How I use visual notes to study.

I am a visual person through and through. Give me super detailed directions to get to your house? I’ll get lost. But if you quickly doodle a map and give me a few landmarks to look out for I’ll be there and I’ll be on time. I really didn’t realize this was a thing until we had to do one of those cheesy quizzes in a freshman orientation class. While most of them I took as a bit of a joke (why does my personality need a color? And why wasn’t it purple? I love purple!) I really am glad that she made us take this one because I was really able to understand myself better, and it’s made studying a lot easier for me.

A key method that I’ve been using lately is called visual note taking. It has a lot of different names on the internet, visual notes are the most common I’ve seen, but you may also know this system as doodle notes, picture notes, or something vaguely related.

The big distinction is that these notes are pretty and visually organized. My old note system basically included two columns of bullet pointed facts that had no visual connection to each other. Back then I’d study by reading and rereading my notes. For the type of learner I am, it was grossly ineffective.

Now my notes look a little something like that. They are sloppily done compared to the beauts you might see plastered all over Tumblr, but they are organized and they make sense to me.

When I take notes in class I do so 100% on my laptop using Evernote. My professors talk too quickly and move at far too quick a pace for taking my notes by hand to be effective or make sense, but when I study the magic happens.


My Study System.

When it’s time to start prepping for a quiz or an exam I go through a fairly formulaic system. The first thing that I do is go through my notes on Evernote and make a Quizlet set from the information that I didn’t already know.

The Quizlet set will be in the same order as my notes, which is usually a logical order as far as the course content goes. If you’re going to embark on visual note taking, it is important to have your information in order so that your charts and connections aren’t all over the place.

This is where the magic happens.

So now that I have all of the information that I need to learn in one place and in order, I can start on my visual note taking. Visual notes basically just combine a combination of fonts, banners, flow charts, doodles, and arrows to present the information in an extremely visual and logical way.

Step one: Title the page.

Ok, so this is solely for organization but write (in a fancy script, if you so choose!) exactly what you’ll be covering on this page. I like to stick to one topic per page to keep things organized and, again, logical.

Step two: Start jotting.

From here I start copying down the information I need to learn. I focus on using nice handwriting, and switching up the ‘font’ I’m using for the headers of each sub-topic. Switching it up like this really helps me recall when I’m taking the quiz or exam.

Step three: The doodles.

I use this system most exclusively with my neuroscience class, and the doodles help immensely. The brain is tiny and squishy, but beyond complicated and drawing pictures helps me simplify it. Beyond the basic anatomical pictures, I’ll draw things that help remind me of the different memory devices I use. For example:

  • Damage to the Cerebellum can cause people to behave as if they are drunk, so I’ll remember that by calling it the “BEERebellum” and drawing a beer can next to that piece of information.
  • (This one is a bit insensitive but…) The substantia nigra is involved in Parkinson’s disease, and I remember that with the complete made up fact playing on the term ‘substantia nigra’ in saying that a SUBSTANTIAl number of people with dementia go to “Nigra” falls. And I’ll doodle an old person standing next to a waterfall.

For non-visual learners these steps surely sound like a waste of time, but for me the pictures I draw are the first things that I recall in the exam room.

Step four: The arrrows.

So in any science class everything is related in some way or another and you can bet your bottom dollar that my notes are full of arrows pointing out those connections. As soon as I finish a page, I go out in search of connections that can be made. This is great for a lot of reasons, but the biggest being that it requires a lot of critical thinking (it’s more than a buzz word – it’s a life skill!) and that thinking really helps me cement the connections.

Often times I will write exactly how the two pieces of information are connected down the length of the arrow as an additional reminder when it comes to reviewing the notes.

Step five: Quiz yourself.

So I don’t go too crazy with my notes and once I finish I quiz myself on Quizlet. Quizlet has a great feature where you can ‘star’ a flashcard and it’ll get moved to a separate deck. I use that feature to move any questions I get wrong over so I can study them individually later.

Going through all of the questions I got wrong my first go around, I’ll find that information in my notes and work harder to come up with memory devices (like ‘BEERebellum’) and doodles that will help me remember.

Go forth and doodle!

Beyond this system being great for helping visual learners retain information and perform well on exams, this is the most productive form of procrastination I have heard of. I have always been a bit artsy, and doodling in the margins has always been my life at school, so now with this system I’m able to put those creative juices to use while learning.

Now I always ask questions at the end of my posts but I’m extra serious this time: Please tell me – what is your best study trick? This semester kicked my butt in more ways than one, and while I love my visual notes they aren’t always practical if I have multiple exams in one week or I procrastinated on studying. How do you retain information, fight stress, make studying fun? Anything you do that you think might help others leave in the comments below!