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Helping Students Discover the Value of a Good Set of Notes

For Those Who Teach

Helping Students Discover the Value of a Good Set of Notes

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Students benefit from taking and having a good set of notes, even though many of them don’t see the value, don’t take good notes, and like it best when they can copy word-for-word what the teacher says or has on the PowerPoint slides. We can pontificate about how students should have already been taught the value and skills of note taking. We can tell them in class, on the syllabus and the course website that they need to take notes, but I think less telling and more showing is the better way to go. This post offers a range of activities teachers can use to help students discover what a good set of notes enables them to do.

Personalizing notes – Students need to make whatever notes they take meaningful to them. If they need the comfort of having in their notes exactly what the teacher said fine, but then they need to translate, paraphrase, or otherwise put into their own words what they think the teacher’s words mean. The act of rewriting aids knowledge acquisition in two ways. First, it’s a test for understanding. If you can’t put what the teacher says in your own words, using different words that capture what the teacher means, then you probably don’t have a good grasp of the idea. Second, rewriting aids understanding when the student uses the rewrite to connect new knowledge to something already known. Students do the best rewrites when they are focused on the task exclusively, not while they are trying to listen as the teacher continues talking.


Try this as an end-of-class activity: Have students rewrite their notes, or part of their notes, and then ask for volunteers to read them out loud to the rest of the class. This will give you a sense of the level of comprehension and provide you with the opportunity to clarify what isn’t understood and deepen what is. Plus, hearing their peers explain a concept in their own words can often help other students to better understand the day’s lesson.

Reviewing and elaborating notes – Research has shown that this is most beneficial right after the notes have been taken (not two weeks later). Students can be given two or three minutes to review and enhance their notes at the end of class, during class (when a content chunk has been presented or a discussion has ended), or at the beginning of the next class. This review time does more for learning and retention if students add to their notes; write more about a topic, clarify something they’ve written that they now understand more completely, or insert questions and comments in their notes.

Organizing notes –This can be as simple as annotating a set of notes by underlining key ideas, using those glow-in-the-dark highlighters, adding stars, drawing arrows, even taking a day’s worth of notes and transforming them into a concept map. Again maybe this can be a useful way to end the class session.

Using notes – The value of a set of notes is clearer when teachers encourage students to use them — say to answer a question on material presented previously. “Look in your notes from the 24th. You should have the answer there.” On test review day, sample questions can be used to send students hunting for answers in their notes. To encourage students to do the reading, consider letting them use during the quiz whatever notes they took on the reading. Or maybe students get to consult their notes for five minutes during an exam. The value of notes can also be highlighted during the exam debrief. “Did you miss question 14? We talked about that on the 15th. Check your notes. Do you have what you need there to answer the question?” “Somebody who got the question right, read what you have in your notes and tell us how that helped you answer the question correctly.”

Studying notes – When you ask students how they’re going to prepare for an exam, many of them will tell you, “I’m going to go over my notes.” Hearing that, I used to recoil in exaggerated horror. “Going over them, no, no, you must ‘get into’ your notes.” Students should also be encouraged to use their notes when they are studying together. They should talk about what they have in their notes and explain things to each other using their notes. Maybe the value of doing so can be demonstrated during the exam review session.

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