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Learn Like Leonardo da Vinci with Study Notes and Learning Journals

If you wanted to learn about architecture, invention, drawing, painting, sculpture, science, music, mathematics, engineering, literature, anatomy, geology, astronomy, botany, paleontology, or cartography, how would you begin? One way to begin is to keep a notebook filled with study notes that record the questions you’re wondering about and the main ideas and elements of the discipline you are studying, including diagrams, graphs, charts, and illustrations. Long before textbooks and workbooks were invented, people of all ages were keeping notebooks to help them remember important things, and it’s a learning strategy that works.

Learn like Leonardo da Vinci with study notes and learning journals.

One of the very best examples of learning through writing and drawing is Leonardo daVinci (1452–1519) who recorded his questions, answers, and discoveries in notebooks. Over a period of about 30 years, he kept learning journals in which he wrote about and drew over 5000 pages of study notes in all of the subjects that interested him. This learning process helped him record information he read and research he did, and it gave him a place to work through ideas until he deeply understood them.

Leonardo's study of the movement of biceps in the arm.

Leonardo’s study of the arm.

Leonardo was a genius, but he needed notebooks because they helped him think, understand, and remember. Countless other people in pre-screen days kept notebooks too — diaries, journals, logs, commonplace books, nature notebooks, and sketchbooks, many of which have been handed down for generations or entrusted to museums and libraries. Modern students in the UK do something similar with learning logs and Charlotte Mason homeschoolers use notebooking for learning journals, commonplace books, written narrations, and other types of notebooks.These learning journals can become like personal encyclopedias with notes on all the things the creator is discovering.

Simple study notes make learning stick

It takes focused thought to summarize a body of knowledge in your own words and images. As William Zinsser notes in Writing to Learn, “Writing is a . . . physical activity . . . for getting our thoughts on paper. It compels us . . . to go after those thoughts and to organize them and present them clearly” (49). Despite the modern addiction to technology, studies continue to show that a deeper form of learning occurs when students take notes by hand.

When I was in high school, I kept a little 3×5 notebook with me all time and used it as a learning journal. It contained new concepts in math, including step-by-step processes I had to look up frequently and formulas I needed to remember. It also held a list of Spanish vocabulary, notes on conjugations and verb tenses, interesting quotes from books I was reading, and more. By writing down the things I needed to remember, I created my own reference guide, and because I’d selected, organized, and summarized the information myself, I found that when I was taking a test I could often remember an answer by visualizing the way I’d written it on the page.

“Storyboard” for Book 4 of The Faerie Queene.

In college I still kept a small notebook, but now it began to sport Latin vocabulary, a growing timeline of events from the Revolutionary War period of history, and vocabulary from various science classes. I added a big 18 x 24″ art pad for mind-mapping research papers, reviewing for exams, storyboarding intricate literature such as Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales or Spenser’s Faerie Queene, and sketching maps, diagrams, and charts. My drawings were sketchy at best — people were mostly stick figures and diagrams were often lopsided with too much text squished into too little space. But just as they had in high school, study notes helped me remember important things.

One of the best things about using notebooks for learning is that it’s easy to see progress and remember what has been studied each year. The best learning journals I’ve seen have recorded studies on every subject except math — all in the same book. Science experiments, maps, commonplace quotes, and historic events are recorded as they are studied. Charlotte Mason wrote about commonplace books that “Such a diary, carefully kept through life, should be exceedingly interesting as containing the intellectual history of the writer” (volume 5, p. 260), and the same is true of larger learning journals that encompass many subjects. Just imagine graduating from from school with an entire shelf of books that document what you have learned in all the subjects!

Visual note-taking tips

Study notes for Egypt by Ruth Lawton.

Study notes on Egypt, with thanks to Ruth Lawton, 7th grade.

Students are generally responsible for deciding what to record and how to record it. Notebooks are where students record and process what they are learning, so it can be helpful if they have a choice of sizes and types of books. Remember that notebooks are used instead of workbooks, so time is provided during school to work on them, but they are not “corrected.”

To begin creating a page, the student should survey the information available in books or other notes. Write the subject title on the page in an appropriate style, and then begin adding information using short bullet points, diagrams, summary sentences, illustrations, questions, and whatever else helps to make the subject clear and interesting. Some pages will have more text; others will be mostly images or diagrams — both styles are fine. Students will gradually develop a style of their own as long as they have the freedom to try things and remember that they can just cross out and move on if something doesn’t go as planned.

Here are a few questions to help you decide what to record about any topic.

  1. What are the most important ideas?
  2. What patterns or connections do I see?
  3. What elements should be emphasized by changing size, color, weight, or style of lettering?
  4. How can this historic event, science experiment, or literary journey be recorded and illustrated in a way that is understandable and memorable?
  5. What questions still need to be answered?

It helps to look at models when you start to keep a learning journal. Pinterest has many examples of sketchnotes, commonplace books, graphic organizers, and different types of study notes. These can provide inspiration for how to fit a lot of information on a page in a clear and compelling way. Students may enjoy seeing models made by other students, and you can find a few at RemarkableLearningLogs and LearningLogsUK. If a student is intimidated by models, just have them begin keeping notes in whatever way they are comfortable.

General guidelines on notetaking for lectures or books

In a live class, lecture, or workshop, you will need to take notes while you’re there. Notes taken quickly may not be as carefully done as notes taken at leisure, but that doesn’t mean they have to be sloppy or boring. They can include simple diagrams, quick sketches, banners, arrows, multiple columns, information emphasized by size or lettering styles, and much more. The Sketchnote Handbook: The Illustrated Guide to Visual Note Taking by Mike Rohde offers tips for how to listen when you need to take good notes:

  • Focus attention on the speaker
  • Eliminate or filter distractions
  • Immerse mentally in the presentation
  • Cache ideas (store in short-term memory so you can keep listening)
  • Recognize patterns
Quotes from Something They Will Not Forget by Joshua Gibbs

Commonplace book page.

If you are reading or studying, you can choose to take notes as you go or annotate the book while you’re reading and come back later to write study notes. I prefer to do the latter for most books, but if I’m reading a book that has a lot of ideas or quotable bits on every page (a lot of living nonfiction is like that), I’ll stop at the end of every chapter and take notes. On the commonplace book page you see at left, I made a pencil line in the book beside each bit that I wanted to quote, then wrote the quotes in my commonplace book as I finished reading the chapter.

How early can you start?

You can start using notebooks for copywork and commonplacing as soon as students start school and have decent pencil control. Early notebooks will be simple, and probably mostly text with few or no illustrations. As students grow older, notebooks can grow more detailed, but they are still not “corrected.” If you are using AmblesideOnline as your curriculum, you’ll have a rich supply of readings to write about. Elsewhere on the page you will see samples from a six-year-old boy and an eight-year-old girl, both writing in ordinary composition books.

Tips and Resources for Creating Study Notes

I’ve been using study notes, mindmaps, and all sorts of learning journals since my teens, so I’ve settled on a few favorite notebooks and pens that are good quality and reasonably affordable. A good notebook for study notes can be any size, but it should lay flat and have paper that allows pens or pencils to glide smoothly. Poor quality writing supplies can be intensely frustrating for a child who is struggling to master the mechanics of writing — cheap pencils can squeak unbearably or erase badly, poor quality paper can have fibers that catch on sharp pencil points or cause ink to bleed. Learning journals are about learning — the value is in the process, not necessarily the product, but when a student will be investing a significant amount of time in filling up a notebook, it makes a difference to have a notebook that is pleasant to use and sturdy enough to last.

Poem inspired by Poe’s “Bells;” eight-year-old girl.

