Sketchnoting pushes students to learn, retain information differently – particularly in STEM


Students learn how to develop their sketchnoting skills from Verena Paepcke-Hjeltness, assistant professor of industrial design. Photo by Christopher Gannon. Larger image.

AMES, Iowa – A different way of studying is spreading around Iowa State University.

Verena Paepcke-Hjeltness, assistant professor of industrial design, is teaching students sketchnoting to research how this style of note-taking affects learning, particularly in the STEM (science, technology, engineering and math) disciplines. Sketchnoting is an alternative to traditional note-taking, a process of adding visuals to notes in order to cement what students learned and push them to think about the material in a new way.

Over the last three years, Paepcke-Hjeltness has introduced sketchnoting to about 1,000 students, faculty and staff, including electrical engineering, apparel and merchandising, food science and human nutrition, industrial design and freshman design courses.

Paepcke-Hjeltness, along with Ann Russell, adjunct associate professor of natural resource ecology and management; and Ann Gansemer-Topf, associate professor in the School of Education; received a grant through Iowa State’s Miller Faculty Fellowship Program as part of its mission to “develop innovative approaches to enhance student learning.”

“The idea of dual coding comes into play – that if you combine a visual with words, you’re using the entire brain and not just memorizing,” Paepcke-Hjeltness said. “The information manifests itself differently.”

They’re working with Russell’s introductory ecology class this fall. Students were given the option to choose between the typical lecture hall or an experimental team-based learning format, in which they use sketchnoting in their studies. About 50 students signed up for the experimental class; there are 300 in the lecture.

Using the Miller grant, each student received pens, drawing paper and “module sheets,” which Haley Grote, senior in industrial design, created to act as a visual library for students to use while sketching the concepts in each module. Visual libraries include objects, containers, typography and other components that form what Paepcke-Hjeltness calls the “bread and butter” of sketchnoting.

“I’ve always used concept sketching in this class, but I didn’t have a method tied to it,” Russell said. “My students have gained creative confidence through sketchnoting, and my confidence has improved, too. This is especially noteworthy for STEM students, given that few, if any, of their courses address this aspect of creativity.”

Sketchnotes should be meaningful, not beautiful

Paepcke-Hjeltness researches sketchnoting as a methodology, taking it around campus to teach faculty in workshops and students in class how to use sketchnoting to improve their lessons and study habits.

Sketchnoting forces a person to fully understand a lesson before they can begin sketching and organizing it on a page. Sketching a topic forces a person to break down the lesson in a different way; seeing it drawn in front of them often leads to visual connections between topics that they otherwise may not have seen.

Paepcke-Hjeltness says it’s important to remember one thing about sketchnoting: “It’s not about being an artist.”

“Don’t try to make it look beautiful,” she told industrial design students recently. “Make it meaningful.”

Each person has their own sketchnoting style, and over time will gain confidence in their sketching ability. What’s important is not the artistic quality of the sketches, she says, but whether the sketches translate into improved learning behaviors and retention.

Paepcke-Hjeltness is particularly interested in bringing sketchnoting to STEM courses such as electrical engineering. While sketchnoting “live” proved difficult due to the fast-paced lectures and complex material, she says the engineering students were able to use sketchnoting in their study notes, which improved comprehension.

“They told me sketchnoting helps them better understand concepts because it requires them to think about how to visualize them instead of just memorizing,” she said.

Gansemer-Topf is studying whether sketchnoting in the ecology class this fall is “enhancing learning” and what “learning” means in this context.

“We often talk about needing more people in STEM fields,” Gansemer-Topf said. “By incorporating new and effective strategies to understand STEM disciplines, we may also attract a broader range of students who might be interested in STEM.”