January 30th, 2013

Helping Students Discover the Value of a Good Set of Notes



Students benefit from taking and having a good set of notes, even though many of them don’t see the value, don’t take good notes, and like it best when they can copy word-for-word what the teacher says or has on the PowerPoint slides. We can pontificate about how students should have already been taught the value and skills of note taking. We can tell them in class, on the syllabus and the course website that they need to take notes, but I think less telling and more showing is the better way to go. This post offers a range of activities teachers can use to help students discover what a good set of notes enables them to do.

Personalizing notes – Students need to make whatever notes they take meaningful to them. If they need the comfort of having in their notes exactly what the teacher said fine, but then they need to translate, paraphrase, or otherwise put into their own words what they think the teacher’s words mean. The act of rewriting aids knowledge acquisition in two ways. First, it’s a test for understanding. If you can’t put what the teacher says in your own words, using different words that capture what the teacher means, then you probably don’t have a good grasp of the idea. Second, rewriting aids understanding when the student uses the rewrite to connect new knowledge to something already known. Students do the best rewrites when they are focused on the task exclusively, not while they are trying to listen as the teacher continues talking.

Try this as an end-of-class activity: Have students rewrite their notes, or part of their notes, and then ask for volunteers to read them out loud to the rest of the class. This will give you a sense of the level of comprehension and provide you with the opportunity to clarify what isn’t understood and deepen what is. Plus, hearing their peers explain a concept in their own words can often help other students to better understand the day’s lesson.

Reviewing and elaborating notes – Research has shown that this is most beneficial right after the notes have been taken (not two weeks later). Students can be given two or three minutes to review and enhance their notes at the end of class, during class (when a content chunk has been presented or a discussion has ended), or at the beginning of the next class. This review time does more for learning and retention if students add to their notes; write more about a topic, clarify something they’ve written that they now understand more completely, or insert questions and comments in their notes.

Organizing notes –This can be as simple as annotating a set of notes by underlining key ideas, using those glow-in-the-dark highlighters, adding stars, drawing arrows, even taking a day’s worth of notes and transforming them into a concept map. Again maybe this can be a useful way to end the class session.

Using notes – The value of a set of notes is clearer when teachers encourage students to use them — say to answer a question on material presented previously. “Look in your notes from the 24th. You should have the answer there.” On test review day, sample questions can be used to send students hunting for answers in their notes. To encourage students to do the reading, consider letting them use during the quiz whatever notes they took on the reading. Or maybe students get to consult their notes for five minutes during an exam. The value of notes can also be highlighted during the exam debrief. “Did you miss question 14? We talked about that on the 15th. Check your notes. Do you have what you need there to answer the question?” “Somebody who got the question right, read what you have in your notes and tell us how that helped you answer the question correctly.”

Studying notes – When you ask students how they’re going to prepare for an exam, many of them will tell you, “I’m going to go over my notes.” Hearing that, I used to recoil in exaggerated horror. “Going over them, no, no, you must ‘get into’ your notes.” Students should also be encouraged to use their notes when they are studying together. They should talk about what they have in their notes and explain things to each other using their notes. Maybe the value of doing so can be demonstrated during the exam review session.

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4 comments on “Helping Students Discover the Value of a Good Set of Notes

  1. Students need to be able to take notes while reading and studying as well. I tell them "jokingly" it is a way to stay awake. I think we need to better enable students to take notes. The newest version of Adobe Reader is awesome for this. The students can add text and other annotation to PDF Files (on a side note it is great for correcting HW as well). The challenge lies in what do we provide students so that they can take notes. The following statement may not have been true 15 years ago, but I think it is today.

    Copies of the "slides" (no matter how many per page) and nothing (expecting the student to just take notes on a blank sheet of paper) are equally useful. Try googling "Death by Powerpoint". I think it hits home. It is not the slides, it is not the presentation, it is the tools we give our audience to take notes. For example does it make any sense that a bullet point be the same size and font on the slide as on the printouts. This often also means a key image is too small on a printout to be useful.

    I think that an instructor needs to design the printouts as carefully as the slides. The good news is the technology is readily available.

    Finally why would one use a screen to display the presentations. Even in the old days of overhead projectors; it was possible to display on a whiteboard. This allows the faculty member to elaborate on the board either as part of a planned presentation, in response to student comments or both.

    • I use a Bamboo tablet (Wacom tablet) so that I can write interactively on the Power Points as the students take notes – what I am writing or further explanations. Slows me down to their pace and enables me to elaborate on-screen. Same idea as Smartboard technology or an AirLiner.

  2. I ask students to use a new 5×7 index card as bookmark for each chapter in the textbook, jotting notes on one side as they read. I sometimes suggest they record at least one idea that seems especially useful, one that seems ridiculusly obvious, and one that they find hard to swallow. Those note cards are then used to guide and support class and small group discussions of the assigned readings. Occassionallly, students are allowed to use them during pop quizzes about the chapter. Following class discussions (or during short breaks interspersing the discussions) additional notes about key ideas are added on the back of the card.

  3. In recent years I have prepared several pdf (as many as lessons are) with the text of the slide I later will project in class. Being mine a visual subject (history of art and history of fashion) slide vision is essential. But I alert my student to download before class the text of the slide so that they can be able to add on it their notes of what I'm actually talking: comment, new interpretation, development of ideas, focus points and the discussion it may follow with them. In this way they are usually able to understand better what the subject of the day will be and – through the reading of the mandatory readings which every week they have to do – being able to participate to the lesson in a more active way. If the student does his "homework" usually it is very beneficial, and I see it in the exams. The most noticeable between the students is often developing a true understanding of the topic and add his/her critical thinking on it, which actually is of high benefit for the entire class.

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