Has it ever happened to you that you watched an inspiring interview on YouTube for 30, 40, 50 minutes but you forgot all about it in a couple of hours or days? What about a Ted Talk or a lecture? Maybe a podcast episode?
Well, this is why visual notes or sketchnotes can be so powerful. With sketchnoting, you not only activate another part of your brain that would otherwise be dormant, but it also makes your notes much more inviting to revisit in the future.
I have mild dyslexia, which I have struggled with ever since I was a kid. I am grateful for my learning disability because it always made me work extra hard to keep up. However, this also means that learning by heart and memorizing lists and graphs for exams as a student was definitely not easy for me.
Fortunately, I discovered sketchnoting while I was doing my Master’s degree and it helped me a lot to prepare for exams and to retain more information than ever before, even after the exam was already behind me. In this blog post, I will explain some of the theories and arguments behind why sketchnoting is an effective tool for learning. Then, at the end of this post, I will give you a small exercise that you can try for yourself.
Side note: If you don’t care about the theory, skip to the exercise by clicking on the button below.
Dual Coding And Doodle Study
The ‘dual coding theory’ was first coined by Allan Paivio in the 1970s. This theory suggests, that humans process pictures and text differently (Rohde, 2012). But Allan Paivio’s research shows that people’s memory improves when they received information through both verbal and visual modes (Roßa, 2017).
“When both modes are active, your brain creates an associative library of words and images with mental cross-references between them.” (p.28, Rohde, 2012). That means that sketchnoting activates both verbal and visual modes to capture information.
In his book, Mike Rohde (2012) also argues that “The visual map you create can help you recall the details of a presentation. I often recall thoughts, feelings, and other details when viewing my sketchnotes.” (p.30, Rohde, 2012). This is something that I experienced first hand as well. I can recall graphs and checklists from my Master’s studies without any difficulties. I believe it’s also because it takes much more mental energy to come up with a doodle that matches the content, which means that your focus and concentration are also heightened.
There was also an interesting study, conducted by Jackie Andrade, a cognitive psychologist at the University of Plymouth, UK. A group of 4O volunteers was asked to listen to a monotonous two-and-a-half minute phone message. 20 of the participants shaded boxes while listening, the other 20 simply listened. After listening to the message, volunteers were given a surprise memory quiz. The group of 20 doodlers recalled on average 29% more than the non-doodlers.” (Rohde, 2012; Sample, 2009).
Here is an example of how I memorize lists now. At the end of this post, you will find another example to practice your visual notetaking skills.
Visual Faster Than Verbal?
Based on my own experience and many other studies such as the phone message example, we can see the benefits of visuals when it comes to memory improvement. Not only that, but Mike Rohde (2012) also argues that: “Drawing an idea can often take just a fraction of the time needed to describe the same idea in verbal detail.” (p.35, Rohde, 2012).
If this is the first time that you heard of sketchnotes or you’re still a beginner, you might be skeptical about this one. I understand. In the beginning, it definitely took me longer to doodle as well. But the more you practice, the faster you will become. Especially with my mild dyslexia, I love that with my sketches, I never have to worry about spelling mistakes.
“Sketchnoting allows you to relax, engage in the speaker’s points, and have fun turning what’s in your head into visual notes you’ll want to share and refer to again and again.” (p.38, Rohde, 2012).
Do This to Improve Your Memory
Imagine that you have to memorize a graph for school, university, or maybe for a presentation at work. Let’s say this graph is The Process Redesign Orbit from the book Fundamentals of Business Process Management (Dumas et al., 2018).
Now, close your eyes and try to recall the four dimensions placed at the top of the arrowheads. Depending on your memory skills, you might be able to recall all of the dimensions. If you’re more like me, you can only think of 1 or 2 out of the four words you read on the graph. But even if you managed to recall all four, do you think you will still remember tomorrow? How about a week from now? How about one week after you had that exam or presentation?
I had to memorize this graph over a year ago for my exam. I was hospitalized or in bed at home during most of my lectures, so I didn’t have a lot of time to prepare, and this was just one of the essential graphs for the exam. If you would wake me up in the middle of the night today, I would still be able to tell you what’s in this graph.
So let’s try something! Grab a pen and a piece of paper and copy this graph below onto your paper. Remember, it’s not just the words that you have to remember, but also the location of the words in the graph. Don’t scroll down further until you’ve done this.
After you’ve done sketching something next to the words: creative, transformational, analytical, and transactional, close your eyes again and try to recall the words. Try to remember what you doodled, and where you doodled it. What is the connection between the word and the image on the paper? You don’t have to be an artist, a doodle will do. Here are some of my doodles if you got stuck.
You might be wondering why my doodle for ‘transformational’ looks the way it does. Well, for me the word ‘transformational’ reminds me of the movie Transformers. It’s been probably a decade since I’ve seen it, but I remembered cars transforming into talking robots so that’s what I sketched. The picture below is the original digital sketchnote I took on my iPad when I was studying for the exam.
Try this the next time you have to learn something: add doodles that match the work or concept that you’re trying to learn and let me know if it helped. Also, if you tried the exercise post it on Instagram and tag ‘colombodoodles’ in your post so that I can see what you came up with.
Please stay safe and wherever you are, have a lovely day!
Dumas, M., Rosa, M. L., Mendling, J., & Reijers, H. A. (2018). Fundamentals of Business Process Management (2 edition). Springer.
Rohde, M. (2012). Sketchnote Handbook Illustrated Guide (1 edition). Peachpit Press. https://geni.us/YO8YNiF
Roßa, N. (2017). Sketchnotes: Visuelle Notizen für Alles: von Business-Meetings über Partyplanung bis hin zu Rezepten. Frech Verlag GmbH. https://geni.us/AE5B
Sample, I. (2009, February 27). Doodling should be encouraged in meetings, claims psychologist. The Guardian. https://www.theguardian.com/science/2009/feb/27/doodling-doodles-boring-meetings-concentration