In the last few years medical schools have noticed a growing phenomenon: a high percentage of first and second year medical students don’t actually attend classes (“Med Students AWOL”). That’s because medical students have to pass a major examination (eight hours of multiple choice questions!) at the end of their second year, and their classes don’t do a very good job of preparing them for it. It turns out that one thing that does help them remember the overwhelming amount of information they need for the test is something that we recommend to history teachers and students at our 4QM workshops: stories with pictures. In 2013 three medical students founded an online company called “SketchyMedical,” which creates illustrated stories about microbiology, pharmacology, and pathology to help medical students learn the material for the exam (here’s their home page). Many students have decided that SketchyMedical works better than actually attending class. As one of the founders explained, as med students themselves they “were just bombarded with different names of bacteria, viruses, and fungi, and we were having a tough time keeping them all straight.” They found that stories and pictures were an effective way to make sense of it all, and apparently lots of other medical students agree.

history class can feel like medical school

For many (or most!) middle and high school students, history class can feel like medical school: students are bombarded with different names, dates, events, and “key terms,” and they have a tough time keeping them all straight. A full period summative assessment at the end of a unit can feel like an eight hour multiple choice exam. In our work with history teachers and students, we have found that, like medical students, adolescent history students learn more efficiently and effectively if teachers start with the story and have students illustrate it with pictures. Question One of the Four Question Method is “What Happened?” because before students can answer any other history questions they must have at least a rudimentary understanding of the story that they will be exploring in depth. In our experience and observation, it’s all too easy for teachers to rush through or overstuff the story, and it’s all too easy for teachers to assume that their students know the story when they don’t.

So try “sketchy history” to help kids learn

In our 4QM workshops we recommend using storyboards as a planning tool for teachers, and as a teaching tool to check for student understanding. Asking students to draw a 4-box illustrated storyboard is a simple and effective technique that serves both as a learning tool and a formative assessment. Maybe students were taught this part of the story in class, when you lectured and they took narrative notes. Or maybe you’ve flipped your classroom, and students were responsible for learning this part of the story on their own, through homework reading or video. Either way, once they’re responsible for knowing the story you can assign them to small groups to collaborate on creating a four-box storyboard.

Give students four panels (a folded 8.5 x 11 sheet of paper works perfectly well to create the panels), and tell them that each panel needs to have an illustration. Panel number four will be the outcome, or result of the story. Panel number one will be the setting, or starting point of the story. And they get two panels in the middle to illustrate how the story moves from setting to outcome. The panels progress in chronological order, and the illustrations should demonstrate the key events of the story in a way that makes narrative sense. Tell students to give each panel a title and a date range. Once students have completed the task, you can have each group, or a random selection if you are pressed for time, share their storyboard and talk through the narrative for the class.

Making the storyboard requires students to demonstrate understanding of important historical thinking skills. They must show accurate knowledge of chronology, and related understanding of cause and effect. They must make decisions about how to chunk the story, breaking it into chapters or historical periods. It also requires them to decide what events and are key for each chapter or period, and to create an illustration that will epitomize it. This is a remarkably efficient way to find out who in your class actually knows and understands the narrative, and who is laboring under misconceptions that must be corrected if they are to go on to deeper thinking. And the storyboards themselves make great study and review tools.

Hopefully your students are still showing up for class. But we can all take a tip from the medical students who aren’t, and make use of “sketchy history” to help our students learn and remember they narratives that are the foundation of our discipline.