Doodling: A Teacher’s Secret Weapon for Unlocking Learning

For educators, there are few things more frustrating than looking out into a classroom during the middle of a lecture and seeing nothing but bent heads. What are your students doing out there? Are they texting beneath the desk, despite repeated threats of phone confiscation? Are they scribbling notes to friends? Are they doodling silly animated books with teeth chasing your lecture notes off the page?

If the answer is the latter, you might not want to despair just yet. Despite centuries of teaching otherwise, researchers and thought leaders alike are increasingly rebranding doodling as a source of creativity, engagement, and yes, even keeping students on task. It’s something Sunni Brown, author of the book The Doodle Revolution, articulates well in her 2012 TED Talk, which emphasizes the importance of looking at doodling as something to embrace rather than shame.

Brown’s ideas won’t come as a surprise to countless creative and revolutionary leaders, from Bill Gates to any of the 21 former presidents whose doodles have been found tucked into their private papers and letters (and those are just the ones we know about). So just what can doodling do for a student’s brain as they learn, analyze, and create, and how can you incorporate this knowledge into the classroom? Let’s take a deeper look.

Why Doodling Can Be Good For Your Students

Image credit: Crystal Marie Lopez

1. Offers Another Channel for Learning

Ever since the rise of rationalism and reason, the Western educational system has been dominated by a kind of learning that puts heavy emphasis on linear logic and verbal reasoning. But as we teachers know, there are many different ways for students to successfully process and engage with information. As Brown articulates in her TED talk, there are many senses of which to take advantage, including the visual and kinesthetic channels that students rely on when they doodle. For visual learners in particular, doodling offers a mode of existence in the classroom that fits naturally with how they think. In letting visual thinkers doodle, you will essentially be allowing them to think in their native language, rather than forcing them to translate and interpret information into a second language that requires them to work, thus distracting from the content matter at hand.

2. Captures Complex Thought Quickly

When ideas and processes are complex, doodling can be a quick and intuitive way of capturing information. After all, that’s why so many inventor’s and architects start with a sketch rather than describing what they’re thinking in words. But while this may be easy to understand for some kinds of learning, it makes sense in a number of more subtle situations. For example, in history class, a doodle might be much better for capturing the emotional complexity of a certain showdowns in history. Studying the War of the Roses? A student’s animated drawings just might help them sort out all of the warring parties and the subtleties of shifting alliances. Studying the immune system? A student’s anthropomorphizing of a lymphocyte in action will create a emotional understanding that will be far more deeply ingrained than detailed notes on the subject. Of course, this doesn’t hold true for every student, but it certainly makes sense to allow students who learn this way to scribble away.

3. Prevents Distraction

If you’re like most people, you probably associate boredom with laziness. In fact, the research says the opposite is true: a bored brain is actually highly active, as it is constantly seeking out new areas for stimulation. In the classroom, this translates into distraction, which leads to disruptive behavior and poor learning outcomes.

No matter how engaging your presentation style as a teacher, no matter how fascinating the information you have to present, you’re just not going to engage every single mind in the room at the same level. That, after all, is why so much emphasis has been put as of late on personalized learning. By allowing students to doodle, you are allowing them to do that personalized learning for themselves, without any extra teaching time or school resources. With the mind engaged in doodling and further stimulated by the steady motor movement of the hand, it keeps a baseline activation and concentration that prevents the mind from getting bored and wandering, therefore keeping the student engaged in the lecture at hand.

4. Aids Memory Recall, Reasoning and Engagement

Not surprisingly given the above, when a student is no longer daydreaming, they are much better at recall, reasoning, and engagement. In one study conducted by Jackie Andrade at the University of Plymouth, subjects were made to listen to a rambling phone message and then given a pop quiz on what was said. Subjects that were asked to doodle throughout the message were able to recall a solid 29% more than their non-doodling counterparts, indicating significantly better recall. In another study out of the University of Nottingham, students who were asked to make visual notes while reading science materials demonstrated better reasoning, clarification and engagement than those who were asked to write summaries or just read.

Again, these studies do not indicate that all students will perform better when doing visual notetaking, but rather to emphasize that some most certainly will.

5. Promotes Creative Problem Solving

It’s not just our classroom’s that are heavily reliant on verbal reasoning — it’s our society at large. But while verbal processing is certainly crucial for any student to thrive, all of those words and that verbal logic can mask a deeper, more intuitive form of visual thinking. As any writer or artist knows, you simply can’t be in “editor” or “critic” mode when you begin the creative process — you have to put away your analysis, and just let it happen.

Visual thinking (aka doodling) provides that freedom. Think of it like a low-consequence access route to the creative brain. In fact, that’s the only good thing about thinking of doodling as “just goofing off:” there’s no pressure. Students can sit back, let their mind and their thoughts flow, and access a creativity that their verbal mind might label stupid, inefficient, or off-task. After all, the most creative thoughts and innovations often come from somewhere further down a neural network than our verbal minds can articulate, or even see. Doodling lets those neural connections form on their own accord, until a new kind of logic and insight develops. It is an entirely different brand of information processing and thinking — one our classrooms should embrace, not squash.

