November 20th, 2013

Tips for Developing Students’ Note-taking Skills


Should students take notes? What about giving students access to your PowerPoint slides and lecture notes? Students have been known to ask for them pretty aggressively and lots of teachers do make them available. Is it a good idea?

The related research on using PowerPoint slides shows with some consistency that although students think using PowerPoint slides helps them learn, it does not change their grades. Findings about giving student the slides are mixed, but are quite strong against giving them your notes.

Here are some of the reasons why students should be taking notes for themselves. The practice of note-taking develops several important skills—starting with listening. You can’t take notes if you aren’t listening. You need to be able to take decent notes because in most professional contexts, indeed in life, you are regularly in situations that require taking in and processing information that you need to remember and later apply. You can’t always be asking people to give you a copy of what they just told you.

Beyond being an essential basic skill, note-taking offers students the opportunity to make the material their own. That doesn’t involve making it mean whatever they want it to mean, but it does allow them to interact with it in ways that develop the learner’s understanding of it. Now, this doesn’t happen when students equate note-taking with stenography and copy down exactly what the teacher says, and it doesn’t happen when students recopy their notes and think that’s studying. But it does happen when students work on and with their notes—when they put definitions into their own works, when they list relevant pages in the text, when they re-order the material so that it better connects with their knowledge, and when they write summaries and relate details to main points.

The reasons students should take notes may be clear to teachers, but students often remain unconvinced. When you aren’t all that motivated to listen well and don’t see note-taking as a valuable skill, getting notes and slides from the teacher is decidedly a preferable (read: easier) option. But students might be persuaded if you could prove that working with their notes will boost their exam scores, and that’s what the study referenced below does. Students used the protocol described in the article to interact with their notes and when they did, their exam scores improved. [There’s more about this article in the December issue of The Teaching Professor.]

In addition to evidence, there’s lots of small ways teachers can demonstrate the value of having good notes and work with students on developing better note-taking skills. Here’s a list to start your thinking.

  • Identify key concepts in the day’s lesson: “Now here’s something you need to have in your notes. Listen carefully.”
  • Challenge students to retrieve things from their notes: “Look at your notes from November 5. What have you got about X? Nothing? That’s not good.”
  • Provide a definition, pause, and give students one minute to rewrite it in their own words. Ask students why it might be important to do so.
  • At the beginning of the period, give students three minutes to review their notes and summarize them in a sentence. Have several students share their summary, which the class then compares, revises, etc.
  • At the end of class have students trade notes with somebody sitting near them and use their partner’s notes to review the class session. Ask them to identify what was the same and different about their notes and those of their partner?
  • For frequently missed exam questions, have everyone find the date when that content was covered and see what they have in their notes that relates to the question. Ask someone who got the question correct to read what they have in their notes.
  • Tell students that any notes they take in class today can be used when they take the quiz tomorrow. Follow-up at the end of class by asking how that changed listening and note-taking.

Like most other skills, note-taking can start with theoretical knowledge, but it takes practice to become an efficient and skillful note-taker. What are some ways you encourage your students to see the value of a good set of notes? Please share in the comment box.

Reference: Cohen, D., Kim, E., Tan, J., and Winkelmes, M. (2013). A note-restructuring intervention increases students’ exam scores. College Teaching, 61 (Summer), 95-99.

  • Katherine Robertson

    I once taught two sections of the same class. Just out of curiosity, I gave one section my PowerPoints, but not the other. There was no significant difference in their grade distributions. If anything, the section without the PowerPoints did slightly better; probably because they were forced to pay more attention to their textbook.

  • perryshaw

    I think if the class is large and largely lecture-based then not giving PPTs may well be preferable. However, I have found an extremely successful use of student-accessed PPTs is to make one of the learning tasks for the course to be where students are required to take the material from the PPTs and teach the material to another student who is not taking the course; the students find it much easier to accomplish this task if they have the PPT in hand than if they simply try to do it from their own notes. I recognise that such a learning task will not work in courses which require substantial prior knowledge (although even here it can sometimes force students to think through what they are learning) but in many of the humanities and social sciences it is possible and beneficial.

  • Ellen jacobs

    Do you have suggestions of how this can be accomplished in an on line course? I like the idea of asking the students to summarize the main points from a PowerPoint or Outline. Any other thoughts would be welcome.

