How to Help Students Improve Their Note-Taking Skills

Students love it when teachers provide class notes—the more complete the set, the better. Students want the teacher’s notes online because it’s convenient, they’re readable, well organized, and relieve the student of having to expend much effort during class. A lot of students need the teacher’s notes because they aren’t very good note-takers themselves. They practice stenography rather than note-taking, trying to get down the teacher’s words exactly. That way, even if they don’t understand, they can memorize what the teacher said and find it on the test. But that’s not learning.

Taking notes forces students to listen and engage with the material, especially if they are trying to put what the teacher says in their own words. There’s plenty of research on note-taking and virtually all of it stands against any practice that lets students be in class without writing (or keying in) content for themselves. Teachers can provide skeleton outlines so students don’t have to organize the content (although in upper-division courses students should be practicing this skill as well). They can list key words—especially those that are difficult to spell—and they can provide charts, tables, graphs, matrices, and diagrams, which students often don’t copy accurately in their notes. But whatever the teacher provides that students are using during class should be designed so that students have to add material to it.

So this revisit is a recommendation that instead of giving students class notes, teachers ought to help students develop note-taking skills and motivate them to take notes by showing them the value of a good set of notes. Here’s some activities (many of them short) than can be used to accomplish those two objectives:

  • When you say something important, go ahead and give students time to write it down—word for word if they like. Then give them 30 seconds to look at what they’ve written and put it in their own words. If you have two or three students read what they’ve written, you can reinforce the importance of the point and at the same time talk about the student versions of the idea.
  • Typically, students don’t write enough in their notes. They write a word or short phrase. At the end of a chunk of content, give students two minutes to look over their notes. Encourage them to add more if their understanding of the concept has increased. Then follow up with prompts like these: “Where do you need more information?” or “What’s the most important thing you’ve got in your notes on this topic?”
  • Teachers can reinforce the value and importance of notes by using them in class. Begin class with a question—one that can be answered based on material presented in the previous class. Challenge students to find the answer in their notes. What do they have written that relates to the question? Have them read out loud what’s in their notes. Have them listen carefully to what someone has written in their notes that enables that person to answer the question. Give them a chance to revise their notes.
  • You can do something similar when you debrief the exam. Take a question that a lot of students missed that was covered in material presented in class. Tell them on what date the content was discussed and have everybody look at their notes. Do they have the content they needed there? What should they have written down? Sometimes you can gently make points here about getting the notes from someone else: “Have you copied something in your notes and you don’t have a clue what it means? How useful is that?”
  • Facilitate a short discussion of what students can do with their notes as they are preparing for an exam. They will tell you they plan to “go over” their notes. To that I have always responded with horror, “No, no, not go over … you need to get into notes.” Despite this advice-giving example, in general teachers should avoid telling students what they should do with their notes. Teachers tend to deliver too many of these “telling” messages, most of which students ignore. Rather, discuss some of their favorite strategies: “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 class? Do you use your class notes when you’re reading the text? Should you?” If it’s a course with a comprehensive final¸ how often should you be taking a look at their notes?
  • Consider letting student use their notes during a quiz—maybe not in every quiz; maybe not for the whole quiz time period. But the possibility of getting to use their notes will likely motivate more note-taking than you’ve seen previously in class. And more note-taking means more listening and more engaging with the material. Does this practice diminish academic standards all that seriously? In most careers, professionals do have access to information when they are preparing answers.

Students are busy, and when it comes to learning many are inclined to take the easy route. With detailed class notes available online, they can relax in class and let their minds wander and their eyes look for incoming texts with their fingers free to respond. They have the resource they’ll need for the learning that will happen later. But most students find the content in our courses challenging. It often isn’t easy to learn. Most students need to encounter and grapple with new ideas multiple times. Teachers should be doing what they can to encourage students to make one of those encounters be in class when the expert is there to guide their learning.

Reprinted from The Teaching Professor, 27.6 (2013): 7. © Magna Publications. All rights reserved.