I really want to stop “giving” notes to students because it doesn’t seem like a good use of class time. They use tablets, so they can find facts easily, but I want students to actually manipulate the content and think about it. But I’m struggling a bit with letting go of the notes. Guidance or thoughts?
—Kelly, Raleigh, North Carolina
From my review of the notetaking literature (a focus of my dissertation), I found two schools of thought. One was note taking as a record of events. This would correspond to the minutes of a meeting or a transcript of a video. With this concept, teachers would give students a copy of important facts as a handout or file (or make the students copy them from the board or screen). Every student would have the same information in a standard style. [I've interviewed students who listed copying notes as their least favorite class activity.]
The other thought is notetaking as a form of information processing (notemaking might be a better term). As students read text, listen to a lecture, participate in a discussion, or watch a video, they connect what they’re seeing or hearing to what they already know, ask questions, reflect on their understanding, and summarize. This could be in a variety of formats depending on the information: Cornell notes, sketches, lists, annotating text, graphic organizers. Much of the literature on science notebooks reflects this concept of note taking.*
Do students know how to make their own notes? As veteran learners, we teachers often take things for granted, but if students are used to having notes given to them, they’ll need guidance. I observed a chemistry teacher who did this effectively. He projected the text on the board (the students had their own copies) as he read the text aloud. He paused and noted key words such as most important, three reasons for…, first. He underlined a few key phrases and annotated the margins with key terms or questions from the paragraph. After a page or two, he encouraged students to try this on their own as he circulated around the room and monitored their efforts. With a notemaking approach, teachers need to accept that students’ notes will not be uniform.
Regardless of the approach you use, the key is what students do with the notes. If they’re stored on a device or online, do they have access to them at home? Can they archive the notes for another year or class? Do students know how to use notes for review? Can they use them during other activities? Younger or less experienced students will need your guidance, modeling, scaffolding, and feedback to learn to use their notes.
Here are some additional suggestions from a recent e-mail list discussion**: