Visual Thinking and Note-taking

Berkeley Connect students try out an innovative approach to taking notes

visual notetaking 2

Berkeley Connect students got a taste of Abby Van Muijen’s unique approach to note-taking in a special workshop organized just for Berkeley Connect participants. A Cal alum, Abby is the creative force behind the beautifully illustrated #GlobalPOV videos and currently teaches two classes on visual communications at UC Berkeley. During a study-abroad trip her junior year, Abby began sketching as a way to remember all the things she learned and soon integrated it into the rest of her life. “I started taking notes that were geared towards the things I wanted to remember, instead of writing everything down,” Abby said. Visual communications and thinking changed her perspective and became her career.

“You think of information as bullet points, but with visual thinking, you can zoom in and out to get the big picture and the details,” Abby said as she introduced the concept of visual note-taking. To demonstrate her point, she began by asking the students whether they felt that they were visual learners or learned better with effective visuals. Many hands went up. She then asked whether they felt comfortable with their artistic abilities. This time, few hands were raised. “There is a gap,” Abby observed. But she encouraged the students not to sell themselves short. “I didn’t consider myself an artist growing up, either.” She also reminded students that their notebooks are a place for them to understand their own notes. “It doesn’t matter if someone else doesn’t.”

visual notetaking 4

In order to help the students develop an visual eye, Abby picked up her coffee cup and asked students to first write all the words that came to mind on half a sheet. On the other half of the page, she asked them to draw their impressions instead. “Visual note-taking is about bridging the two,” Abby noted.

Abby then led the students through a series of hands-on activities. In one, she read a section of The Hunger Games while students drew whatever came to mind. This is what Abby calls unconscious drawing, as compared to the conscious drawing students did for the first activity. Abby asked students to look at the images they just drew as a way to recall the passage, and many found it surprisingly easy. Abby also had students draw Africa and the Eiffel Tower first without any reference, and then with the help of Google Images. The lesson? “Ask Google when you don’t know how to draw something!” Abby said. She also suggested that students make a chart of things they wanted to learn to draw, things that came up in their classes often, and to find reference images online.

Finally, Abby imparted a few rules to follow. Among them: never using lined paper (“it locks you into linear structure”) and keep moving your hand the entire time the professor is speaking.

“The goal is to tell a story about something you want to remember,” she told students. “Don’t be afraid to build. Connect the information to yourself, or with other classes, or with information from other lectures. Visual note-taking allows you to really make your notes your own.”

One student commented,  “This actually gave me a lot of confidence to just try drawing–I was pretty surprised at how well I was able to draw the coffee cup! I think I can incorporate a lot of the techniques in my note-taking in the future.”


posted by Katherine Wang
Berkeley Connect Communications Assistant