Visual Notes

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What we did

This will be a short post – just a note to share a small technique I think has been reasonably successful: All this past semester or so in Grade 6 Humanities, whenever we watch any kind of movie in class, I pass out blank pieces of paper and tell the students to take notes by drawing. (note: none of the pictures here are actually the results of this process – I don’t have any with me at the moment so I’m making do with some other student drawings; I hope to add some examples later)

Why we did it

A few months ago I started to notice that my previous system, taking turns at collaborative note-taking in a Google Doc, while extremely successful in its own way, was only engaging two or three students at a time. Having all the students take notes on their laptops would obviously be too distracting. Therefore, if I wanted to get notes from more people at once, it had to be on paper. Since this is 6th grade we’re talking about, I added the drawing aspect to make it more fun.

What happened


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The things that 6th graders can produce while watching a 15-minute video about, for example, the Silk Road, are incredible. I now feel like all the films we watched in class without paper to draw on were wasted opportunities.

Admittedly, some students take time to only draw one or two comic-book-style characters from what they’ve seen, with little or no text, but on the other end of the spectrum some of them will produce page after page of dense mind maps or visual reproductions of the tiniest details from the film. The balance usually seems to be on the side of students’ drawing things that are either important concepts, or things that might help them remember the content and concepts later.

What I learned

Pros – I love seeing what students come up with, and I think many of them pay closer attention while looking for things to draw. I obviously don’t have any quantitative proof, but my perception is that many of the more energetic 6th graders focus a bit better while taking visual notes, and I plan to keep giving them chances to do so in the future while observing how they fare.

Cons – I do suppose a few students might get caught up in the drawing aspect and miss some content from a film, but I think the proportion of students who fall into that trap is likely equal to or lower than the proportion who’d be staring at the wall, falling asleep, or fiddling with their pencil cases if we didn’t have the paper available. I haven’t felt like students seem to be missing out on anything, personally… and recent research on the possible benefits of taking notes by hand only adds to my positive feelings about this technique. The fact that I’ve only recently learned how to efficiently use our printer as a scanner only adds to my enthusiasm – since now these creatively scribbled-on pieces of paper could easily be compiled, shared, used in blog posts, etc., instead of getting thrown out.

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One thought on “Visual Notes

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