Visual Note Taking As A New Way of Listening


Text notes are not the best method of note taking for many students. Some do better simply listening and taking it in, while others thrive on visual representations of what is being said.

I just watched Giulia Forsythe at Brock University describe her visual note taking. The video is about 4 minutes long and brings together the why and the how of this technique. It makes great sense from a “how the brain learns” perspective, and can be viewed below.

After watching the video I did a little digging and came upon this resource that is indeed comprehensive if you want to learn more—a LOT more about visual note-taking using something other than some colored pens and a piece of paper!

Another train to follow on this topic is A field guide to TED graphic notes, which includes a six minute TED Talk by Sunni Brown where she gives a brief history of doodling if you’re interested. You may also wish to look over Visual Notetaking 101.

Give it a try and see what you come up with at your next meeting—or see what your colleagues are coming up with!  Or introduce it to your students as a new way of listening and engaging.

Observations From a Returned Prairie Girl

This month marks a full year since arriving on the banks of the South Saskatchewan River. After growing up in the Red River Valley area of Manitoba and spending over a decade in Ontario, I was back to the Prairies. In arriving here, I came to a land familiar in landscape but distinct in the people and places. What was different and why does it matter to a University? The land around us shapes who we are if we stay still long enough to listen to what the seasons can teach us. This is what I have noticed.


Photo by Brian Hoessler

Inspired by the winters, our buildings are connected. Even if we do not walk the full route everyday, each person walking by our office door comes from somewhere along the shared corridor. Disciplinary lines may be marked in department titles, but on route to meetings I see the research, teaching and celebrations marking each departments walls and spaces.

Recognizing this land as shared land shapes ceremonies and opens doors to learning that I have not seen at my previous three institutions. Posters announce “I declared…” and documents note potential futures and deep interconnections that can make this university a leader.

Although a new office and plans seek to create greater university-community partnerships and outreach, the U of S already has a foundational wealth of community connections through its alumni and employees who dot the city, province and wider. The moment I mention that I work here, a connection through family or friends is identified; other cities have a dotted line of us-versus-them.

We still have a ways to go in building connections across offices, peoples, and neighbourhoods, but we already started the journey, and I look forward to travelling with you.

Signal or Noise: what do I really want to assess?

“The essential requirements of a course/program are the knowledge and skills which must be acquired or demonstrated in order for a student to successfully meet the learning objectives of the course/program.” (University of Saskatchewan policy)

When I was in undergrad, I thought I was a good student. I would take notes during classes, remember the material, tutor my classmates, complete assignments, and so on. Then would come the final exam including the multiple-choice section with its numbered bubble sheet. I could read, circle the right answer, even write a rationale, but I could not fill in the correct bubble – I actually could not fill in any bubble, at least not 50 times. A prior injury to a particular ligament meant the motion of shading in the bubbles was painful and resulted in severe swelling of my hand, as did (at the time) extended periods of neat writing. I could type, I could write in bigger letters but could not complete a bubble sheet. Does this mean I was a bad student or that I did not know the material? Few would claim that my knowledge of the content was missing, yet I would not have been able to fill in the correct answer.

Assessment embeds multiple abilities into a single performance, rated often on the output. Answering a computation exam question, such as “What is the variance of the first three numbers in the following set { 3 6 8 9 4 }?”, involves steps like:

  • Seeing the words and translating them from symbols to concepts
  • Recognizing all of the words including concepts such as “average” and “set” taught in the course, as well as words like “following” and “first” that may not be known
  • Selecting the correct formula to compute a variance including distinguishing the colloquial understanding from the statistical concept.
  • Applying the formula and completing the calculations correctly
  • Recalling the correct number of units to report
  • Completing all of these steps in a restricted period of time
  • Lastly reporting the computed value in the medium required (e.g., bubble sheet, online form, written paper test, or verbal), including not shading the wrong bubble.

What do we really want to measure in our students: Their recall of the formula for variance, the ability to complete mathematical calculations, their ability to write with a pencil? All of the above is what would be assessed as any question or task we ask embeds both the important knowledge or skills that we seek to measure as well as less relevant side pieces. With this wide net we capture variation in our students that we may not care about, such as their penmanship or their familiarity with words such as “following” along with the valuable measures of relevant ability.

If the aim is to measure ability by capturing the signal while minimizing the noise, then we need to differentiate between the essential requirements that characterize knowledge of a field and the happenstance of usual process.

Showing academic excellence means demonstrating knowledge or ability for those essential requirements regardless of the particular approach (see Resources below). Luckily for me, most of my instructors during undergrad agreed; it did not matter if I wrote the A, B, C, or D on paper in big letters or shaded in a bubble as they were assessing my knowledge of the material and not my ligament strength. But my classmates were still tested on their ability to find and shade the correct bubbles. Creating relevant assessment extends beyond accommodating a few students to broader questions about what and how we assess every student. So, what are your assessment methods measuring, besides the skills or knowledge taught in class?.

P.S. Pardon the metaphors.


Schooling the World

Two Boys from Ladakh

Photo provided by Schooling the World

What is the purpose of modern education?  What do colleges, universities, and schools prepare the children of the world to learn how to do?

In his blog, 2 cents worth: Teaching & learning in the new information landscape, David Warlick, a self-proclaimed “35-year vagabond educator,” both asks and responds to the following question in his post entitled, “What is the purpose of education.”  He suggests that:

“The purpose of education is to appropriately prepare our children for their future.”

There are some implied, but essential questions in that answer:

  • What will their future hold?  What will they need to know?
  • What are appropriate method, materials, environment, activity?
  • Who are these children?  What is their frame of reference?

Today, I have a new answer.  My old one is still good.  I’ll continue to use it.  But if you ask me, “What is the purpose of education?” today, I’ll say,

The purpose of education is to make the world a better place!“

While I agree with these assertions, I recently watched an amazing documentary that has changed how I answer this very fundamental question about the role of education.  “Schooling the World: The White Man’s Last Burden” is a 2010 documentary that examines the attitude that “school is the only way to a “better” life for indigenous children.”  The documentary examines the impact of imposing western/European education on the children of traditional Buddhist culture of Ladakh in the northern Indian Himalayas.

If I believe the purpose of education is to “make the world a better place,” how will I know when my own values, culture, and perspectives influence what I see and ultimately what I teach others?  Truthfully, I think the answer is that my beliefs, values, culture, and perspectives will always influence, to some extent, what I teach, my view about what education means, and what it is for.  I think part of my job as a university educator is to awaken curiosity about these questions and to create opportunities for students to learn from each other about what education is, what it means, and why we value what we value about education from different cultural perspectives, values, and understandings.   To me, education is less about making the world a better place, and more about learning to respect multiple worldviews while helping students to discover the tools to critically question and understand for themselves how they and their peers might see the world differently.

I invite you to use this documentary as a tool to spark conversation and dialogue about the role of education within- and beyond- your classroom.  More information, as well as discussion questions and teaching-related materials, is available on the Schooling the World website.  The University of Saskatchewan owns public performance rights to the documentary; please contact us at The Gwenna Moss Centre if you are interested in obtaining a copy of this film for classroom viewing.