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Do Your Students Take Good Notes?

Whether — and how — students take notes in class is an evergreen topic in discussions of teaching and learning. Unfortunately, I often find myself frustrated and annoyed when I’m explaining something in class and look out at a room full of students who are, admittedly, paying attention to what I’m saying but writing down not a single thing in their notes. Frustration and annoyance do not make for good pedagogy, though, and my off-the-cuff comments in response to this particular student behavior are probably among the reasons students often write in course evaluations that I’m too sarcastic. So in my teaching I’m working on front-loading an explanation of the relationship between what happens during class time — no, we’re not just having an unstructured conversation about things — and the designated learning outcomes of the course, as well as the role played by memory and such learning strategies as taking notes.

It’s clearly not enough just to harangue students about their inadequate classroom behavior; instructors should think carefully about what and why they want students to engage in certain practices and make clear to students what the reasons are.

Here at ProfHacker, back in 2011, Nels published a discussion of why it’s important to explain to your students not just that they should take notes, but more importantly why they should take notes:

When I started teaching, I never gave a reason to take notes… If students came to me asking for help generating ideas for their writing, I would start by asking what was in their notes. Often, the answer was nothing. So, after that, I started telling students why they should take notes. I explained how notes should help them with future work. I pointed out how class discussions and other activities were meant to help complete their next formal assignment or something else happening later in the course.

And in the pre-ProfHacker days, Jason explained his “Wikified Class Notes” assignment:

Many students take almost no notes in English classes, especially upper-division English classes, and especially when class discussions turn to close reading. That leaves students: 1) unprepared for exams; 2) without a sense that there is a body of knowledge/practice emerging during the class; and 3) slightly cynical about the purposes of class time.

In 2013, at Faculty Focus, Maryellen Weimer offers a number “tips for developing students’ note-taking skills“:

Beyond being an essential basic skill, note-taking offers students the opportunity to make the material their own. That doesn’t involve making it mean whatever they want it to mean, but it does allow them to interact with it in ways that develop the learner’s understanding of it. Now, this doesn’t happen when students equate note-taking with stenography and copy down exactly what the teacher says, and it doesn’t happen when students recopy their notes and think that’s studying. But it does happen when students work on and with their notes—when they put definitions into their own works, when they list relevant pages in the text, when they re-order the material so that it better connects with their knowledge, and when they write summaries and relate details to main points.

Weimar describes 7 different specific things that instructors can do in the classroom to get students taking better notes. What I like about this approach, as well as those offered by Nels and Jason, is that it goes beyond an inadequate “these kids today” gripe about what students aren’t doing and instead provides concrete practices designed to teach students the value of a basic skill that they might not already have in their intellectual toolbox. (And it also takes us beyond the dead-before-its-feet-hit-the-ground conversation about whether or not to allow laptops in class, a debate that allows too many of us to think that banning laptops somehow guarantees a better learning experience for students without any deeper thought being given to the relationship between what happens in the classroom, what students should be learning, and how to actively engage in pedagogical practices that improve learning.)

What do you do in your teaching to facilitate effective note-taking by your students? Do you have specific assignments that involve students’ notes? Do you lecture or facilitate discussions in ways that make note-taking easier? Please share your strategies in the comments!

[CC-licensed Flickr photo by Yusuf C]

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