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“What do I do next?” is arguably one of the most frustrating questions asked during a chemistry lab. I strive for my students to be independent thinkers and problem solvers, but even the strongest students can doubt themselves during labs. As an AP Chemistry teacher, I find that labs comprise 25% of my curriculum. Sketch notes are an easy, effective, and enjoyable alternative to procedure flowcharting in chemistry labs, enabling students to have confidence in their laboratory skills.

What are sketch notes?

Five years ago, in my first year of teaching, an English-teacher colleague introduced me to sketch notes, a unique method of note-taking or presenting that replaces text with figures, doodles, and arrows1. I was immediately taken by the simple, yet effective method of communication. I knew I wanted to incorporate sketch notes as an option in my chemistry courses, but was unsure of the best format. I firmly believe in allowing students the autonomy to implement their own note-taking style, particularly for a difficult subject like chemistry. Then one day, during a particularly brutal lab in which I practically walked my students through a procedure step-by-agonizing-step, it hit me: sketch notes would make excellent flowcharts.

Sketch notes and traditional flowcharts are similar in that they are both diagrams of the sequence of procedural steps needed for a laboratory exercise. The difference lies in how that sequence is communicated: flowcharts are text-based, whereas sketch notes rely on pictures with minimal-to-no text. It is the job of the sketch itself to show how the step is performed with the equipment, instead of explaining how it is done via written language.

Why use sketch notes?

Safety discussions are essential components of all chemistry pre-laboratory exercises, and the topic is a top concern of all lab teachers. In my experience, when students truly understand the various steps of a procedure (whether given to them or designed through inquiry), they work more efficiently and safely. Extensive procedural discussions allow teachers to demonstrate the proper use of equipment, indicate essential skills, and most importantly, discuss the various safety protocols for each step. But who has the class time for that?

I struggled with getting my students to read and analyze a procedure before coming to lab, even after pre-lab discussion. Prior to introducing sketch notes, I had the students rewrite a given procedure for introductory labs (which I found to be a waste of time) and create procedural flowcharts. Flowcharts were OK, but most of my students just rewrote the procedure and put boxes around the steps. Both processes proved ineffectual, because the students were not thinking about what they were writing. Therefore, they were struggling with the most basic of laboratory skills.

Once I started implementing sketch note procedures, my AP Chemistry students’ lab experiences drastically improved. As a drawing-based medium, sketch noting forced my students to filter out (pun intended) the truly important details in a procedural step. Drawing the various pieces of apparatus and equipment also ensured they understood how to perform a procedure, instead of simply what to do.

Additionally, this activity can be adapted for every level of student. I taught a section of English Language Learners during my student teaching, and I wish I had known about sketch notes then, to aid in both content knowledge and language acquisition. I believe that all levels of chemistry can benefit from incorporating sketch notes. First-year or college prep chemistry students can start by sketching a set of pictures they can use as a guide until they become familiar with specific equipment. Thus sketch noting not only helps them communicate about any procedures they do, but also reinforces understanding and knowledge of essential equipment (beakers, pipets, balances, etc.).

How to implement sketch notes

I’ve been using sketch notes intermittently for five years and have found that they are easily incorporated into any laboratory exercise. I’ve used them in pre-labs, post-labs, extra credit projects, and partnered inquiry labs where students design a procedure for a classmate to complete. Teacher planning time is minimal: I spend 10 minutes explaining sketch noting and providing examples, and post those examples to Google Classroom as references; then, the assignment is easily done in class or at home. It’s also one of my go-to assignments for substitutes. Any component of the process can be incorporated: chemical safety, lab skills, calculations, etc. Any supplies they may need (large paper, markers, rulers, etc.) are provided for them to borrow.

Introducing the skill

As with any new skill, the sketch note procedure must be introduced and explained to students before assigning it as a task. First, students are given a written procedure for a chemistry lab (full steps as you would receive from a lab kit), and they draft that into a written flowchart. My students are familiar with flowcharts, due to their previous science and engineering classes, but for students who have not already done flowcharts, this would need to be modeled.

The first time I have my students create a sketch note procedure, it is part of a post-lab activity. Once they are familiar with the equipment and how the experiment is performed, they take their flowchart and substitute text with sketches of what they did in the lab; then, as a class, we break down the procedure and decide where figures can be implemented. This allows students to draw from their observations and to create a sketch note in a less abstract manner. Although this may sound time-consuming, the entire process takes only about one 50-minute class period.

I do not use sketch notes with every lab, but spread them throughout the year to highlight some of the most essential skills: calorimetry, separation techniques, Beer’s Law, making solution/dilutions, and titrations, for example. Sketch notes can be used with both qualitative and quantitative labs, though I generally use them with the latter so as to incorporate measurements and calculations. Text-based directions can be difficult to interpret, particularly if a setup is new, so I will incorporate sketch notes whenever the students have to build an apparatus or calibrate a device. I have found that when students are already familiar with a technique, such as using a Bunsen burner or performing serial dilutions, they design more effective sketch notes. Thus, for familiar techniques, even when they’re being used in a new lab procedure, I will have students create sketch notes before the lab. If there are new skills introduced, I use it as a post-lab assignment.

