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Encouraging Effective Note-Taking in Your Classes

Highlighting in a Book I often hear faculty complain about how students never take notes in class, often stating some version of “They just sit there.”  One time, I asked someone making such a complaint if they told their students why they should take notes in class.  This person looked back at me quizzically and said, “They should take notes because they have to!”

I did not say anything in response, but I was thinking, “Do they have to?  Do they know why they have to?”  When I look back over my own years as a student, I can think of many different reasons why I needed or did not need to take notes.  I can remember one of my favorite literature professors who had an amazing ability to generate class discussion, and I would fill my notebook with pages of ideas for my formal essays.  There was another literature professor, though, who would talk extemporaneously for a majority of the class, often staring at the ceiling or out the window.  I rarely wrote down a word in that class.  And I earned the same grade in both courses.

I was the type of student who had a spiral notebook for each class, and I still have them in a box here at home.  To write this entry, I flipped through a few, and they all look different.  Some are almost full, and some are barely touched.  Some are filled with paragraphs, others with lists, and others with diagrams and boxes.  In one film course, I wrote my notes in a circle for some reason, writing down one thing and then turning my notebook to write down the next thing and so forth.

Still, over fifteen years of taking classes at the undergraduate and graduate level, no professor ever told me why to take notes.  When I started teaching, I never gave a reason to take notes either.  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.

This does not mean that every student takes copious notes in ever class, but most do seem to be taking more than students in the past.  Occasionally, I will ask students about their notes, about the advantages and disadvantages of going digital over analog, about who finds it best to write in the book and who sticks to an external piece of paper.  I cannot say these discussions have improved student learning, but I feel they have.  If a student makes a really good point, I’ll say, “That’s something to write down, people.”  And students have been able to remember what we did a few weeks earlier, especially if they have their notes with them, making connections when I prompt them to think in such ways.

How about you?  Do your students take notes?  How?  Have you talked with them about note-taking strategies?  Do students in classes with exams take better notes more instinctively than in classes without exams based on in-class material? Let us know in the comments!

[Creative Commons licensed image by Flickr user nhighberg]

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