visual notes: the new method of retention?

‘visual notes: the new method of retention?’ is the third installment of a six part series of posts for a project titled: ‘Say Something’ as a part of my Writing & Research class I am taking as a part of my graduate studies in the interior design program at University of Central Oklahoma. The series explores the importance of drawing and hand graphics within the realm of design – its relevance and how why it should still maintain its place as a foundational skill-set in designers in a predominantly digital world.

The concept of visual note taking has existed for quite some time, despite the fact that people may not know how to apply it to their daily lives. Youtube contains thousands of visual notes packaged into movies – add campaigns, persuasive arguments, and informational topics – all illustrated by a hand drawing pictures of the words in a time lapse format. This form of visual interpretation is not just limited to commercial use. Evidence continually points to the positive correlation between the ‘hand to mind’ connection in the form of visualizing information. As a result, people are now beginning to tout this form of note taking as a replacement for the conventional method: scribble everything down as quickly as possible. Visual note taking increases the ability to retain information, making it a more effective form of synthesizing ideas compared to written or oral communication.

According to a study by molecular biologist, John Medina, “visions trumps all senses” as the most powerful method of retaining information. Many people consider themselves ‘visual thinkers’ by nature. However, Medinas’ study suggests that everyone might fit into this category. He states, “Hear a piece of information, and three days later you’ll remember 10% of it. Add a picture and you’ll remember 65%.” According to his figures, immediate recall of information varies by a margin of 10% when comparing words to images.

Medinas’ study is general, not necessarily related specifically to note taking, but how the senses actually function within the human body. His study does not observe the effects of visual elements on retention when they are re-enforced by drawing instead of writing. Enter the ‘MIND MAP’. Educators in particular are finding ways to incorporate this practice into their classrooms, citing more engagement and better retention among students. Organizing notes in a visual form is also referred to as ‘mind mapping’. Mind mapping is a form of visual note taking in which images are combined with written words. These images and words organize thoughts or ideas into a graphic composition that is easier for the author to comprehend, retain, and recall after the fact.

According to, these visual charts consist of five basic characteristics: the main idea – condensed into a single image, the main themes of that idea radiating from the central image, a word that encapsulates a related idea is associated with each branch, less related topics are represented by “twigs” connected to each branch, and lastly, all the branches form a structure, connected by nodes [ideas]. This form of ‘radiant’ thinking allows the author to organize thoughts related to the central idea, making the information easier to recall – and remember long after the lecture is over. Antonio Ontoria Peña, Juan Manuel Muñoz González and Ana Molina Rubio who are professors from the Faculty of Education at the University of Cordoba, Spain studied the learning abilities of 140 students through the use of mind mapping between the years of 2006 and 2008. Over the course of the study, 1,200 individual mind maps were created, as well as 125 team maps. The researchers concluded that through the practice of visual note taking, the students improved in two major categories: cognitive abilities and social abilities. According to the study, “the authors distinguish comprehension, information organization and capacity of reflection”. Their increased ability to synthesize that information had a positive impact on self esteem, which allowed for more confident oral communication of ideas.

Visual interpretation of ideas obviously has massive implications for the way educators impart information to their students. However, this concept transcends all fields. Specifically related to design, mind mapping could hold a prominent place within the conceptual process, and moreover, effectively communicate ideas to potential clients. Beyond synthesis of concepts, this form of note taking reinforces the ‘hand to mind’ connection that directly contributes to success as a designer. The ability to visually communicate thoughts in a client presentation carries just as many positive implications compared to a student taking notes on a lecture in a classroom, according to the results of the studies.

“Mind Maps” are a rigid form of visual note taking, adhering to the five characteristics. However, any sort of visual framework that aids in retention can be successful. “Doodle Notes” are another form of visual information synthesis that prove highly effective in terms of author retention. As people conduct more studies on this method, it can become the preferred method for digesting information. In turn, the practice of visual note taking will create more confident, knowledgable recipient, more capable of synthesizing and communicating those ideas.

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