet. Past practices have included videos on how cheese puffs are made and how astronauts prepare meals in space. The topics, for the first practice, are intentionally selected so all students have an equal entry point into the task. No grades are at stake, it’s just practice. After watching a quick video, or reading a short passage, students are given three to five minutes to sketch out one or two ideas that are new to them. For the initial practice, giving a quantifiable number of sketches you want students to complete helps them feel at ease. The quantifying of items on a note is not the normal expectation, it’s just an initial scaffolded experience to provide an opportunity for students to try sketching, discover which images readily come to mind, and determine how to apply those images, colors, and shapes to express ideas on their sketchnote.

Real work

After the initial practice, the first content-based learning experience is presented. Using a previously assigned reading task, students are directed to take five-minutes to create a sketchnote about the assigned reading.


In the beginning, students may be unsure of their artistic ability and may be fearful of critical judgment of their work. Establishing a culture of acceptance and support is key. For the first several sketchnoting experiences, I model different examples. I alternatively share a previously made (not fancy) sketchnote and create one on the board—terrible drawings included—to illustrate it’s about the process, not the artistic ability. This seems to be effective. When I asked students to send me samples of their in-progress sketch notes, anonymously, every single student complied.

While sketchnoting is interesting, helpful, and fun, it is time consuming (Valentina et al., 2020). Preparing students to understand the essence of sketchnoting, practicing, and eventually moving into course content takes time. That’s okay. It’s worth it. As students grow comfortable with the process of sharing sketchnotes both in small groups and with the whole class, it has generated multi-layered discussions with many contributors. My classroom discussions have become more robust using sketchnotes and students have demonstrated more engagement with the required readings. For me, sketchnoting is a keeper.

Example of a sketchnote

Melissa Parks, PhD, is an assistant professor of education in the Stetson University Department of Education.

Baff, D. 2020. “Using Sketchnotes in PhD Research and Academic Practice.” International
Journal of Management and Applied Research 7, no.3: 370-381.

Bell, M. A. 2015. “Embrace Your Inner Doodler! Join the Sketchnoting Revolution.”
Internet@Schools 22, no.2: 12–13.

Boekaerts,M. 2016. “Engagement as an Inherent Aspect of the Learning Process.”
Learning and Instruction 43: 76-83.

Erb, V. 2012. “How to Start Sketchnoting.” Bulletin of the American Society for Information
Science and Technology 39, no.1: 22–23.

Stacy, E. M., & Cain, J. 2015. “Note-taking and Handouts in The Digital Age.” American
journal of pharmaceutical education 79, no.7:107. https://doi.org/10.5688/ajpe797107

Valentina S., Bratash, E. I. Riekhakaynen, T. E., Petrova, 2020. “Creating and Processing
Sketchnotes: A Psycholinguistic Study.” Procedia Computer Science,176: 2930-2939.