Notebooks: You can start with simple composition books from a local store, but the pages on those are usually thin. They can work just fine for early copywork and notebooking with pencils, but once your student is ready for pens, they tend to be unsatisfactory, especially if the student needs to write on both sides of the page or likes to use a lot of color. As soon as the student is a confident writer and is using pens, a blank sketchbook can be a great option. The blank page welcomes more creativity than a lined page, and can encourage students to try more innovative diagrams or sketches (see the Egypt page above for an example).

I always have more than one notebook going at a time — a small Moleskine or Field Notes Cahier in my pocket, a Rhodia dot grid notebook in A5 size in my planner, a separate Rhodia for commonplace quotes, and of course, my big art pad and giant (20 x 23″) Post-it easel pad. In addition, I’m just starting one of the lovely BarbaraGrace Book Journals. These are made with old book covers and filled with high quality sketch paper — quite delightful! You (or your students) don’t need that many to begin, though — just start with a size that is comfortable to use, then experiment with other sizes to find the best fit.

“Annabelle Lee” by Poe; copywork by 6-year old boy.

Pencils: Young students often prefer to begin with pencils but may transition to pens as soon as their penmanship is reasonably neat. Classic yellow #2 pencils are still a good choice — bolt a nice hand-cranked pencil sharpener to the corner of your desk, and you’ll be all set. If you have a student who applies too much pressure when writing, try Bic mechanical pencils in the 0.5mm lead size. Because it will break if pressed too hard, it can help break the bad habit of engraving rather than writing. For a student who writes too lightly, you might try the Bic mechanical pencil in the 0.9mm size. It’s thicker and will show up a little better. Better yet, just transition the light-handed writer to using a pen.

Pens: Working with a pen can feel intimidating to a perfectionist parent or child, but again, study notes and the learning journal are about learning, not perfection. They are NOT corrected (seriously — did anyone ever correct your study notes in a class?). A child can learn some basic proofreader’s marks in order to indicate additions, deletions, or small corrections to the text, but that is all that is necessary. If a mistake is made, cross it out and go on. The student may opt to decorate over it or adapt it somehow, but that is not necessary. The point of it all is to learn about Egypt or egrets or the parts of a flower or Elizabeth van Lew or the political history of Russia or George Washington Carver and the cultivation of peanuts — not to create a museum piece.

So . . . back to pens. We used ordinary ballpoint pens (in as many colors as I could find) for many years, but once I read Mona Brookes Drawing With Children and saw what a difference it made to use good quality color-intensive pens, I made sure we had those available. Gel pens, Flair felt-tip markers, Prismacolor colored pencils, and Inktense pencils (like watercolor pencils, but much, much nicer and more vivid) round out the color portion of our notebooking supplies.

For most text, the Uniball Jetstream is a nice fast-drying dark-black pen that won’t smudge or blob. It’s excellent for everyday notetaking, even for younger students. As students grow older and more confident, Micron Pigma pens are nice for fine work, though not good for students who press too hard.

In recent years I have begun to use fountain pens for most of my notebooking. That can be a fun option for creative teens, and you can get good starter pens and learn how to take care of them at GouletPens.com. I get other supplies locally at Plaza Art or Hobby Lobby, or online at Amazon or OfficeSupply.com. (The Amazon links in this post are affiliate links — see policy in the footer at the bottom of the page — other links are not.)

I hope you and your students will enjoy creating good study notes and working with learning journals. As far as I’m concerned, an education centered on living books and learning journals is an excellent thing, and you can use these things whether you are a classical or Charlotte Mason student or simply eclectic. Enjoy!


Penmanship should be easy and automatic, and it pays to practice until it is. Here is a serious look at why penmanship is so important, plus tips and resources for teaching and using it.

Penmanship Matters: Here’s Why You Need to Teach It

How to Hold a Pen or Pencil

Mueller, Pam A., and Daniel M. Oppenheimer. “The Pen Is Mightier Than the Keyboard: Advantages of Longhand Over Laptop Note Taking.” Psychological Science, vol. 25, no. 6, June 2014, pp. 1159–1168, doi:10.1177/0956797614524581.

Aunt Edie’s Commonplace Book, 1917-1947

 

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