Thinking back, I can’t even begin to count how many times I was reminded as a student that taking good notes involved thought. I remember teachers putting up PowerPoint presentations and warning us that if we simply record what is written on each slide word-for-word we would never truly understand the content. Despite this, we were rarely told why or shown ways to improve note-taking as an approach to learning.
What students often don’t realize is that taking notes requires strategy, organization, and personal connections. Taking notes is a way for students to actively listen and engage with the material that is being presented. This is especially true if students attempt to put what the instructor says into their own words. Among the piles of research on note-taking, essentially the same message can be found: students need to be working with, writing down, or keying in this information for themselves in order to gain the deepest form of understanding.
Therefore, rather than providing all information needed on slides for students, consider including skeletal concepts for them to build off of themselves. List some key words (especially those that are difficult to spell), charts, tables, graphs, diagrams, and links to other references or websites. That way, when posting these presentations online after class, students can still review these basic notes without fully relying on them as a singular source of information.
There is a chance that students will struggle with these notes, claiming that they are too vague or don’t contain enough information for them to remember anything. If this happens, encourage them to develop note-taking skills and motivate them to take notes by showing them the value of a good set of notes.
Need some help on where to start? Here are some short activities that you can use with your students:
- When you say something important, provide students with a slightly elongated time to write it down (word for word if they like). Then ask them to take a moment or two and look at what they’ve written and write it again in their own words. Studies show taking time to write things in your own word strengthens understanding and overall retention of information.
- Usually, students are focused on listening for main points and jotting down as little as possible to stay on track with the tempo of the lecture. After a larger chunk of information, provide students with a few moments, encouraging them to look back on what they’ve written and add more if their understanding of the concept has increased. Ask probing questions like, “Where do you need more information?” or “What’s the most important thing you’ve got in your notes on this topic?”
- Start off your class by asking a question students should be able to answer using their notes from the previous class. What do they have written that relates to that question? Ask them to talk to the person sitting next to them about what they have in their notes on the topic. Then provide them with the opportunity to revise or add to their notes if needed.
- A similar activity can be done when you are debriefing an exam. Ask students to spend some time looking through their notes concerning a question that a lot of students missed on the exam. If they have a hard time locating the information, slowly begin giving them hints like what date the content was covered. Do they have the content they needed in that area? What should they have written down?
- Don’t spend too much time telling students how to use their notes. Remember that each student learns differently and while one technique may work really well for some students, it could cause great frustration for others. Instead, consider asking questions on how students utilize their notes before taking an exam. Ask questions like: “What’s gained by rewriting your notes?” “Is it valuable to highlight, underline, or otherwise mark key ideas in your notes?” “Should you compare notes with somebody else in the course?” “Do you use your class notes when you’re reading the text? Should you?” “How often should you be looking at your notes?”
- Consider the idea of letting students use their notes during a quiz. It doesn’t have to be all or nothing—you might only let them use them for one quiz, or for only a few minutes on each quiz. Providing students with the possibility of using notes will likely motivate more note-taking, which in turn, means more listening and engaging with the material. It also provides students with a realistic approach to learning as in most careers, professionals do have access to information when they are preparing answers.
Adapted from: Magna Publications
Written By: Jessica Moser