Good note-taking is one of the most important skills for students to master during their academic careers. When students have strong note-taking skills, that translates into better study habits, better learning outcomes, and better retention of knowledge.
However, note-taking is a complicated cognitive process. Students need to pay attention to what the teacher is saying, comprehend the material, identify what ideas are most important, and write those ideas down while coordinating the physical writing or typing of that material. Plus, all of these tasks must be completed in an extremely short period of time. Unfortunately, most students have never received instruction in note-taking, and both teachers and students underestimate the importance of this critical skill.
Here are some strategies you can use to encourage students to grow in this important area:
1. Encourage students to put ideas into their own words.
This is one of the most important steps students can take to retain and recall information. Taking notes by transcribing every word a teacher says dedicates too much of the brain’s cognitive resources. This reduces the effectiveness of student learning during the note-taking process.
2. Consider using the Cornell note-taking system.
The Cornell method requires students to divide their note-taking areas into sections: one for key ideas and questions, one for notes, and one for summaries. During a lecture, students write important information in the notes column and key ideas and questions in a second column. After the lecture is over, students write a summary at the bottom of each page.
This method can help students “encode” the information into their memory, and the columned approach facilitiates review. Many studies have shown the effectiveness of this method (Fisher, Frey, and Lapp, 2009; Faber, et al, 2000; among others).
3. Help students to review early and often.
Students should review their notes shortly after taking them, ideally on the same day as the lecture. At that time, they can write down questions they have or clarify any concepts they didn’t quite grasp by asking a teacher or peer. Regular review is far more effective than trying to cram all at once the night before an exam!
4. Encourage students to develop their own “test questions.”
Self-testing is a very effective method for learning and retaining information. This strategy will aid students in preparing for assessments later. It does this by helping students identify the content they do not know; this allows them to immediately discover what material they should focus on for review. The Cornell method is particularly helpful for utilizing this strategy.
5. Utilize guided notes for struggling students, especially those with learning disabilities.
Studies have shown that when struggling students have note-taking deficiencies, they can miss 60% or more of the main ideas in a lecture and are far more likely to record incorrect or unimportant information. Guided notes can be an effective strategy to assist these students (Boyle, 2010). Create your own notes for your lessons in a set format (such as the Cornell method format). Then, remove parts of the notes so that students can complete them on their own. This provides guidance and support, and it helps students to learn within a helpful framework.
Give each of these strategies a shot in your classroom. You’ll see students improve their note-taking skills, and as they do, they’ll open new doors to success.
Boyle, J. R. “Note-Taking Skills of Middle School Students with and Without Learning Disabilities.” Journal of Learning Disabilities, 2010, 530-40.
Faber, Jean E., John D. Morris, and Mary G. Lieberman. “The Effect of Note Taking on Ninth Grade Students’ Comprehension.” Reading Psychology, 2000, 257-70.
Fisher, Douglas, Nancy Frey, and Diane Lapp. “Meeting AYP in a High-Need School: A Formative Experiment.” Journal of Adolescent & Adult Literacy, 2009, 386-96.
Download this PDF on the Cornell Note-Taking System to use in your classroom.