What do you see your students doing during your class? Are they frantically transcribing your every word? Or is it the opposite, where you wonder if they’re taking any notes at all? This post will discuss how to guide your students to take powerful notes, the kind that lead to rich learning.
For students, every class is a puzzle they’re trying to solve. How does the reading relate to the lecture? Which material will be emphasized on the exam? At what level of detail do I need to know course materials? Answering these questions will allow students to focus on what matters most in your course. This helps guide student decisions about what they write down during note-taking sessions inside and outside of class.
Ongoing pre-class activities that set up the next day’s material can serve to construct a context and frame for organizing what your students are about to learn. For example, if you are assigning them reading, could part of a class be devoted to exploring how to tackle it? How would you read this material? Tell students what you expect them to do with this material. Here are some questions to consider:
- Should students memorize specific information, or are you mostly seeking understanding?
- Will you be asking students to apply concepts from the readings to other contexts or unfamiliar problems?
- Are you assigning this to help students analyze and evaluate arguments… or perhaps create their own?
By setting clear expectations of pre-class work, you can ensure that in-class activities are focused, effective, and meaningful.
Because students have completed the reading, they return to class with a scaffold for the day already built. Now they can concentrate their note-taking energies on refining, elaborating, applying, and otherwise building upon what they already know—as opposed to scrambling to figure out what is going on and what it means (a stressful and dispiriting cognitive load!).
You might offer resources about different note-taking systems—The Student Academic Center at IU Bloomington has an episode in their video series about Taking Notes in Class. The Cornell Notes system is a popular note taking approach, with a research base to support its cognitive benefits. You might also share with your students that research demonstrates that taking notes by hand is more effective than typing them out on a laptop.
Once your students have note-taking techniques in place, engage them in active learning, since we know that the ones doing the most work are doing the most learning. To give students note-taking practice you can:
- Develop activities that give them practice in prioritizing information
- Give them time to compare and elaborate on their notes
- Ask small groups to visualize course concepts and then do a gallery walk
- Nominate a few students to use whiteboards to outline notes for the lecture
Even just taking a moment to allow students to explain something to a partner can produce significant retention benefits.
What should students do with their notes? You might share with them The Study Cycle, which outlines a process for integrating note-taking with classwork and studying. The more important behavior to encourage is elaborating on the material—to do something different with the notes to transform them into learning. Here are some ideas for your students (from the blog post “Finals: 3 Common Mistakes vs. What Works”):
- Reorganize the material—take notes on your notes, turn an outline into a mindmap, chunk it up into different topics and themes.
- Be the teacher—explain it to yourself, friends, family, rubber duck…
- Create your own examples
By the time your students have read the chapter, taken notes in class, and reprocessed their notes in a post-class review, they have engaged with the materials in several different ways. That’s studying! And it means that by exam time they will not be learning this material for the first time—it’s review.
Thank you to Anthony Guest-Scott from the SAC for writing this article with Madeleine Gonin.
Updated: June 10, 2019, to fix some broken links.