Ed Tech

Use Google Drawings for brain-friendly visual notetaking


Visual notetaking can help new content stick. Use Google Drawings to pull in images and make those notes shine! (Public domain image via Unsplash.com)

Our brains like words. But they really love images.

The brain works in images. When we talk, our brains change the information we’re receiving into images to encode it and make it available for recall later.

A powerful way to take advantage of that is visual notetaking — recording ideas using both images and text. Some call it doodling, and many have gotten “in trouble” for doodling in class even though there were cognitive benefits of it over standard notetaking.

Brain benefits of visual notetaking

I’m a sketchnoting fanatic and have written several posts about it:

Google Apps + Visual notetaking

At a recent conference, I was chatting with fellow sketchnote enthusiast Carrie Baughcum. We were talking about some work her students were doing. What they were doing wasn’t official sketchnoting (free drawing images and text by hand), but she said …

I would consider that visual notetaking.

It was such a passing thought that she probably doesn’t even remember it, but it had an impact on me.

Because I really like the sketching side of visual notetaking, I didn’t even think of other forms of it. There are many ways to get the brain benefits of mixing visuals and text (the verbal and the visual).

Then it dawned on me — this could be done with my favorite of the Google Apps, Google Drawings.

Google Drawings visual notetaking.

The basics

What is Google Drawings? It’s part of Google Apps, and it’s kind of like a digital poster board or a digital sheet of paper. You can add text, shapes, line and images to Google Drawings. It’s simple and very visual. Find it by clicking the red “New” button in Google Drive, hovering over “More …” at the bottom and clicking on “Google Drawings.”

Why use Google Drawings to take notes? Letting students create visual notes in Google Drawings provides the brain benefits listed above. Plus, students can pull in Creative Commons-licensed images to help illustrate their notes.

How’s it different from other Google Apps for taking notes? Google Docs is great for taking very text-based notes. It’s more linear (i.e. writing text in straight lines). Google Drawings is very spatial (i.e. you can move items all over the page).

Can students do this with iPads? A Google Drawings app isn’t currently available for iPad. However, the Google Slides app is. Students can create visual notes in a one-slide Google Slides file and it will be almost exactly like Google Drawings.

Two examples

Here are a couple of examples of what it might look like …

The first is a visual notes summary of the introduction of my book, “Ditch That Textbook”:

DTT introduction visual notes

The second are visual notes I might create as a social studies student about the Berlin Wall:

Berlin wall visual notes

(Note: Click on either image to open the Google Drawings file I created them in. Feel free to click “File > Make a copy …”, but please don’t send me requests to give you editing access. If you make your own copy of the file to your own Google Drive, it will be just as good as having editing access. Promise. 🙂 )

How to do it

Here are some features of Google Drawings you can use to create these visual notes:

  • Images that students can use responsibly can be found by clicking “Insert > Image … > Search”. Students can annotate on those images (i.e. add text, circle important parts, underline with the line tool, etc.).
  • Using the “Take a snapshot” option when inserting an image, students can use the camera embedded in their devices to snap their own pictures to add to visual notes.
  • Use shapes to organize information (i.e. use a rectangle shape like I did for “Versions of the wall” above to set groups of facts apart from others).
  • Lines can connect facts. Think of a semantic map/word web. I used those dotted lines to connect ideas in the Berlin Wall visual notes, but I probably didn’t need to. They would be more useful if the connections between ideas were more complex.
  • Grab the bottom right corner of a Google Drawing and drag it to make the canvas bigger. If you’re running out of room, just make the canvas bigger and rearrange what you already have on it.
  • App smashing (using multiple sites/apps/etc. to create a single product) works wonderfully here! I used some sketches I did in the Paper app by FiftyThree and pulled them into my book summary above.
  • A screen capture tool like Snagit for Google Chrome can help you grab images and text from other sources. I used Snagit to capture the definition of “textbook”. (Be careful, though … even screen captures of images still need to be used responsibly and in line with the rights of the creator.)
  • Add links. Highlight text, images or even shapes and click the link button (or use Ctrl+K) to create a clickable link to take viewers to websites/videos/etc. with more information.

Sharing Google Drawings visual notes

These notes can be shared in a number of ways:

  • Provide a link to let others view. Use the blue “Share” button and set sharing as “Anyone with the link can view”. When viewing this way, links can be clicked by the viewer.
  • Download an image file to attach to a document, a slide presentation or something else. Click “File > Download as … > JPEG image”. Any links in the Drawing can not be clicked in a JPEG image.
  • Download as a PDF file to email to others or attach to a website. Click “File > Download as … > PDF Document”. When viewing this way, links can be clicked by the viewer.
  • Embed the notes in a website or in your class in certain learning management systems (like Canvas, Schoology, etc.). Click “File > Publish to the web …”. Click the blue “Publish” button and “OK.” Then copy the HTML code in the “embed” part of the window. Paste that HTML code in your website in a place where it says “embed” or “HTML”. Any links in the Drawing can not be clicked in an embedded Drawing on your website.

Another way of looking at it …

I wrote a post called “Google Drawings interactive posters: No glue sticks necessary!“. After creating the book introduction summary in Google Drawings, I started to realize that it was more like the interactive poster I described in that blog post and less like what I’d consider visual notes. (That’s really why I did the second example!)

Here’s the main point, I think …

Whether we’re thinking of these tasks as posters or notes, the more visual we can get with them, the stronger the links we’ll create in our brains.

And the beauty of these visual notes in Google Drawings is that any of us can create image-infused notes without needing a bit of artistic talent!

[reminder]How can you use Google Drawings visual notes in your class? What other features or uses are there for this idea?[/reminder]

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