POI: Abby VanMuijen, drawing her way to a better education

poi165BERKELEY — Far from the lecture halls at Berkeley, free from rote note-taking, Abby VanMuijen had an education epiphany by way of a set of colored pencils.

On a study-abroad trip around the world during her junior year, the then-environmental design major’s focus was bike planning in cities. In Detroit, her first stop, a few sketches and stick figures crept into her notes; she’d learned a few things in the drawing studio course in the College of Environmental Design.

In Brazil, someone gave her the pencils, and her notes became color-coded — purple for buildings, red for cars. The idea took off, and by South Africa, sketches were the organizing principle of her notes, with key phrases and ideas getting a visual boost.

Being away from computers and tests had sparked a creative realization: “I didn’t have to remember everything. I’d think more about what I wanted to remember. I would add a drawing to emphasize a point.”

“I also realized it’s better for me to look back if it’s organized,” she discovered.

By the time she arrived back at Berkeley, she had developed a whole new language for engaging with new information: visual note-taking.

Abby VanMuijen

Sometimes drawings speak louder than words; Abby VanMuijen shows her visual note-taking class how using both can sharpen thinking and learning. (NewsCenter photo by Peg Skorpinski)

And, she found, it translated to the lecture hall. Instead of racing to scrawl down everything she heard, she could draw the essentials, make connections between concepts and grasp what she was learning in a whole new way. When she came back to her notes later, she could recapture the information with a glance.

“It’s about reorganizing the way it makes sense in your mind,” she explains.

Lectures became electric. “A lot of times you go into lectures, you fall asleep or you have to work really hard to understand what was going on,” she says. “I’m someone who doesn’t raise my hand — so this felt like my way of participating.”

Other students noticed. She started teaching them a few tricks to develop their own styles, which evolved into a class in visual note-taking that VanMuijen has taught four times over the last three years.

“It’s about giving people the tools to do their own thinking or communicating with themselves,” she explains.

During one recent class in the Blum Center, she had her students think of a childhood place and sketch its broad dimensions. “Zoom in and out of the visual. It brings things to mind that just talking about it might not,” she told them. “You can tell a better story.”

One of her professors noticed, too — Ananya Roy, professor of city and regional planning.  VanMuijen stood out among the hundreds of students in Roy’s global-poverty class as she sketched her way through the course materials. By the end of the semester, her notebook became the “Global Poverty Coloring Book,” published in the Blum Center for Developing Economies as part of the #GlobalPOV project.

Roy and VanMuijen teamed up, with others, to create a series of nine videos for the #GlobalPOV program, which adds video and social-media dimensions to the global- poverty curriculum.


Syllabus for Visual Notetaking 101. Click image to view the poster at a more readable size.

The videos show VanMuijen’s hands sketching and arranging simple props — jars of M&Ms, for example — to illuminate and bring to life Roy’s provocative teachings on poverty, welfare, politics, economics and social change.

The #GlobalPOV videos have been seen by thousands on YouTube; one has attracted more than 600,000 views.

“Ananya thinks so much in words,” VanMuijen says. “It’s been very cool for us to interact with two languages.”

Visual note-taking, meanwhile, has led VanMuijen to move toward new career horizons. As an environmental-design major who has always loved the outdoors, she originally imagined herself going into landscape design.

Now, after graduating in 2012 and completing the ninth and final #GlobalPOV video this month, VanMuijen is starting her own small production studio this summer to continue experimenting with the #GlobalPOV-style of video and to explore her other artistic endeavors. Projects she has lined up range from music videos to academic videos to corporate demonstration videos.

She’s also hoping to find a way to continue teaching her visual note-taking class, she says. “I’m interested in the world of education, in how to get people to think better.”

mugs of past 'Persons of Interest'

To meet other persons of interest, click above.

Know a member of the campus community — staff, student or faculty — who might make a good subject for “Persons of Interest”? Send us a note at news@berkeley.edu.