No, no, don’t go over your notes … you need to get into notes.

During the semester we frequently provide students with opportunities to interact with (1) their peers, (2) the professor, and (3) the course content. Interacting with peers usually means group work and discussion; interacting with you often takes the form of questions and dialogue. Interacting with the content can mean reading the textbook and other sources, identifying and mapping key concepts, articulating and questioning disciplinary assumptions, and taking notes. This month we’ll focus on simple strategies for helping students improve their note-taking skills.

Notebook Open Page

In her June/July 2013 Teaching Professor article, How to Help Students Improve Their Note-Taking Skills, Maryellen Weimer writes:

“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. … (As) they are preparing for an exam (students) 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 your notes.’”

Weimer proposes several strategies to help students exchange their “stenography” approach for a more thoughtful and learning-centered approach to note-taking.

  1. 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.
  2. 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, encourage them to make connections to a concept they have previously learned. 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?”
  3. 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 (or in small groups) 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

Though not mentioned in the Weimer article, teaching students how to use the Cornell notes method could go a long way in developing their note-taking skills. The Cornell notes method helps students generate organized notes by dividing their note-taking paper into three sections. Section one is used to take general notes on the content. The second section is used to identify main ideas, key points, etc. drawn from the notes, Section three provides space to summarize those ideas. Want more information on Cornell notes? Check out this YouTube video. By the way, Macomb’s College Success Skills course (CSSK 1200) website has more terrific ideas on how to help students take useful notes, including more detailed information on the Cornell notes method.

Note-taking is a learned skill, so everyone benefits when we help students become more proficient at this essential ability.

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