Monday, October 19, 2015

Textbooks and Active Note-Taking Strategies

I remember taking my first textbook centered class in college.  We read chapters at a time and then listened to lectures on the content.  It seemed pretty standard at the beginning, but after the introduction and beginning chapters were over, and we began with more in-depth material, I quickly became overwhelmed.  There I was, sitting on the floor of my freshman dorm room, an arrayed collection of highlighters within easy reach, a notebook perched precariously on my lap, and I had no idea where to start.

That semester, I think I spent more time in my professor's office than in my dorm room, asking questions, and trying to better understand the content.  I got a tutor for the subject.  I asked friends for help.  Nothing seemed to work.  That was, until a friend of mine, two years my senior, suggested I look up tips on reading a textbook.  I had scoffed.  I was an English major.  I didn't need tips on how to read.  Reading was my life!  But to humor her, or maybe just to try and prove her wrong, I spent some time googling, and realized: I didn't know how to read a textbook.

I would put money on the fact that this is a hugely widespread issue that many college students have to work through.  Luckily, some of them are able to figure it out on their own with enough time and practice, but some students aren't as fortunate--spending semester after semester struggling with understanding content simply because they don't know how to effectively read or organize it once they understand it.

As it turns out, the key to reading a textbook has nothing to do with the actual act of reading, but instead, the ways in which students process, take notes on, and study the information they read about.  Therefore, the real problem has to do with how students work with the information they are given, and most of them are doing it wrong.

What most students perceive as good note-taking etiquette, is actually the opposite.  Students highlight full pages of text, they write down vocabulary words and only focus on the definitions, not the use of the words themselves.  They make flash cards and focus on route memorization to get them through tests.  They write things word-for-word from their texts, expecting that to be enough of a tool to remember what it means.  In reality, none of these things are effective learning techniques, and instead, have been proven across the board to promote a less engaged system of memory retention.

Instead, students should be using active note-taking procedures: putting things into their own words, making real-world or personal connections to the things they read, jotting things down in the margins instead of highlighting, or summarizing each page with one or two main thoughts written on sticky notes.  They should be considering titles, subtitles, and reviewing the questions that are at the end of the chapter before they even begin reading.

My proposal is this: for professors that choose to utilize textbooks, the first class of the semester can be used to show examples of how to effectively read and take notes on chapters within their texts.  Explain that there are several different techniques they can use (like the ones listed in the previous paragraph), but using an entire highlighter per chapter is not the way to go about it--mostly because it won't help them remember any of it, but also because they're college students and highlighters are expensive.

Look for resources (like this video) that might be helpful in illustrating how to put active note-taking skills to good use, and share them with your students before you begin the semester to make sure they're getting the most from your class, and you're getting the most from them.

Tip Provided By:  Jessica Moser 

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