Is student note-taking relevant in classes today?

brain science

brain science | Thursday, February 10, 2022

Is student note-taking relevant in classes today?

Students have taken notes for ages. Is note-taking still helpful? Here's how we can get more out of student note-taking.


"I want my students to take notes. But they just don't take them, or they fight me on them. How can I make my students take notes?"

Note-taking has to be one of the oldest practices in education. It's been around for ages.

We took notes when we were students. It's something we commonly see or hear about. Many times, we just expect it because it's been a classroom staple for so long.

But then students balk at it. Or they haven't developed the skill of taking notes.

Do they even need to take notes? I mean, you can find practically any fact on Google, and you can learn to do most anything on YouTube or other video platforms.

Is note-taking dead in today's classes?

Let's examine that idea and, later, look at some practices that can bring it into today's age.

When's the last time YOU took notes?

You know, as an adult? When did you take notes about something? Why did you do it? When did you do it?

We want to authentically prepare students for things they'll do in the world outside of school. This might be a good place to examine the place of note taking in adult life.

I'll start.

1. I wrote notes for this blog post.

  • Why? I had topics to discuss in this post in my mind and I didn't want to lose them. Essentially, I wanted to save my fleeting thoughts in a place I could access later because those thoughts were important to me.
  • What did my notes look like? It was a page of ideas with bullet point sub-points to go into depth for each one. I took those notes on a sheet of paper on a legal pad.

2. I wrote down everything I needed to do today.

  • Why? I had several tasks and I didn't want to forget them. Again, it was to save fleeting thoughts because they were important.
  • What did my notes look like? It was a checklist of tasks on a white board that I could cross off. (Those count as notes, right?)

3. I took notes on a YouTube video tutorial.

  • Why? It showed the detailed steps to do something I wanted to my website, and I wanted an easy reference I could refer to faster and easier than re-watching a 15 minute video.
  • What did my notes look like? It was a Google doc. I summarized every step, numbered them, and made the titles for each step in bold. I wanted to be able to access my notes anywhere any time.

Take a moment and think about when you've taken notes about something in your adult life recently. Why did you take them, and what did they look like?

For me, I had important thoughts I didn't want to forget or I created an easier reference for important information I had found. For temporary notes, I wrote them on paper, but for notes I wanted to preserve, I put them in an online document.

"Those are great! I want students to take notes like that!"

I know how you feel! But there's a key word in the descriptions above that students often would say is missing with class notes.

Important.

As an adult, I ran to a notepad or a Google doc to take notes because what I had found was important and I didn't want to lose it. That innate desire to preserve drives us to take notes.

What if that innate desire isn't there? What if students are taking notes about something they don't love?

Should they take notes? Do we take notes in real life over things we aren't passionate about?

Absolutely. But our true motivations for student note-taking are telling.

3 flawed reasons for note-taking

Reason 1: "I want them to take notes so they'll pay attention."

So, students aren't engaged in what you're doing in class and notes will make them pay attention?

I get that. I understand the sentiment. If they don't take notes, they won't pay attention. But if you make them take notes, they at least have to write down something. Maybe something will stick.

I'm afraid that sometimes -- at least sometimes -- this line of thinking leads to misplaced efforts. 

Solution: Spend time finding ways to engage students in the learning.

This isn't an easy solution, but it's better than the alternative many times.

Spend less time forcing students to pay attention to teaching and learning that doesn't engage them. Spend more time on finding ways to make the learning appealing and relevant.

You can lead a horse to water but can't make it drink. You can't force a flower to grow, only produce an environment where it will grow itself. We have lots of analogies for this in education.

What's inherently interesting about the content? Can we double down on that? How can we connect it to what's important to the students? Again, it's not easy, and it's not clear and obvious all the time. But if class is memorable, students store it in their long-term memories and not on a piece of paper they may never look at.

Reason 2: "I want them to take notes so they'll have something to study."

This is a valid reason for note taking. It's really the reason I took notes personally on two occasions above. We create an easy reference for something important that's upcoming.

But it isn't foolproof. Some students have illegible handwriting. (Ahem ... me!) Some don't write notes down accurately in the moment. Some try to mindlessly copy down every single word and have a sea of notes they can't easily navigate.

Study from notes like that and you'll have problems.

Solution: Practice good notetaking habits with students.

If we believe that well crafted notes will help students study, remember, and apply what they've learned, we should take the time to help them develop that skill. We can encourage students to ...

  • Write clearly or even type. (Ohhh, typewritten vs. handwritten notes ... that's a whole different discussion I wrote about here.)
  • Ask a friend about something they might not have heard the first time.
  • Listen and then summarize. (See a great strategy for this -- "retrieve taking" -- below!)
  • Write about the most important concepts and not every word 
  • Use abbreviations for common terms and ideas to save writing/typing effort

Reason 3: "I want them to take notes because that's what they'll have to do in college."

I've wrestled with this one for years. Yes, there's a good chance that college and university professors will ask students to take notes. Note taking is a skill, and it's a skill that will serve students in college.

We must take care with this reason because it's dangerous, like playing with fire.

Unpopular opinion: Preparing students for college isn't the most important thing we can do in the classroom. In fact, it can be damaging.

They're institutions of higher learning, but sadly, many college classes don't use best practices for true lasting learning.

Lecture and listen. Take copious notes. Recall facts for the test.

That's a chore. It can kill a love of learning. It doesn't help students to transfer learning to real-world tasks or other areas of study. Must we do that in our K-12 classes if there are better ways to make learning lasting and real? 

Also, let's remember that college isn't the best option for every student.

Solution: Do what's best for them NOW.

Engage students in learning. Have rich, deep discussions. Let them create with what they've learned. Encourage them to ask questions. Make connections to their own lives and interests.

In short: Create the kind of learning you wish you had as a student!

We want to create problem solvers and critical thinkers who love learning, right?

When they have that skill set, they'll be able to conquer just about anything they find in the college setting.

4 practices to make note-taking better

We do live in a world where Google exists. Students can look up basic information and answers to common questions.

YouTube exists, too, and they can learn how to do a lot by watching videos.

We want to do well by them, and we want them to learn in ways that align with best practice and the science of learning. 

Does note-taking have a place in this world we're describing?

Absolutely.

Here are four practices you can employ that will help your students make the most of note-taking:

Practice 1: Retrieve-taking

One reason for student note-taking is to make permanent. We want students to memorize, to retain, to be able to recall important ideas and information.

Research has clear suggestions for this: retrieval practice.

According to research, our studying and learning time are more effective when we recall information out of our brains instead of trying to cram it into our brains again.

Studying by re-reading notes? Not as effective.

Studying by recalling from our brains, then checking it against our notes? Much, much better.

The author of much research on K-12 retrieval practice, Dr. Pooja Agarwal, shares those research findings and classroom strategies to use at her website, RetrievalPractice.org.

Retrieve-taking is one powerful strategy from Powerful Teaching, a book Agarwal co-authored with classroom teacher Patrice Bain. Bain reports that her students love it and have found it helpful for recalling and implementing what they've learned in her class.

Here's how retrieve-taking works:

  1. Students consume new content by reading a book, listening to instruction, watching a video, etc.
  2. Students stop consuming periodically so they can write down what they remember (as little or as much as you'd like).
  3. They resume consuming new content.

Retrieve-taking is different than standard notes because students are pulling information from their brains instead of copying it down mindlessly. Because it encourages retrieval, it actually makes learning sticky and promotes long-term memory.

Learn more about retrieve-taking (and more details and nuance about note-taking) in this post about it.

Practice 2: Sketchnoting

I became a fan of sketchnoting when I started attending teacher conferences. I loved taking these visual notes to help me remember key concepts from these keynote speeches and the subsequent breakout sessions.


The benefits?

Here's the trick, though. It's not a skill many kids feel comfortable with right away. Plus, the hardest way to sketchnote is live, where you're doodling and writing at the same time that someone is talking.

This can be a great way to summarize learning, though ... maybe in combination with retrieve-taking we just learned about.

I've shared a bunch about sketchnoting. For more, check out my conference presentation resources, this post on getting started with sketchnoting, and 12 ways to get started with it.

Practice 3: Use a graphic organizer

For some students, seeing a blank sheet of paper can be paralyzing. They might think, "How will I fill this? Where do I start? How do I do it?"

Graphic organizers help walk students through a line of thinking and organize their ideas.


I've compiled 25 graphic organizers in Google Drawings or Google Slides format

  • You can make a copy of these in your own Google Drive, adjust them as necessary, and assign them to your students via learning management system (LMS) like Google Classroom, Canvas, Schoology, etc.
  • You can download the PowerPoint files for your students, adjust, and assign if you're a Microsoft school.
  • You can display them on a projector screen and encourage students to recreate them with paper and pencil.

Graphic organizers like the Frayer Model, plot diagrams, Cornell notes, character maps, and more can help give your students' notes structure.

Practice 4: Do a note-taking practice session

If students don't have great note-taking skills, let them see how you'd take notes.

Watch a video together. Or read a passage. Or stop after some direct instruction.

Talk about the important points, about how they can visualize ideas in their notes, about what NOT to include.

Have students share how they took notes and represented ideas so they can see other perspectives.

When you talk about the process and the skills involved in it, students can see how it's really done -- and can learn from it.

What educators say about note-taking

I asked about note-taking on Twitter and in my weekly email newsletter. There were lots of great responses! You can see the whole Twitter conversation here. Here are a few responses that stood out to me:

Student notetaking is not only relevant, it is essential. Notetaking provides another memory path for the brain to retrieve stored information. If a student sees, hears, and writes the information, that provides three potential pathways by which the student can then retrieve that information. When we write something, our brain does not have to actively think about how to form each letter. Why not? It is because we have performed those same motions so many times that our brain can do it automatically.

-- Janice (Virginia)

Teaching students how to take notes for the benefit of learning the subject one teaches is probably a good start. Start the year with suggestions of styles of note taking and allow students to share any method that they like to use. In my view, notes are an extension of the mind that may or may not be needed. Also, the act of writing a note can help one remember the topic in more than one area of the brain.

-- Doug (Indiana)

Yes there's a place for note taking. First off, yes you can google the answers that you want but kids don't know how to google properly and don't investigate their findings further. Second, despite what some in education claim, basic recall is important. There are some things that people should just know without having to google. It saves time to have knowledge. I teach government which is very vocab heavy so a lot of the note-taking we do is related to the vocab and we can have discussions on the terms and I can relate the ideas to the real world. They need to know the terms and how to explain the terms rather than just reading a google definition like a robot. Furthermore, note taking is important b/c kids needs to know/learn how to organize their thoughts and ideas and taking notes over the content helps them do that while also learning the content. Finally, kids need to learn how to listen. The human brain can actually sit and get, scientifically. People choose not to do this. They choose not to do this when they pop in their earbuds, look at snap chat or fall asleep. It's the educators job to engage the kids so they don't want to be on their phone, listen to music or fall asleep.

-- Chad (Missouri)

Of course note taking is not dead. BUT, we have to realize that when students copy, they are not learning anything. They have to paraphrase. They have to force themselves to quiz and recall. And please don’t tell me that no one needs to remember anything because there is Google. Nonsense!! Students cannot think if they don’t have facts, and they certainly aren’t thinking if they are simply googling. And, even if they do get an answer from google, it won’t mean anything because they have no facts to put the information in context.

-- Gary (Maryland)

My thoughts. In the digital world, I no longer require students to carry around notebooks that get lost or stolen. If they want so they are welcome to take one I have on the side. So I just require them to take notes in either Word or GDocs and label the file so that it can fit in a folder for my Physical Science class. An alternative is for the students to download the PowerPoint from Canvas. Here they can elaborate on the PPT as I am discussing the material. I encourage them to seek other resources/links, such as a YouTube video or a website that may explain it, and add any to the PPT for their own learning.

-- Monique (North Carolina)

Required reading: Cult of Pedagogy

When I decided to write this post, I had some flawed reasons for notes to discuss and some practices in mind to suggest. In the Twitter post I mentioned above, the fantastic Melanie Kitchen shared this resource, Note-taking: A Research Roundup, on the always exceptional Cult of Pedagogy blog by Jennifer Gonzalez. 

I promised myself that I wouldn't read it until I had written my own post -- just so I wouldn't repeat what it said or lose my nerve to write something myself! Here, let me go read it now ...

Yep. Just as amazing as expected. LOTS of detailed, nuanced suggestions that delve into topics mentioned here and even more. It's definitely required reading!



Question: What are your best practices for taking notes? How do you think note-taking should show up in today's classrooms? What's your case for or against note-taking? Leave your thoughts and ideas in a comment below!

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