  • Gabor Forgacs

    I have seen most undergrad students come to university without any note-taking skills. I routinely ask them during first class if anyone ever talked to them in high school about note taking? Barely a few hands may go up in a class of 160… That is pretty remarkable. What triggered this, was that one day chatting with a student, I asked her how the course was going for her and she said everything was fine, except one thing: I talked to fast, she said. That was unexpected. I asked her why would she think that? "Because I have a hard time taking down every word you say." – she replied. What scared me was the approach, that taking notes was supposed to be like that, according to her.
    Lecturing styles are different. If we include mostly facts and definitions and information in our lectures, then why would any student take that down? They can easily find those with a few mouse clicks (or taps on a touch screen), or in a book. If we can teach them to reflect on what is relevant, to filter out key concepts, important thoughts and meaningful perspectives, than note taking becomes much more than replacing a voice recorder: it may contribute to understanding and deep learning.
    Learning styles are different as well. We shouldn't assume that the only way for a student to learn is to sit in the same room at the same time we lecture and hear it from us. That model is history. If we, as educators need to justify our presence in the 21st century classroom, we should offer noteworthy thoughts, we need to go beyond dishing out information and teach students to master note taking.
    I am a decent note taker, and it happens sometimes that after a long address of a keynote at a conference I realize that I didn't take down any notes at all. My notepad stayed blank. That is a sign, that nothing important/new/worthy was heard. So it is not always the students' fault.

  • Marcus Idoko

    This is an interesting topic. I want to contribute to this discussion as an international student and as a teacher. My experience as a new student in Canada: I found PPTs very necessary because I could not clearly get some of the words due to Canadian pronunciation, this was a major setback to my note taking experience but the PPTs complemented this limitation. Some PPT slides can be very long so much that it takes so much time to read, considering the need to give attention and time to other courses and laboratory practicals students tend to forget to look at their notes and text book but the PPTs only which makes students barely pass.

    I subscribe to the idea of engaging students in class to learn to practice note taking, share their notes with classmates and putting definition and concepts in their own words as well as review of critical exam questions as described by the author. I think this method will make a huge difference as it will increase critical thinking, encourage cohesiveness and positive group work in class and erstwhile docile students become active. Under this circumstance both release and non release of PTT slides will do just fine

  • Michael Tyner

    Please be careful making note-taking a requirement of the class. Students with Asperger's Syndrome or dysgraphia have a disconnect with note taking making it a near impossible task. While note taking is a great skill, remember that there may be valid reasons why some students just can't do it.

    • Janet Starks

      And strong auditory learners don't need to take notes – doing so detracts from their learning

  • Ruth B Hickey

    From a student perspective, I appreciate it when the faculty member who teaches with PowerPoint provides digital access to the PowerPoint presentations prior to the class. This gave me the opportunity to download them to my laptop and use the speaker notes section to record notes. Speaker Notes provided more space than the margins of a printed version and being a visual learner, I could associate something the professor said with what was on that slide.

    As an online teacher, I like to use the one-minute paper idea. Keeping in mind this activity is relative to how your deliver your online course, for Bonus Marks I would ask if there's a student who would like to summarize his/her main findings of a particular module or about a critical topic. I would get them to share the brief 1 minute paper with the class via the discussion board. Students can choose to engage in a discussion about the paper, or just simply take advantage of the other student's synopsis. I only review them for accuracy & to see if clarification is needed; otherwise, I let this become an informal study group. I haven't tried this, but I see that a class blog built on this premise could also be helpful.

  • Janet Starks

    I continue to use Ppt for the benefit of visual learners, but I am putting less information on the slides than I used to. That way they serve as prompts and help to provide an outline, but still require students to be engaged. This year for the first time I've provided them before class, and have been amazed at the number of students who have the Ppt on screen while they're taking notes. The down side of providing the Ppt ahead of time is students are able to look ahead – and see when I change my mind mid-stream. Sometimes I provide an abridged version before class so they can't see everything I have planned.

  • Kathy Brock

    My objective following a lecture or completion of a student project is to assess individual student learning outcomes. I have them submit a written learning log highlighting what they learned from the training experience. Not only are they asked to address what they learned, but I want to hear how they think they will apply what they have learned in their current or future work environment. This practice allows me to assess their critical thinking skills and highlights areas that I may need to address from a different direction to accomplish the desired learning outcome. It also gives me an opportunity to privately correct them if they misunderstood something.

  • Kathryn Kemp

    I use PPT for visual supplements to the content of the lecture, with very little text on screen. My rule of thumb: don’t put any text on a screen that you wouldn’t write on the board. One of my students took notes that included “shorthand” sketches of each screen; I have passed this idea on to classes, along with other note-taking strategies (e.g. leave plenty of white space for adjustments later).

    I also advise the following. As soon as possible after a class, go over your notes an tune up messy handwriting, clear up incomplete phrases that might be unclear in the future, and add additional points that you didn’t have time to write. Notice points that may require further explanation. At the beginning of the next class, scan through the previous meeting’s notes to be better oriented for the new material; ask for clarifications, if necessary.. Find a friend or two and periodically match up your notes–where one person’s attention strayed, the other probably was on the job. If there is a serious discrepancy, clear it up by checking with me. Scan through all of the notes once on the weekend. Before an exam, go through the portion to be tested repeatedly, at least once with the perspective of a person designing an exam, because at least some questions are pretty obviously going to appear. Make notes on your notes as you study, adding highlights and marginalia.

    Other tips: Learn to write cursively (a dying skill in some places) because it is faster. Develop a few “speed-writing” symbols for frequently used terms in your course. Flag anything that was written on the board, because your professor thinks that that is important, or she wouldn’t have gone exerted the effort.

    When students are in trouble, ask to see their notes; this often explains a lot. I once thought that everyone in college knew how to make and use notes, but when I talked to a struggling student and saw her awful notes–and gave her these tips. I saw immediate improvement in her work. I have started giving these pointers to lower division classes, which have many naive students who have not learned to be responsible for their own learning.

  • Meg Stuart

    For first year courses I provide a scaffold (in Word format or similar) for note taking that follows the flow of the lecture slides – some headings and unlabelled diagrams included and with blank spaces for students to add thier own notes. Some students use it in the lecture theatre, though many use print outs of the slides which are provided at the commencement of the semester during the lecture and use the scaffold to develop refined notes as part of their revision.

  • BJA

    The PPT is to give a broad out line , bullet points, if you like. The facts and information should come from the lecturer. If giving out the PPT is a solution then why not make a video and stay at home

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  • Andy

    Making a video and staying home is a very natural and modern approch, named ,flipped classroom'. I disagree with the importance of note taking, because the students could be afraid to miss something, stop listening and try to copy the slides word by word.

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  • Ken Mellendorf

    It is true that different students need different styles of notes. I use a discussion quiz at the end of the week to help students realize whether their notes are sufficient. Students can use their notes, the textbook, and discussion with classmates to answer two conceptual questions that require little or no mathematics. The questions focus on common misconceptions without getting difficult. The questions do not relate directly to examples in the text. I prefer to use a style of question call TIPERs, as developed by Curtis J. Hieggelke, David P. Maloney, Stephen E. Kanim, and Thomas L. O'kuma.

    Explanation of the answer is more important than the answer itself. A student with reasonable understanding finds the questions fairly clear. A student with only a memorized textbook will not know where to start. The peer review process inspires a need for good notes. A student that relies on searching through the textbook takes too much time. A student with reasonable notes can keep up with the debates, can contribute to cause of answering the questions.

  • Elizabeth

    I really like this post. I'm not a teacher, but I am studying to be one. I find in my own learning that I learn much better when I take notes. I think it is important for teachers to stress important things for students to write down. Make it easy to take notes on your lessons. Also, encourage students to take notes, and give them tips on how to do it better.

  • Rachel

    I like this post a lot. Being in college, the test I succeed in are when the teacher does not give us the information or notes. We are expected to do the work, so we learn more. Being a future teacher, I think that it is vital to teach students how to write notes.

    • colin

      Hi rachel.
      You are talking about your learning style.
      Do not impose your learning style on students as this will not lead to inclusion. Helping each student to find their
      prefered learning style is more beneficial than imposing my learning style on to my students.

  • Lexi Riley

    Thanks for sharing! Note-taking is definitely what every student should be a master at. It's an important skill that teachers should be teaching their students and checking up on. PowerPoint is also a good way to help with note taking, but we have to make sure that the PowerPoint is a help tool and not a hinderance to the students with too much information or too little font.

  • Sarah Beth

    I learn best when teachers do not gives all the notes or want us to copy every word they say. I learn best when I am expected to summarize the material taught taught. This tactic forces me to stay awake and watch for key points to write down,

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  • Roy Gathercoal

    My experience has been that the benefits of notetaking vary widely from class to class. It does depend on the students, the level, and most importantly the nature of the material. For example, when I taught Advertising ethics, it was far more important to me that students were actively engaged in the discussion than copying dates and factoids. The older I get, the more I am concerned about creating a space where real learning happens; less about memorizing facts..
    I would much rather have a student challenging the narrative I present than faithfully copying down my idiosyncratic sub-headings. Lists to be memorized are given as texts so that students can learn the best way for their brain. High-content material I give as handouts or on-line class site.
    I have found that for most material, WHY it is important must be established before any but the most slavish students will really memorize. And if material is really important, I teach students how to utilize mnemonic tools and ready resource references so that they do not get into the habit of assuming their memory is correct *about facts they do not regularly use." My mantra is not "memorize this!" but rather "look it up!"
    So for most purposes I am more concerned with the connectors than with the nodes. And when they have looked something up 20 times, they have it memorized!
    I guess I see the advantage of class time as interaction, steel sharpening steel. The acquisition of facts is best done individually, without the distraction of a professor and discussion.
    Different disciplines and topics/approaches within a discipline will probably be dealt with most effectively with different teaching strategies. My writing class was more peer-editing and lively disagreement than it was lists of things to do or not do. Those lists are important, but I found them best integrated rather than listed out without context.
    Your mileage may vary!

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