SIP 5.3 How to Teach Note-Taking Skills

Thirsty for a Strong Instructional Practice?

How often have you been in the middle of a dynamic lecture or lesson and looked out to see that only a fraction of the class is taking notes? We know that students who take good notes score better on exams, have better comprehension of material, and retain information longer (DiVesta and Gray, 1972; Kiewra and Fletcher, 1984; Kobayashi, 2005), so it can be frustrating to look out and see so few students taking advantage of this powerful learning strategy. Aside from admonishing them–“you should be writing this down!”–what else can be done?

Take a SIP of This: Teaching Students to Take Good Class Notes

Students are more likely to take high quality notes when they understand the purpose of taking notes and are offered some instruction. Being a good notetaker is not something that happens naturally, so it makes sense that faculty may need to provide guidance for students. Whenever students are learning a new skill, it’s a good idea to help them understand the value of the skill, give them time for practice, and give them opportunities to get feedback, so try to build these concepts into your teaching.

Here are some strategies you can integrate into your next lecture to help students take better notes:

  1. Before beginning your lecture, tell students that taking notes is important to help them remember the material, but that studies also show that taking notes actually helps with the learning process itself. Taking notes is not about simply recording the words of the lecture; rather, good note-taking helps students comprehend and synthesize new concepts (Piolat and Kellogg, 2005).
  2. Ask students to take notes in whatever way feels comfortable for them, whether it’s by hand or on a device, using words or visuals or a combination.
  3. Five or ten minutes into the lecture, stop and give students a few minutes to compare their notes with peers. Ask a few people to share their notes using a document camera and facilitate a discussion of which notes would be most useful and why. Highlight the notes that focus on key points rather than extraneous detail and ask the students who took those notes to explain how they determined what was a key point.
  4. Continue on with your lecture, reminding students to modify their note-taking to bring it more in-line with what the class identified as attributes of useful notes.
  5. After your lecture, give students a few minutes to review their notes and add details or ask questions about areas of their notes that may lack elaboration.
  6. At the beginning of the next class, give students a few minutes to review the notes they took last time and ask follow-up questions.
  7. Consider making it a habit to punctuate your lectures with short breaks to check-in with students on their notes, perhaps having a different student each time share their notes, and giving them a chance to ask for clarifications.

Depending on how much time you have, you can share recent research on note-taking or assign it for homework. Some studies indicate that taking notes by longhand is more effective than taking them on a device (Mueller and Oppenheimer, 2014), while other studies find no significant difference (Blankenship, 2016). You could have students read this research and compare it with their own experiences. You could also introduce students to specific note-taking systems, such as the Cornell System and visual note-taking.

You might also make a discussion thread available on Blackboard in which students can share their notes with each other. This can result in students talking to each other for clarifications instead of relying solely on you. It is a good idea, however, for you to monitor the discussion to help steer students away from misunderstanding material.

Finally, before an exam, ask students to reflect on how they studied and what role their lecture notes played. Then, when you return the exams, give them time to reflect on how their score might correlate with how they studied and used their notes.

Still Thirsty? Take Another SIP of Teaching Students to Take Good Class Notes

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