Imagine this, you are at home after work. Teacher-brain has descended and you feel like your brain is processing at half-speed.
You walk in the door, hang your bag on a hook, unpack your kids’ bags, and turn on the TV hoping to distract said kids while you cook dinner.
Alas, TV didn’t work because they’re hangry. So your kindergartener whines, your toddler clings to your shins, and you throw some frozen stir-fry veggies into a wok with oil.
The children continue to whine and cling, and you know it’s about to escalate to screaming and tantrums.
The stir-fry veggies in the wok are close to burning and you need to stir them.
The kettle just boiled, so you need to pour the water over the noodles in a bowl to soften them before adding them to the wok.
The TV is blaring in the lounge room. And, as you predicted, your toddler starts screaming because you insist they stay on the ground away from the sizzling wok.
Then your partner comes home from work. After the squeals of delight from the tired kiddos die down and resume a general whining buzz, your partner tries to talk to you about their drive home.
“Stop, just stop”, you shout, angry at how much you have going on and how your partner doesn’t seem to notice it.
How do you feel?
Overwhelmed? Stressed? Distracted? Trying to do too much at once? Can’t pay attention? Don’t know what to attend to first?
This is how your students feel when they take notes.
Taking notes is a very cognitively demanding task. To take effective notes, your students need to:
- actively listen to the teacher when they’re talking
- decide what is important from the information
- hold information in their working memory while ALSO ignoring distractions
- process the information into their own words
- write it down in their notes
- ALL WHILE STILL ATTENDING TO THE LESSON!
This is why your students’ notes suck. But what does the research say teachers can do to improve their students’ notes?
What does the research say?
The four proven methods for increasing note taking share a common limitation. All involve instructor-provided materials or are instructor controlled. Such studies do not suggest avenues that students might take to improve their note taking.
Luo, Kiewra and Samuelson 2016
So, what can teachers do to both ensure students have adequate notes and build capacity so that students can direct their own learning?
1. Have a study skills class to improve note-taking skills
(Or dedicated time within your class to explicitly teach study skills).
Students perform better in school when they are explicitly taught study skills and metacognitive strategies, as shown in this research.
But once students get to middle and high school, time for teaching these skills often disappears when the demands of a packed curriculum take over.
A great workaround is to either have a specific study skills class, perhaps run during study hall or with school counselors.
But if this is not an option at your school, even taking 10-15 minutes once a week to teach and revise study skills can have a tremendous impact on your students’ abilities.
Similarly, simply giving your students time to plan their study for the week, write to-do lists, look at their upcoming assessment, and organize their study binders, homework diaries, or other planning tools is beneficial too.
2. Teach students to listen to cues during your speaking
This study looked at how teaching students to identify cues during lectures improved both the quantity and quality of their notes.
The researchers gave training in how to take better notes by identifying both emphasis cues (eg: “This is important, write it down.”) and organizational cues (eg: “There are four types of nouns.”).
Researchers also gave students a specific note-taking format to follow called CUES This note-taking strategy asks students to:
- Cluster the main ideas or information from the lesson into 3-6 points
- Use the teacher’s emphasis and organizational cues as a clue that the information is important and needs to be written down
- Enter important vocabulary words
- Summarize the lesson information quickly in their own words whenever possible
- Plus personalize their notes by using diagrams, pictures, color, symbols etc as shorthand while writing notes
The researchers found that both the quantity and quality of students’ notes increased as a result of the intervention.
3. Improve notes by showing students a note-taking format
The research above used the CUES+ strategy of note-taking, but the research seems to suggest that it doesn’t really matter what system students use to take notes.
What does seem to matter is that students take sufficient notes and that the notes they take are of good enough quality. They also need to know how to use thier note-taking system effectively to summarize their learning.
It may be better to teach students a variety of note-taking strategies, and then to allow them to pick the strategy they feel is most appropriate.
Or, if you want your students to achieve a specific task, pre-select which note-taking strategy you wish them to use based on that task. For example, some research suggests that mind maps are more effective than other types of notes for revision/review activities (Nesbit and Adesope).
