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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:

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.