Teach Your Students How to Take Notes

Fill in the blanks: My students don’t know how to ___.

Great, now let’s take that and re-phrase it: I need to teach my students how to ___.

There have been countless times I’ve launched complaints beginning with the phrase, “My students don’t know how to…” only to then not do anything about it. The justifications for not doing so often take one of two forms:

  1. It’s not my job to teach them XYZ.
  2. They should know this already.

This year, I’m choosing to focus on two skills I feel may make the biggest impact on my students’ learning experience. One of them is note-taking.

I’ve had students tell me straight up they won’t do any work unless it is graded, or that they do not need to write anything down because they already know it. Ahh, classic “I’m a genius so I don’t need to work” excuse. While I do have students that can get away with this attitude and still do well, being able to understand how something is done is completely different from actually doing that task. Take break-dancing for example (replace with any skill of your choice). Sure, I can understand the mechanics of how the body is supposed to flow and move with the beat but am I able to translate that understanding to a flawless performance? Doubtful. This is especially true in math as well. You may have heard the saying, “Math is NOT a spectator sport!” We learn by doing.

As teachers, too often we do too much of the students’ work for them, robbing them of the opportunity to think and reason for themselves. We think we are being efficient when we adopt the “Let’s just get to the formula and be done with it” attitude. But what purpose does that serve other than turn our students into computational machines? That is not what mathematics is about. We are doing a vast disservice to our students and to the field of mathematics when we jump to the algorithm too soon, or teach without any context or basis for understanding.

What does note-taking have to do with any of this?

To start, many students struggle with effective note-taking. Second, it’s a skill that is applicable to all subjects and can help improve student learning. With this two-day mini workshop, I wanted to show students that note-taking is both an art form and an effective tool for learning. Good note-taking, in my opinion, isn’t so much about remembering as it is about learning. When we actively take-notes to learn we are coding and organizing the information in a way that makes sense to us.

Lesson Outline: Note-Taking Stations

Day 1 (40 minutes)

  1. Self-Assessment. The lesson begins by asking students to fill out a survey (from the University of Massachusetts Amherst) regarding their current note-taking habits. I later modified this to a Google form survey so I could easily codify and analyze the data from the survey (see here for results).
  2. Four Corners Discussion. Students identified whether or not they strongly agreed, agreed, disagreed, or strongly disagreed with some generalized statements regarding note-taking. Here are a few sample ones. In the interest of time, we only looked at 2-3 of these.
  3. Overview. We went over some of the research (a summary of the summary from Cult of Pedagogy) covering the HOW and WHY behind note-taking.
  4. Stations. Students visited one station and took notes using one of the four methods discussed (Cornell notes, concept map, sketch note, and annotated notes) based on a sample text in mathematics. Students spent 10 minutes at their station.
  5. Reflect. At the end, I had students in each station compare the notes they took and share their observations.

Day 2 (40 minutes)

  1. Review. We began day 2 with a quick recap of the HOW and WHY behind note-taking.
  2. Stations. Students spent 10 minutes at each of the three remaining stations to complete the full circuit. If time permitted, I had students share their reflections during the last minute the end of each station, though this did not always happen.
  3. Reflection. Unfortunately, we did not have time for a class discussion/reflection questions at the end. In an ideal setting, we would’ve talked about students’ main takeaways, and what they liked or disliked about the activity.

My Notes and Observations

Choose passages with care. In preparing for this activity, I needed to pick out passages from text that would pair well with each strategy of note-taking that I wanted to highlight in class. Oftentimes, the textbooks already do a LOT for students in terms of using colour, fonts, and graphic organizers to help students chunk information. In this respect, textbook passages probably aren’t the most helpful when looking at annotating. This was something that came up through trial and error so on day 2 of the workshop, I modified that station to a passage from Barbara Oakley’s book A Mind for Numbers instead.

Spend time diving into sample text and notes prior to the stations activity. In my class, students have been exposed to the Cornell note taking method, and I have created scaffolded notes using this format for them previously. As a result, most students were able to transition well to creating their own notes using this style. Looking back, it would have been beneficial to spend some time modelling or analyzing the other note-taking methods for students prior to having students create their own.

Next Post: Note-Taking Workshop Takeaways


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