On a related note, most of the research suggests that writing notes by hand is more effective at encoding the information in students’ brains. However, other research suggests that if your students’ writing is illegible to them, allowing them to use a computer may improve their ability to take effective notes.
4. Teach metacognitive skills
Teaching students to identify how they are learning is an extremely effective way to mold more active, more successful learners.
Research shows over and over again that students who are more active learners perform better.
It also shows that teaching students to recognize their own learning strategies, and when those strategies are more or less successful, creates more confident students.
Time spent teaching students metacognitive strategies is valuable, even if it may seem like a waste of time.
Many students benefit when they are explicitly taught skills such as how to:
- organize their notes and assessments
- plan their week and allocate time to study
- create flashcards
- review notes
- create to-do lists
- prioritize learning tasks
- organize their study space
- avoid procrastinating
- plan their writing
- evaluate their research
- edit their work
- recognize when they need help
Teaching metacognitive skills, such as how to take effective notes, improves students’ academic self-efficacy.
Increased self-efficacy leads to students recognizing that if they do the work and apply appropriate strategies (such as effective note-taking), they can achieve academic success.
5. Use guided notes to build capacity
Konrad, Joseph, and Eveleigh’s research shows that providing guided notes for students is “an effective and socially valid method for increasing note-taking accuracy and improving academic performance, particularly for school-age students.”
But most teachers recognize that creating guided notes is very time-consuming (#ain’tnobodygottimeforthat). Plus it can be difficult to prepare and sustain for many classes over a school year, espeically if teachers have to prep for different subject areas or grade levels.
Further, guided notes can reduce the ‘encoding’ function that students’ brains perform when taking notes (Chen, Teo, Zhou).
But guided notes can be a fantastic tool when they are used to develop your students’ capacity to take their own notes.
This is for several reasons. Firstly, it teaches your students the skills of note-taking and enables them to become more independent and active learners.
Secondly, it saves you time in the long run when they are able to take notes autonomously and you can simply provide the required information through readings, lectures, or videos.
Finally, taking notes is a lifelong skill that students will need whenever they take meeting minutes, collaborate on professional documents, or compare.
So, to improve your students’ notes, give them heavily scaffolded notes to begin and then gradually reduce how much guidance you give.
6. “Chunk” your lessons
One of the best pieces of advice I had while doing my student-teaching was to “chunk” my lessons.
My supervising teacher suggested that the 70 minutes classes be broken into a 5-minute introduction and summary, with the remainder of the lesson broken into three 20-minute chunks.
My supervising teacher suggested that the three 20-minute chunks should be broken into:
- 10 minutes of ‘theory’ (such as lecture, discussion, or reading a textbook)
- 10 minutes of ‘activity’ (such as defining important terms, doing a worksheet, answering questions)
Because students changed tasks frequently, they didn’t get bored. Similarly, students remembered the content more easily when it was divided into smaller parts.
This style of instruction is called “distributed learning”, although I didn’t know that at the time. And, this style of instruction is more effective than “massed learning”, such as a 60-minute lecture (Luo, Kiewra and Samuelson).
Researchers are unsure why it is more effective, but suggest that “distributed learning” might be more effective because:
- attention is easier to maintain over shorter increments
- students make more links between content when learning episodes are shorter
- more time is available for consolidating learning when the ‘activity’ parts of the lesson review the ‘theory’ parts
- during note-taking pauses, students have time for their brains to “catch-up” with the content
Chunking your lessons into smaller lesson episodes or mini-lessons is a great way to improve students’ note-taking,
7. Use pause breaks to improve note-taking
Interestingly, the research mentioned above by Luo, Kiewra and Samuelson shows that “distributed learning” works in note-taking situations too. Students given time to revise mid-lecture took added to their notes during the ‘review’ times.
