A Surefire Way to Get Your Students Excited About Sketchbooks

As adults, we’re well aware of the benefits of sketchbooks. They’re the ideal place for planning artwork, taking notes, practicing sketching, and trying out new techniques. Trying to convince students of these benefits, however, is a different story. It seems like no matter how much we hype up the sketchbook, working in one is initially met with resistance.

According to AOE Content Director, Tim Bogatz, “The hardest part about using sketchbooks in the art room is convincing kids they’re worthwhile. You need to show them the process, how to use them, and the benefits of doing so. It takes a while.” In other words, you can’t just hand out blank books at the beginning of the grading period and expect students to use them.

One thing you can do to jumpstart your students’ love of sketchbooks is to craft great sketchbook prompts.

Bob Kling headshotI recently had the chance to talk to somewhat of a sketchbook expert, Bob Kling. Bob spent over thirty years teaching high school in Iowa before landing at his current position overseeing the art education major at Simpson College where he’s been for the last 13 years. Bob also exhibits his own work throughout the U.S. He told me, “I am a painter first but also a potter, sculptor, photographer, and writer. I believe drawing is the basis for all the visual arts. Therefore, a sketchbook is one of my most important tools.”

Bob just published a book titled How to Glue Your Face to the Carpet and 365 Other Great Sketchbook Assignments. Says Bob, “I wanted the title to draw interest and since I believe in drawing daily, I kept the list of ideas to 366, including leap year.”

book cover

If you’re looking for new ideas for yourself or your students, this resource is definitely worth a look.

Bob made the book small and portable so you can use it on the go. In addition, he wanted to make people feel at ease when using it. According to Bob, “In my book, I even put in pre-stained, torn and folded pages to encourage doodling. Sometimes the naked white space of a new piece of paper can be intimidating. Your sketchbook should be both a journey and a playground.”

This book has so many ideas. Mixed in with more traditional prompts like, “Draw something that is reflective” are tons of wildly creative ideas.

Here’s just a small sampling of the engaging prompts you’ll find inside:

  1. Age old face – Draw your self-portrait as you will look at age 75.
  2. Your car in action – Make a flipbook of your car traveling.
  3. Shhhh – Draw what you hear.
  4. Teacher vision – Sketch what you would see if you had eyes in the back of your head.
  5. It’s alive! – Your backpack is alive! Draw it!
bob's sketchbook
a sketch done by Bob on vacation

According to Bob, the key to creating a great prompt is to make it fun and easy to remember.

For example, instead of prompting students with, “Do a contour line drawing,” Bob would suggest, “ ‘Where, oh, where is my underwear?’ Dump your laundry in a pile. Do a contour drawing of your laundry.”

In both cases, the students will be working on the same skill, but you’ll get a much better result with the latter.

Bob also believes it’s important to keep a running list so you can jot down great ideas as they occur because students need those prompts to get their creativity flowing. He told me, “I am constantly thinking of new assignments or collecting them from other teachers and students. Beginning art students always want the freedom of ‘artist’s choice’ for an assignment and then struggle to figure out what to draw. That’s why it’s important to give them ideas with limitations. It’s within these limitations that creativity flourishes.”

Once you get your students invested in their sketchbooks, there are so many ways you can use them in the classroom.

In Bob’s teaching practice, sketchbooks are always homework. He told me, “I want art students to get in the habit of sketching daily, and not just in class.” He also wants their sketchbooks to be used in a variety of ways, “…not just for drawing beautiful things, but as a visual journal, an idea book to develop ideas, create new things and not be afraid of how the end result turns out.” In other words, he says, “When making art, I want my students to work hard, learn, and have fun – and not necessarily in that order!”

AOE Adjunct Instructor, Jennifer Borel, uses them a bit differently. In her middle school classroom, she has implemented something called “Sketchbook Thursdays.” Every Thursday, students stop whatever project they’re working on and sketch for a whole class period. She told me, “I love ‘Sketchbook Thursday’ because it breaks up projects that are taking awhile to get through. It improves their drawing skills. We typically have music on and I don’t let the students chat on sketchbooks days. They are more focused and produce some amazing things this way.”

sketchbook study by one of Jennifer's students
sketchbook study by one of Jennifer’s students

AOE Content Director, Tim Bogatz, and AOE Writer, Melissa Purtee, use sketchbooks at the high school level as a place for students to brainstorm, plan, and test out ideas for artwork. In art history, Melissa even has her students use their sketchbooks as visual journals. There are so many possibilities! Says Tim, “Sketchbooks are perfect for assessment, both summative and formative. They also work to develop creativity. Plus, if students have a sketchbook, they always have something to work on!”

Bob told me, “Throughout all of my teaching, I have always believed sketchbook assignments are critical for students to get them to see and to think.” No matter how you use sketchbooks in your classroom, creating engaging prompts for students is essential to get them invested in the practice. Take it from Bob and infuse a little humor in your attempts. You might just be surprised with the results!

How do you get students invested in their sketchbook practice?

How else do you use sketchbooks in your classroom?

Amanda Heyn

Learning Team

Amanda is the Senior Editor at AOE. She has a background in teaching elementary art and enjoys working to bring the best ideas from the world of art ed to the magazine each day. 


  • Lmbc

    I like the idea of one day a week being totally dedicated to sketchbook work! I have a very challenging time bring that I am the only art teacher in a school of 1700 students with limited electives. So a lot of my students wouldn’t have selected my class if they had other options…how do you combate the students who no matter what you do they only produce stick people because they have no interest in art.

    • Melissa Gilbertsen

      I teach middles and as the only art teacher and very limited electives have had similar experiences so I feel your pain! I found a book “Stick Sketch School” and used it to help combat the problem of “copping out” with stick figures. I taught a short lesson culled from the book which was based on the basic stick figure (which, yea! they already know) and showed how it didn’t take much to amp up a stick drawing to something worthy. I did it early on in the year and it did work at improving drawing confidence and buy in. Though there is always that 5 % (+/-) who won’t come to you no matter what you do. Cultivating a want in those students is a struggle for me.

      I think the problem though, lies with the pervasive and moronic mind set that art is supposed to be easy which permeates our culture. Kids are always shocked when they find out that there’s work to be done. What? Yep. I cannot tell you how many times I have said or thought “go take choir!!” Sorry choir people!! Not that I think it’s easy but arrrgh, frustration city!!

      • Lori Amer

        I feel you! This summer I’ve been reading The Growth Mindset Coach: A Teacher’s Month-by-Month Handbook for Empowering Students to Achieve. It speaks to ways to get students to embrace failure as a way to learn and small improvements, not perfection. I teach Pre-K-8th grade and struggle the most with my middle schoolers. They’ll be gung-ho till 4th grade and then some start to give-up if anything feels “too hard” to them. About to embark on another year with a fresh attitude and a brand new Middle School curriculum. I’m definitely going to check out that stick sketch school book. thx

        • Melissa Gilbertsen

          Cool, I’ll check that growth mindset book. I do have a mantra that I make them repeat (and do the hand movements too) all the time… I hold up one palm and ask (with great drama?) “do you want easy?” Hold up other palm “OR DO YOU WANT IT GOOD?” “Good? Okay, so whatcha gonna do now?” But yessss, it’s a whole other world with 7s and 8s. My 6s want to please still (thank goodness) but I keep reminding my 7 & 8s that it’s only a competition against yourself! I miss the younger ones who were totally and completely in for a penny in for a pound! I’m off to check out your recommendation and I’m going to remember to maintain my own growth mindset for this year. Man, I was pining 2 days after school was out? ?!