When it comes to class notes, we all know that students would much rather get the teacher’s notes or PowerPoints than write their own for lots of reasons. They’re getting the content straight from the expert. It makes note-taking less work, and they don’t have to decide what to write down. Further, lots of students don’t like to take notes, and many don’t take very good ones. Having the teacher’s notes keeps students covered if they don’t feel like taking notes or attending class, but the research on note-taking is clear: students need to take notes for themselves.
I wrote this article to help you explain to your students not only why
they need to take notes but how
to take good notes—the kind of notes that become valuable resources when studying for an exam.
My policy on note-taking
: You’ll learn the content better in this course if you take your own notes. I know, I know; many students have told me they “like” or “need” my notes. My notes make sense to me, but you need notes that are meaningful to you. I will leave my PowerPoint slides up long enough for you to get down what’s on them. Consider it a perk of coming to class.
Moreover, I am committed to helping you with your notes. I will give you time to write things down. I will suggest things that should be in your notes. I will encourage you to look for things in your notes. Reviewing notes will be a regular activity in this course, and anytime you have a question about something that’s in your notes, you are welcome to ask it in class, online, or during office hours.
Here’s a set of evidence-based suggestions on taking notes and using them to study
If there was a technique that would help you study, make it easier to learn, and improve your exam scores, wouldn’t you want to know about it? That’s where note-taking comes in. “Researchers have studied note-taking, and these are the strategies shown to make notes a valuable resource:”
- Take notes using your own words. If you want to write down exactly what I say every now and then, that’s okay. But in general, you should use words that make sense to you. If you do copy down exactly what I say, put the statement in quotes, and when you review those notes, rewrite what’s in those quotations in your own words.
- Write more than you think you will need. When you hear something in class, it makes sense at the time, but we’ll be covering lots of content in the weeks between exams. When it’s time to study, you will likely need more details to help trigger memories of what we covered in class.
- Review your notes the same day you take them. I know it’s a drag, and you don’t have time, but you don’t have to spend hours on this first review. Think five minutes. The point of this review is to make sure that what you have in your notes makes sense. This is also the time to add more details. What we talked about in class should still be fresh in your mind.
- Review your notes regularly. You can get away with cramming in some classes: I know that. If you talk with other students who’ve taken this course, they’ll tell you, I think, that such an approach doesn’t work well for my exams. What the research says and what I’m convinced works better is ongoing regular review, and here again we’re not talking about endless hours of study. When you sit down to do the reading, start by first reviewing notes taken on a previous day; selected at random or with reason. When I ask a question in class that you can’t answer, see if you can find the answer in your notes.
- Decide how you’re going to take notes. Electronically or by hand? Here’s what the research has uncovered. Electronically, you get more material in your notes. Isn’t this a good thing? Well, not entirely. Having more notes is good, but students using a keyboard have a tendency to transcribe exactly what you hear. Students taking notes electronically put less of the content in their own words. Because writing notes by hand is slower, it forces you to make decisions about what to include, and that means you are more likely to use your own words. Working on a laptop also makes it too tempting to check the score of last night’s game, watch a quick video, or pursue any number of distractions. I try to be fascinating to listen to at all times, but I’m not, and with the wonderful world of the Internet just a click away . . .
- Share notes with a study buddy. Don’t give them to somebody who has nothing to give you in return; instead, trade notes with a classmate who’s working to take good notes. Does she have something important that you missed? Has he described something in a way that makes it easier to understand? Talk to each other about what’s in your notes.
- Evaluate your notes. Figure out whether your notes are helping you learn the material and get the grade you need in the course. Look hard at the questions you missed on the exam. Did you have the information in your notes that you needed to answer those questions? Are you missing important information? Are you not writing enough? Are you not writing notes that make sense to you after the fact?
I’m including a reference to a College Teaching
article that offers an interesting note-taking intervention that improved student exam scores. This article is well-referenced and includes seven citations documenting that neither posting notes nor copying PowerPoints verbatim improves student performance.
Cohen, D., Kim, E., Tan, J., & Winkelmes, M., (2013). A note-restructuring intervention increases students’ exam scores. College Teaching, 61
Additional articles on note-taking
Note-Taking Strategies to Improve Learning
Why Students Should be Taking Notes
How to Help Students Improve Their Note-Taking Skills