Researchers thought that adding to notes may also have worked as a ‘retrieval’ activity, where the original note triggered the recall of additional information (Luo, Kiewra and Samuelson). In short, review breaks may work in the same way that practicing with flashcards does.
Further, those students that took notes and revised during pauses in the lecture achieved the best results in the study.
This finding gels with other research that shows that guided note-taking “coupled with structured review activities” increased student achievement (Konrad, Joseph, and Eveleigh).
Further, Luo, Kiewra, and Samuelson suggest that pause breaks are “a new student-centered means to boost lecture note-taking and achievement”.
Since we know that active learners are more confident and successful, strategies that increase student-led learning are winners.
And giving students a little extra time to review their notes during class is a win-win. Students take better notes and teachers get a short breather.
8. Allow students to work collaboratively
Luo, Kiewra, and Samuelson suggest that mid-lecture revising with a partner can increase the quantity of student notes, which is correlated with better achievement.
They suggested that this might be because of a “collaborative retrieval” effect, whereby students working together remember different, additional information.
Or it may be because students pay more attention because of social pressure to not let a partner down.
The caveat with collaborative work was that it only improves results if “partners truly interact and jointly construct meaning” (Luo, Kiewra and Samuelson).
So, to improve student note-taking, use partner work if your students genuinely work together to understand content.
9. Improve note-taking by using a pre-test to “prime” your students
Another great way to increase your students’ note-taking quality is to “prime” them for learning by conducting a pre-test.
A pre-test establishes what the lesson will cover and signposts the important ideas that students should understand by the end of the lesson.
Alternatively, giving students an advance organizer or skeleton outline can work to give students “clues about what will be covered . . . and highlight the most important topics.”
This is a great way to improve student note-taking because it keeps them focused on the important parts of the lesson (and it also keeps you on track if you tend to get off-topic).
Want more info?
- Teaching students to take notes: visual note-taking here and here, digital note-taking, outline notes, mind mapping how-to and tools, and Cornell notes
- 8 reasons to focus on study skills in ELA
Don’t have time?
Running out of time and want to teach your students some note-taking styles?
This free CrashCourse YouTube video outlines the Cornell method of note-taking, mind mapping, and outline notes. Plus, we have a fun and engaging (and no-prep!) visual note-taking worksheet to accompany the video.
Wanting to cover a range of study skills quickly and easily? Check out the entire CrashCourse Study Skills YouTube videos and our bundle of visual note-taking worksheets.
Boyle, J. Rosen, S.M., and Forchelli, G., 2016. “Exploring metacognitive strategy use during notetaking for students with learning disabilities.” International Journal of Primary, Elementary and Early Years Education, 44 (2): 161-180. https://doi.org/10.1080/03004279.2014.929722
Chen, P.H., Teo, T., and Zhou, M. 2017. “Effects of guided notes on enhancing college students’ lecture note taking quality and learning performance.” Current Psychology, 36 (4): 719-732. https://doi.org/10.1007/s12144-016-9459-6
Konrad, M., Joseph, L.M., and Eveleigh, E. 2009. “A meta-analytic review of guided notes.” Education and Treatment of Children, 32 (3).
Lou, L., Kiewra, K., and Samuelson, L. 2016. “Revising lecture notes: how revision, pauses, and partners affect note taking and achievement.” Instructional Science, 44 (1): 45-67.
Mueller, P.A. and Oppenheimer, D.A. 2014. “The pen is mightier than the keyboard: advantages of longhand over laptop note taking.” Psychological Science, 25 (6): 1159-1168. https://doi.org/10.1177/0956797614524581
Nesbit, J.C. and Adesope, O.O. 2006. “Concept and knowledge maps: a meta-analysis.” Review of Educational Research, 76 (3): 413-448.
Wernersbach, Brenna M.; Crowly, Susan L.; Bates, Scott C.; Rosenthal, Carol., 2014. “Study Skills Course Impact on Academic Self-Efficacy.” Journal of Developmental Education, 37 (3): 14-33. https://files.eric.ed.gov/fulltext/EJ1070256.pdf