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Taking Notes on the Reading

Assignments of Note

Taking Notes on the Reading

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taking notes on the reading
Every course has assignments, but do they get the attention they deserve or do the same versions end up in the syllabus year after year? How much variety is there in the assignments students complete, in degree programs or even across their years at the institution? Bottom line: we think there’s more that could be done with assignments, and this feature aims to provide examples that illustrate innovative approaches and thoughtful attention to design details.

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Editor's note: The following article is part of an ongoing resource collection called Assignments of Note, in which we showcase innovative assignments featured in scholarly articles.

The assignment

West, J. (2018). Raising the quality of discussion by scaffolding students’ reading. International Journal of Teaching and Learning in Higher Education, 30(1), 146–160. https://files.eric.ed.gov/fulltext/EJ1169822.pdf [open access]

Brief description

Students take notes on assigned readings using teacher-provided templates. Students use their notes to facilitate discussions that occur in reading groups. The teacher uses excerpts from student notes as discussion fodder and to illustrate the level of thinking that makes student notes valuable in discussion and learning.

Problems the assignment addresses

  • Gets students coming to class having done the reading
  • Gets students involved in discussions with peers who have more to share than just their opinions

Learning skills the assignment promotes

  • The templates provide guidance that develops note-taking skills.
  • Students get the chance to see how notes can be used to improve the quality of discussion.
  • Teacher use of content from student notes adds value and purpose to their note-taking.

Details and logistics

The templates illustrate different ways of responding to reading; for example, generating questions about it, connecting it with content in other courses or relevant experiences, identifying key passages, generating lists of essential words and phrases, and exploring a significant quotation. Students may select which template they use. The teacher encourages them to try different ones.

Reading groups are formed randomly using the college learning management system. They change every four weeks so that students have a chance to interact with different people in the course.

The teacher may interrupt group discussions with an observation or question. Students go from discussion in their groups to whole-class discussion, at which time the teacher displays insightful excerpts from student notes to facilitate discussion and to provide examples of good note-taking.


This is a required assignment. Students submit their notes electronically 24 hours before class. The teacher uses a simple rubric to provide brief feedback and to prevent the assignment from becoming an added grading burden. Each set of notes is worth up to two points and they are returned before class.

Evidence of the assignment’s effectiveness

Students responded favorably to an anonymous electronic survey, although not everyone “loves” the assignment. It’s the “kind of preparation that takes more time than simply reading and showing up to talk” (p. 151).

Resources included in the article

Four sample note-taking templates and the rubric used to grade the notes appear in the article.

An update from the author (6/18/18)

One pitfall to watch for: Some of the templates invite students to draw connections to their own experience. In some subject areas, such as my own field of education, that invitation can lead students to focus inward and simply tell their own stories. While I value those stories, they can limit the likelihood that students will move through simply retelling experience to the kind of connective, expansive thinking I want them to do. This pitfall is one I always teach students about early, using examples of responses that simply tell stories and responses that use stories to think critically about the reading. With a little instruction, most students are able to make the shift.

I am currently teaching mostly doctoral students and do not want to give them a task that’s quite as directive as the reading notes. I do carry some of the lessons from the reading notes assignment into every course I teach, though. With doctoral students, instead of the notes as an out-of-class assignment using the templates, I hand out 4 × 6 index cards and simply ask the students to write for a minute or two about whatever common text we might have read; then they move into small groups and finally full class discussion. These students tell me that the simple act of quickly reviewing the text and jotting their notes helps their thinking gel and jump-starts the small-group discussion. I often collect the cards not for grading, but just to get that glimpse into their individual thinking.