How You Can Use Doodling in the Classroom

1. Notetaking

The easiest way to take advantage of doodling is to, well, just let your students who already doodle continue doing so. However, if you find your doodler isn’t retaining information or that they really are completely off task during lectures and presentations, then try putting a lesson plan together on visual notetaking as a way to harness all of that doodling power. Brown offers a fantastic 101 course, while this introduction from Education Week makes an excellent starting point, especially if you’d like to present with visual notes as well. The video below is another great place to begin, as is Kathy Schrock’s comprehensive compilation of “sketchnoting” links.

2. Brainstorming

It doesn’t take a great leap of imagination to see that brainstorming and doodling go hand in hand; in fact doodling is one of the most natural forms of brainstorming there is. Get your students going by offering a few on-topic words and asking them simply to draw whatever comes to mind. This can be contained in the traditional brain mapping bubbles, but better still is to let them free on the page to do as they please. Visual brainstorming also works well for group projects. Assign a single student to be the main sketcher at the board or have students rotate. Again, give them a few words or ideas to start, and then go from there.

Alternatively, you might also consider three excellent creativity-stimulators that Brown recommends: the atomization, gamestorming, and process mapping. Read more about these exercises here.

3. Bringing It All Together

Doodling isn’t just good for capturing information on the page — it’s great for processing that information as well. After a day’s lecture, have your students go home and draw illustrations that piece it all together, much like the medical student detailed in this Wall Street Journal article. Whether your students have taken traditional or visual notes during class time, this visual reenactment will encourage your students to review the information at hand, and it will also help them understand the way it’s all put together at a much deeper level as they piece it back together for themselves.

4. Processing Difficult Emotions

Whether it’s a big, scary world event or a conflict between students, doodling is an excellent way to encourage students to get it all out. Again, give your students a word or several words related to the issue at hand, emphasize that there will be no critiques at the end of their drawing session, and just let them go.

5. Making Difficult Mathematical Concepts Concrete

Last but not least, you definitely want to check out the Doodling in Math section up at the Khan Academy, which will help visual and non-visual thinkers alike. For instance, in Spirals, Fibonacci, and Being a Plant, students use doodling to make sense of the mathematical world around them.

The Caveat

Of course, doodling is not a cure all. Doodling is not recommended when a student is tasked with completing a different visual task, as it will compete in the attentional channel and ultimately become a distraction. What’s more, as most of us know, not all doodlers are retaining much information at all. The key, then, is to recognize intuitive doodlers for their talents, encourage other students to give doodling a try as a new way of processing information and getting creative, and harness all of that doodling energy for top notch learning outcomes. Good luck, and happy doodling!


  1. Wesley Fryer

    October 27, 2014 at 7:13 pm

    Thanks so much for sharing this post, and especially the included videos. There are several here I had not seen!

    A variety of other resources related to visual notetaking are on this page from of the Mapping Media to the Curriculum website:

    This TEDx talk from graphic facilitator Rachel Smith (“Drawing in Class”) is my favorite on the topic of visual notes:

    The chapter on “visual notetaking” from Mapping Media is also available as an e-book:

    • Leah Levy

      October 28, 2014 at 1:39 pm

      Thanks so much for posting these, Wesley. What wonderful resources! Really appreciate this contribution.

  2. Jesse Maietta

    October 29, 2014 at 9:34 am

    I really appreciate this post. I am a middle school Special Education teacher, and this year I have an autistic student who is extremely bright. Throughout class, he has two pieces of paper in front of him; his notebook for the day’s notes and a separate piece of paper to doodle on. I get nervous sometimes because as a special educator, it is my job to make sure he is staying on task, and so oftentimes, when I go over to him and ask him to pay attention, he jumps right from his doodles to the notes as if the transition is seamless. Without any extra help he is right where he needs to be and has no issues completing the classwork. I have spoken to the other teachers on the team about his doodling and we have all agreed that it is useful to him and so we allow it to go on in the class.

    • Leah Levy

      October 30, 2014 at 7:47 am

      That’s a wonderful story, Jesse. Thanks so much for sharing. I think it really highlights the importance of yes, setting boundaries, but doing so while embracing whatever the student brings to the table. I think of this often in terms of translation (with all students, because learning styles vary, but especially with LD students); if the teacher is a PC and the student is a Mac, we have to give students the translation tools they need to run the same program so that they can imbibe the presented information at a deep level. If doodling is that translation method and a path to learning, then why shouldn’t your student do it? Sounds like you’ve got a great approach!

      • Jesse Maietta

        November 2, 2014 at 6:16 am

        Thanks Leah, I appreciate it! I like your comparison with the PC and Mac because that’s exactly how it feels more often than not.

        I never thought to utilize doodling as a way to review the information that was learned. I think I’m going to try that and have my students make illustrations pertaining to the information that was just taught.

        All good information! thank you!

  3. Aigars Jaucis

    November 13, 2014 at 3:43 am

    Unfortunately I have to admit that also in my school are problems with motivation to learn. I do not know the reason but one thing I know sure, we all need new way how to learn. A Teacher’s Secret Weapon for Unlocking Learning, sounds very interesting.
    Actually our school are far away from capital city of Latvia (RIGA) and we are looking for ways how to show to our children learning experience in other schools. As I heard many years ago our school had friendship with Sweden organisation Lion Club. For the future exchange experience we are looking for some school who are willing to contact with our school. If you have some Ideas or some friends who could be happy to contact with us please let us know.

    Kind regards

    Teacher of history

    Aigars Jaucis