With final exams coming around the corner, today I’m going to talk about how sketchnoting has helped me as a student. I’ll share some tips – what worked for me and what didn’t and why – and the tools I use as well. Here we go! :)
When I first learned about sketchnoting, I was amazed and inspired by the beautiful sketchnotes that others made. It looked like art, but at the same time, it was more than art. It was a tool to learn and study, and share knowledge with others in a way that is visually appealing and simple. My first sketchnotes weren’t very good – at least, that’s what I thought about them. They were messy, unorganized, and had too many words and not enough drawings or pictures. I wasn’t sure I was doing it “right,” and I felt that the learning curve was too big for me to surpass in the middle of all my busy classes. With that attitude in mind, I set out to try and add more visuals to my notes. After that, I found that I was pleased with what my notes looked like: neat, clean, organized, fun to look at and read… except for one big factor: they took forever to make! I was so busy trying to convert all the information I had to learn into visuals that I wasn’t focused on the information itself. After that, I pretty much gave up. Once again, I felt I was doing it “wrong” and that I wouldn’t be able to implement it as a tool to help me succeed in my classes and in the future as a physician. I was worried about trying to sketchnote in class because it took hours to do outside of class. I thought that I wouldn’t be able to keep up, and that it would slow me down and waste my time.
But I was so wrong.
This semester, I took another whack at it and found that it’s okay to not have a lot of visuals and it’s okay to have a lot of words. The balance between visuals and words is not a balance at all. It’s completely up to the individual to decide what visuals they want for the information that they feel the need to record. In other words, I didn’t have to make up an icon or symbol for every piece of information. I didn’t have to draw everything out or write everything out. I could use short phrases to represent information that I didn’t know how to draw, or didn’t feel the need to draw out. Not obsessing about what to draw made more room in my brain to write things down concisely and then go back afterwords to fill things in – whether that was a small drawing, a diagram, or some colors to make the information stand out on the page.
As a result, I began to question what sketchnotes really are, and I began to understand that everyone’s notes are different. Mike Rhode’s notes have a lot of hand-drawn typography, Sacha Chua’s notes have a lot of drawings, and Eva Lotta’s notes have both typography and visuals. It’s because everyone has their own way of recording information and representing it visually that sketchnotes are so diverse. After these realizations, I began to explore different visual elements that I could try to add to my notes to make them more visually engaging. I’ve been experimenting with color to underline key words, draw pictures, and make headings stand out from the rest of my notes. I’ve also been interested in using different writing styles (fonts?) and adding more hand-drawn dividers to separate blocks of information.
Trying to find your “sketchnoting style” is a journey, not a means to an end. Don’t worry about trying to nail it down the first time, second time, or even the 20th time. There is no end, and you’ll find that how you draw and write will change as you figure out what is best for you depending on what kind of information you’re working with. Do you like colors? Do you like using only one or two colors? Do you take notes that are linear and organized like an outline with bullets? Do you write bits of information all over the page as you hear it and then organize it later? As you experiment and find inspiration from others’ notes, you’ll find that your “style” will evolve over time.
As a science student, there is what seems to be a ton of information that I need to know (though I think “memorize” is the best phrase here, even though I’m a proponent of memorization because that doesn’t help you remember information in the long-term). Do you study everything? How in the world can you do that? Is there enough time to read all the material in a chapter? Will the professor really test you on all of it? These questions have been plaguing me for a long time, and I think I’ve managed to figure out some answers.
- Do you study everything? – The answer here depends on the class. Is there information that you are already familiar with? If yes, review it briefly for a few minutes. If no, then you should read it.
- How can you study everything? – The answer here also depends on how much you already know. Spend more time on what you don’t know, and less time on what you do know. Simple in theory, but difficult to actually do if you’re spazzing about a big exam that has 6 chapters of material on it. Calm down first, then think logically to sort what you’re studying into piles: 1) know very well, 2) needs review, and 3) have no clue.
- Is there enough time? – This is a big one, and the answer also depends on your schedule. Time management is a super important skill for school and for life, and I don’t think students these days are really taught how to do it. I have found it useful to break up reading assignments into chunks. (I have a 40-page chapter to read, so I can read 20 pages over two days or 10 pages over four days. Since my exam is next Thursday and I have another 30-page chapter to read, I’ll do the first option.)
- Will the professor test all of the material? – To answer this, you need to know how your professor writes his or her exams. What kinds of questions do they ask – are they mostly factual, or do they require some thought to answer? Are they all multiple choice questions, or are there some short response questions? Are the short response questions straightforward, or are there parts to it? Once you’ve taken a first exam, then you can plan for the next one. Professors don’t mix things up when they format their tests. When you study, try to predict the kinds of questions that might be on the test, and use these “practice questions” to figure out what you know, what you need to review, and what you don’t have a clue on.
With all of that being said, how can sketchnoting help you learn large amounts of information? Here’s another Q & A for you:
- Does it really help you remember things better? – Yes, yes, yes. The combination of drawing and writing helps me remember what my notes look like so I can picture information in my head during an exam. Also, drawing funny doodles to remember bits of information makes that information more memorable.
- Does it make studying more fun and less frustrating? – Another big yes. Using color and funny doodles as I previously mentioned is makes studying boring information more fun.
- Does it take a lot of time? – This depends on what you’re studying. If it’s new information you’ve never seen before, don’t try to make visuals until you gain a better grasp of it. Read it once first all the way through, then come back to it later to take your notes.
- What tools would you use to make it more engaging but not time-consuming? – I found that it’s helpful to limit your drawing space so that you’re not tempted to copy word-for-word from a book. This helps make your notes more concise, which saves you time and makes reviewing so much less daunting. Who wants to read 20 pages of notes when you could read 10 pages of notes that are colorful and have fun, memorable drawings? Although I have recently went digital (I use the Penultimate app and an Adonit Jot Classic stylus), computer paper and some colored pens and highlighters are all you would ever need. This isn’t an art project, it’s a study tool to help you learn. Your notes don’t need to be fancy or neat!
I hope this helps! I have learned a lot about using visuals as a tool to help me study better, and I know I’ll continue to learn more and more as I go along.
Stay tuned for more cool things! :)