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Visual notes: Students at Bremerhaven University of Applied Sciences learn the Sketchnote method


Brain-friendly transcripts should enable more effective study

People who doodle during a lecture not only remember what is said better, but also listen more attentively. Several studies have already come to this conclusion. At Bremerhaven University of Applied Sciences, interested students learn how they can make use of this peculiarity of the brain for their studies. With sketchnotes instead of normal notes, they are supposed to grasp and record the contents of their courses more effectively. The offer is well received: The course "Visual Notes" by Prof. Dr. Katharina Theis-Bröhl is in high demand.

Doodling as a teaching subject during studies? What may sound unusual at first is actually very sensible. After all, the brain uses most of its perceptual capacity for visual perception. If images are linked with texts, the impressions, for example the content of lectures, are better remembered. In this way, transcripts of lectures can be made particularly learner-friendly. Prof. Dr. Theis-Bröhl has therefore been offering seminars to learn the method for several years. "The aim is for students to learn to focus better on the subject matter with this method and to achieve better understanding and concentration by means of their notes," says the professor. Unlike short evening courses, which are now offered in almost every major town, the students at the university have 14 weeks to learn the tools and practise the method.

In the seminar, participants start with basics. They learn how to use visual hierarchies to structure their transcripts, how to represent objects and animals with simple geometric shapes and which symbols they can use for certain words or metaphors. "Of course, it also takes some technique, for example: How do I divide my page, how do I make headings and what structural elements can I use? In addition, we let emotions be expressed by stick figures or faces and also learn some things about writing, for example headlines, normal text and lettering," says Prof. Theis-Bröhl. 

As a first homework assignment, the students have to introduce themselves in a sketchnote. Later, under the guidance of their professor, they work out how to tell a story using notes and pictures and write sketchnotes on films and articles. "We start with a video from Die Sendung mit der Maus, but then quickly move on to more difficult topics, for example climate change or CRISPR. At the end there is an exam on a video, the content of which the students have to reproduce in a one-page sketchnote. This is then assessed. This semester, the topic was artificial intelligence: the lecture by a brain researcher who impressively explains why humans will always be superior to computers," says the professor.

Prof. Theis-Bröhl offered the seminar for the seventh time last summer semester. "The course is always in great demand. Once it even had to be offered in two groups because over fifty students had registered for it. This summer semester there were 16 female and eight male students who took part in the course," says the professor. She says her students are always very committed and reliable. "The sketchnotes produced in the course are simply fantastic. However, it has to be said that a large part of the participants like to draw by nature." However, no one needs to have artistic talent, as the aim is to simplify and not to create the most natural and elaborate drawings possible.

Whether the students actually use their skills for their studies after the seminar is difficult to track. But sometimes the professor does get feedback: "One participant came to my seminar because he had seen the sketchnotes of a fellow student. He noticed that he had filled considerably more pages with his notes than she had and that her notes were much clearer. She then told him where she had learned this method." 

In the coming winter semester, a seminar on learning the sketchnotes method will be offered in the Studium Generale. Prof. Dr. Katharina Theis-Bröhl was able to recruit Diana Meier-Soriat, who has already made several graphic recordings at certain events at the university, as a lecturer.