Take Note!

Well, ok, not you but your students. Now, when we’re in class, you know, the physical place where we met for real with other people and we don’t make each other sick (at least not that way), we tend to assume that our students will take note, especially in a lecture format. We might even tell them that they’ll need to take note in the class, preferably, the old-fashioned way, with pen and paper, which, as research shows, works better than notes typed on a device.

But do our students take notes well? Note-taking is crucial in a many contexts but it’s a skill. When do we expect students have learned it? Have they learned it? Have you ever had a conversation with a student, asking you how they could do better? You then asked if they could show you their notes and either, they didn’t have any, or they did have them, and you took one look and thought “geez, no wonder”.

How many of us teach note-taking (on top of everything else we have to teach)? How many of us actively and deliberately assist with note-taking? How many of us share our notes? But if so, what do we expect students to do with them? Just re-read them? Highlight them?

How do we know what kinds of note-taking strategies work best for different contexts?

Ok, that’s a lot of questions. Thankfully, one book has (some) answers:

Effective Notetaking (publisher link in New Zealand! Website link) goes through the note-taking strategies that research shows are effective based on contexts.

Which note-taking strategies are the most effective depends on (among other things):

  • the source material (text, reading, live lecture, taped lecture, film, audio);
  • the difficulty level of the source materials;
  • what the notes are supposed to be used for;
  • the skill level of the students doing the note-taking.

I should note, though, that this book is written for students. As such, it directly addresses students, provides worked examples and exercises for practice. But any of us can find way to “reverse engineer” the strategies it discusses to provide the best assistance for notetaking.

The book is divided into strategies sections (as in: what are you trying to do with those notes?):

  • Selection: finding the key ideas in a text or lecture;
  • Connection: visualizing the hierarchies and links within materials or across materials;
  • Application: using notes for a variety of purposes.

The strategies themselves are pretty well-known:

  1. Selection
    1. Highlighting
    2. Headings
    3. Summaries
  2. Connection
    1. Elaboration
    2. Concept maps
    3. Mind maps
  3. Application / Using notes
    1. to provide a record
    2. to focus attention
    3. to reduce cognitive load
    4. to organize information
    5. to help select what’s important
    6. to help make connections
    7. to help review

Because the choice of strategy is also a function of the level of notetaker, giving students notes might not be the best idea since those notes would have been made by an expert (the instructor) using strategies that might not be best for a novice. Similarly, materials that may seem easy, or at least, not too complicated to an instructor might present major difficulties to a novice.

And just to make things even trickier, students tend to overestimate their notetaking skills and the adequacy of their notes to the task at hand, be it using notes to prime for a class discussion or a lecture, to prep for a test or an exam, or just to review what one knows on a given topic. As the author notes, students should know why they are to take notes. It might be worth telling them, especially if they’re new to your field / class.

The summarizes the task to strategy as such:

Now, that is all from the students’ side. What about from our side? I think it’s important, as we design materials, to anticipate how students are supposed to take notes. For instance, if one is lecturing in Bb Collaborate, it might be worth creating a set of title slides as to orient the students as well as providing verbal cues.

I also think we should be generous with handouts, be they note-taking outlines or visual organizers for the students to fill up as they listen to the lecture, even noting the core concepts one wants the students to not miss and pay close attention to. If the lecture is live, it is also worth taking pauses for students to complete their notes on the lecture segment they just listened to.

However, research also shows that notetaking deteriorates as the lecture goes on. This is a problem if one intends long-ish live lectures. This is one of the reasons why I prefer to tape lectures, keeping myself under 15 minutes. If a topic requires longer than this, it can still be broken up into shorter segments.

For texts and videos (not lectures, more documentaries or features), providing note-taking tools is also important. If the video is long as well, one might want to indicate where it is a good idea to pause. Students won’t necessarily know when is a good time to break. They might break at the “wrong” time and lose the logic or sequence of what they were watching. It is also important to tell students what they are taking notes for.

Ultimately, how many of us do check our students’ notes consistently and regularly? I will cop to not do it as much as I should but I do provide a lot of handouts and pointers and note-taking outlines. As Shannon noted in her video about bending, one easy way to adapt to all-remote is to just ask students to revise and upload their notes to Blackboard for review.

I should say, though, that the book frustrated me quite a bit. First because the author is a specialist on memory and all her text examples were on that subject, and I was like “I am so not reading that”. Then, I thought, hey, how many of my students have ever thought “I am so not reading that” while looking at the stuff I assigned. [I want to say none because I pick interesting materials 🙂 ]

My other frustration was the references and a whole dang chapter on learning styles. Ugh. Why are people still discussing that debunked notion?

Anyhoo, the book it still worth checking out and ponder as you think about the types of materials you might create to help your students create their own notetaking record for your class.

I would also like to recommend this handy handout from Oregon state on note-taking for students: