As students encounter new information, ideas, and concepts through readings, lectures, discussions and course activities they can internalize the ideas and record their insights by taking notes. While the structure, format and even purpose for note taking can vary, this activity helps student process new material in order to make connections to what they already know and understand. In this second installment of the Higher Education Learning Activity Types taxonomy, we explore multiple strategies to engage students in effective note taking.
Key features of the strategy
Note taking is an excellent way to not only record, but to process information. This focus on processing and understanding both during and after note taking is a key element of success. The University of Reading offers some helpful tips on note taking practices for university students that highlight the difference between passive and active note taking:
Passive note-taking includes:
- underlining words
- cutting and pasting from online documents
- trying to write everything you hear in a lecture
- copying slides from the screen
- copying lots of direct quotes rather than putting the ideas in your own words
- writing notes on everything you read, because you're not sure what will turn out to be important
- not evaluating or critiquing the sources you use, but just accepting them as suitable evidence
Active note-taking means:
- thinking about what you want to get out of your research before you start
- looking for answers to any questions you may have about the topic
- looking for connections within the topic you're studying, and to other topics on your course
- writing notes mostly in your own words - your own explanation of what something says or means
- recording direct quotes only when it's important to have the exact words that someone else has used (i.e. when how they say something is as significant as what they say)
Examples and Variations
- Nilson (2010) suggests teaching students specific structures and approaches to note taking including creating formal outlines, using the Cornell system, and organizing ideas with concept maps.
- Weimer (2013) suggests beginning class with a question that can be answered by the end of the class session, providing skeletal notes, offering a list of key terms that would be covered in a lecture, and providing charts, tables, or graphics that help students synthesize information.
- Gross Davis (1993) suggests stopping class at strategic intervals to review their notes from previous class sessions to help them to make connections between ideas. At the end of class, the instructor can encourage students to review the notes they’ve taken for the day and highlight or underline particularly important concepts or to paraphrase some of the essential takeaways.
Student note taking can support the development of two key 21st century skills – knowledge construction and self-regulation. As students take, synthesize, transform and review their notes, they are building their knowledge relative to the concepts and ideas presented in class or through texts and other materials. Less obviously, perhaps, effective note taking processes can help students with self-regulation. By actively and strategically taking notes in class, students help to focus their attention and remain engaged in the learning experience. As they use their notes to actively process information and prepare for papers or exams, they are developing the discipline and habits of mind to support their learning.
Digital and non-digital technology tools can be extremely helpful in the note taking process. Many students prefer (and studies support) taking notes by hand. The limitation of course, is that these notes are not as easily searchable as digital notes. Fortunately, with the optical character recognition built into many software applications like Evernote and OneNote, when students scan their handwritten notes, they can be archived and searched within the software programs. Of course, these same tools (and many more) can be used to capture notes directly. These software applications have the added benefit of being able to include supporting materials (including digital images, audio files, presentation slides, etc.) to supplement notes taken during class and readings. Finally, both Evernote and OneNote have Web clipping features that enables users to capture whole Web pages or selections to a particular notebook.
What strategies do you use to help students take more effective notes in your courses?
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