A Note on Note-Taking

By Carolina Kuepper-Tetzel

Two days ago, Yana and I ran our monthly Twitter chat, #LrnSciChat. This time we talked about Note-Taking and I have to say that I was blown away by the responses from the participating people. During the chat many great ideas for classroom implementation were generated and people even came up with ideas on how to integrate the six learning strategies with note-taking. Due to the overwhelming positive response, I thought it would be a good idea to summarize the main points from that chat, so that others can benefit from them.

Our #LrnSciChat is centered on three guiding questions. I will discuss the answers to the three questions for our note-taking chat in turn.

How do your students take notes during class?

In general, teachers thought that their students often take verbatim notes by copying word-by-word what the teacher is explaining or not take any notes at all during class. Some argued that they actually welcome the strategy of not taking notes at all, as long as the students are engaging with the class and thinking about the content that is being taught. Others provide students with partial information that students then fill in while listening to the teacher. That’s a form of scaffolding that can help to move away from verbatim notes, and instead engage students in listening.

Given that students often have little to no prior knowledge of the material being taught (that’s why they are sitting in class or a lecture after all), it is only logical that they try to note down as much as they can while listening to the teacher. The consolidation of knowledge and extraction of the most important aspects is a very difficult task for someone with very little prior knowledge. For someone with no prior knowledge, it is quite hard to identify what is important and what is less important. To students everything that is communicated during class has equal relevance. Thus, teachers need to put strategies in place to direct students to the important parts. There are different ways of doing this. I use in-class quiz questions that tap onto concepts or ideas that are of higher importance. In addition, I provide take home messages at the end of each of my lectures. However, before presenting my take home messages to students, I give them two minutes to write down or tweet their own take home messages first. This way I can later see what they feel were the most important points of the lecture and if it lines up with my take home messages.

From the discussion of the first question, an important follow-up question came up: “Do we need to ‘teach’ note-taking?” (Benjamin Evans, @thingsbehindsun) and the answer seems to be Yes. But how? What guidance can we provide to students? Our second question of the Note-Taking #LrnSciChat helps us find an answer.

Image from Pixabay

Image from Pixabay

What guidance do you give your students for how to take notes in your classes?

This question led to mixed answers. On the one hand, there were teachers who provide their students with concrete strategies and examples on how to take notes effectively. On the other hand, several teachers realized that although they think that it would be a good idea to do so, they currently don’t provide any specific instructions or training to students on how to best take notes. I think because of this mixture of answers, the answers to this question proved to be quite beneficial for many people on various levels: Specifically, the awareness that often no specific note-taking instruction or dedicated training is in place together with the realization that it might be good to change this in the future, led to engaged discussions and exchange of ideas during the chat.

Here are some ideas that came up for effective and efficient note-taking:

  • Divide the class into three groups (A, B, C) and give each of them a role. Group A summarizes key points, group B adds to the summary, and group C poses questions. This rotates as the lecture progresses (by Alex Black, @alexbclearning).
  • Combine dual coding and note-taking. Encourage students to come up with illustrations or flow charts to capture the key point of the taught material. This can be scaffolded by teachers if they model dual coding first when explaining a specific concept and have students do that for the next concept.
  • Help students come up with take come messages at the end by having them write down what made the most and the least sense to them (by Allison Fowler, @FowlerFindings).
  • Modeling good note-taking and instructing students to use headings in their notes to structure them (by MrsClark, @Mrs_Clark2). She points out that this may slow down the lesson, but I think that is not necessarily a bad thing. Slowing down will provide room for students to think about the taught material and engage with it better.
  • Another idea was to take notes as an entire class collaboratively on a Google Doc, for example (by Greg Wilson, @gvwilson). Most students in that class evaluated this note-taking strategy positively, but it was pointed out that some felt overwhelmed. I agree that this can become a quite cognitively demanding task. Thus, I would suggest to use that strategy with caution. It may be more beneficial at the end of the semester, for example, when students have grasped an understanding of the material, i.e. have obtained prior knowledge.
  • Provide students with a structured note-taking system such as “The Cornell Note-Taking Method”. Here the notepad or document on the computer is divided into three sections: A Cues section on the left, a Notes section to the right, and a Summary section on the bottom (see image below). During class, students would make notes in the Note section. After class, students generate cues, keywords, or questions on the left side (Cues section) as well as a summary in their own words in the bottom part (Summary section). During studying, students are asked to cover the Notes section and recite their notes using the cues. Thus, this note-taking system combines note-taking with retrieval and spaced practice.

How do your students use their notes after class?

The answers to this question were interesting because only a few teachers had a good idea about what students do with their notes after class. Most teachers elaborated on what they thought students should do with their notes after class. However, we did have some students on Twitter chime in.

Here is a list of the different answers that came up:

  • Rereading notes or copying them into a different document or format to make them look prettier. If this is all students do, long-term retention of the material will probably suffer. However, some students elaborated further and explained that they…
  • Create flashcards on basis of their notes. These flashcards are then used during studying. One example was given where a flashcard contains notes and details on one side and 2-3 questions on the backside (by Sammi, @mindfulmiss1). During studying then, the student would read the questions first and try to answer them from memory before checking the details on the other side of the card.
  • Some students said that they revisit their notes when they work on assignments such as essays (by Laura Purcell, @L_Purcell).
  • Teachers also pointed out that often students only engage with their notes right before an upcoming assessment. To avoid massive cramming before big examinations, it is a good idea to have low-stakes quizzes. This is not only beneficial because it introduces continuous retrieval practice, but will motivate students to go back to their notes and keep them updated.

As you can see our Note-Taking #LrnSciChat generated many useful ideas that all incorporate cognitive science in some way or another. I felt that this was an excellent example of crowd-sourcing ideas for education using Twitter. I will definitely use this input to prepare a brief tutorial for my students on how to take notes and what to do with them after class. If you have additional thoughts on note-taking after reading this, please share them below in the comments or on Twitter using #LrnSciChat.

A summary of our Note-Taking #LrnSciChat can be found here!