Assessing sketch notes

Figure 1 shows an example of a very simple assessment rubric that I’ve used with my students. When I implement sketch notes, I want to ensure that the students are focusing on both content (procedure and safety/analysis) and on the design of the sketches themselves.

0 points
No Knowledge
1 point
Beginning
2 points
Developing
3 points
Proficient
4 points
Advanced
Procedure

Sketch note does not align with actual procedure performed.

The procedure cannot be followed as written, but does attempt to align with the actual procedure.

At least 85% of the steps are included. The written procedure must be referenced.

All steps are included. The written procedure must be referenced to successfully complete the lab.

All steps are included and the procedure can be followed without referencing the written procedure.

Safety/
Calculations/Skills
(as instructed)

No safety, skills, and/or calculations are included.

Less than 80% of safety, skills, and/or calculations are included.

At least 80% safety, skills, and/or calculations are mentioned.

All safety, skills, and/or calculations are incorporated.

All safety, skills, and/or calculations are incorporated and highly detailed.

Artistry and Organization

No use of color/sketches.

No organization.

Minimal use of color/ sketches.

Organization was attempted.

Minimal use of color/ sketches.

Mostly organized procedure.

Good use of color/ sketches that aid in understanding the experiment.

Organized procedure.

Excellent use of color/sketches to detail parts of the experiment.

Organized procedure. 

Figure 1. Sample rubric for assessing student sketch notes.

What about the students who aren’t artists? My drawing skills, for example, are abysmal. I can basically draw shapes, stick figures, and Lewis structures; anything more complicated requires labels, and I would never require of my students something I could not do myself. So I allow them to use online drawing tools, photos labeled for reuse (with citations), and any other digital instruments they know how to use.

Figure 2. Sketch notes created by an AP chemistry student for a calorimetry lab.

Sample sketch notes

Figures 2 and 3 show examples of sketch notes created by two high school seniors in my AP Chemistry class. Figure 2 is a sketch note for a standard calorimetry lab (included with permission, identifying information removed). In Part A, she was determining the calorimeter constant of a coffee cup calorimeter; in Part B, she was finding the molar heat of solution for an assigned salt (the class then pooled data to choose salts for hot and cold packs). The procedure for Part A was provided, but the student herself created the procedure for Part B as part of the pre-lab assignment.

This is an example of a phenomenal sketch note, earning full marks on the rubric. The setup is clearly diagrammed and is easier to follow than written steps. Her procedure is simple yet extremely effective. The various materials and equipment are labeled, volumes and masses of reagents are identified, the data to be collected are indicated, and essential calculations are included. This sketch note was digitally drawn by hand.

Figure 3 shows a sketch note for a tie-dying chemistry lab that I run with my AP class after the exam. Although it earns full marks for the procedure, the artistry is not as strong as in the first example. I scored the sketch note procedure in Figure 3 as “Developing,” because the sketches are ancillary to the text: they do not demonstrate how to perform the lab, but are merely pictures of various components. Although Figure 3 is not a great example of a sketch note, it is still relatively effective at communicating the procedure for the lab.

Figure 3. Sketch notes created by an AP chemistry student for a qualitative tie-dye lab.

Unexpected benefits and cross-curricular integration

After regularly incorporating sketch notes with my AP Chemistry class two years ago, I saw marked improvement in my students’ test performance on lab-based questions. The sketch notes provided an additional pathway for learning and studying various laboratory procedures, which also helped my students during the AP exam.

Sketch notes are also a phenomenal way to incorporate NGSS Science and Engineering Practices as well as state writing/communication standards into the curriculum. In designing a sketch note, students must plan an investigation, utilize computational thinking, and then communicate that information effectively. Finally, most of my students simply enjoy making sketch notes. They are an excellent outlet for creativity and can be relaxing to create.

Sketch notes as a tool for online/remote learning

In March 2020, my school, along with many in the nation, moved to remote learning due to the increasing spread of COVID-19. It is expected that at least part of the 2020-2021 school year will also be remote. Sketch notes are an excellent tool for distance learning, both for content and labs. I’ve done a variety of virtual labs and simulations with my students, and sketch notes can be used to exhibit understanding of laboratory techniques until students can demonstrate them in person.

Conclusion

Sketch notes do not replace a well-written procedure, but provide an additional method of detailing said procedure. They force students to simplify an intricate technique, which greatly enhances students’ understanding of essential skills. Sketch notes can be used with any population of chemistry students and may be beneficial both academically and emotionally.


References

  1. Erb, Veronica. How to Start Sketchnoting. Bulletin of the American Society for Information Science and Technology. 2012, 39, no. 1 (October-November), 22-23. https://doi.org/10.1002/bult.2012.1720390108 (accessed August 10, 2020).