Becoming Better Notetakers

I remember early in my Ph.D. program I was frustrated with a dissertation chapter I was writing. I went with my intuition and produced a giant concept map of what I wanted to say. I finished the diagram with a sigh of relief — the chapter made sense now. But I still felt guilty like I was doing something wrong. Real writers didn’t use concept maps, right?

I’m not sure anyone ever taught me how to take notes productively, certainly not after elementary/middle school, and I still struggle with notetaking today. I’m a chronic over-highlighter, and I have a hard time processing what I read or producing my own thoughts about it, until after I’ve completed the reading. My first pass of notes are almost always verbatim from the reading or lecture. I’ve learned to lean in to my overhighlighting and color-code, to use whatever style/format of notes works best for what I’m doing, and to take a second pass to parse and revise my notes. These things didn’t necessarily come intuitively, but through a lot of trial and error and through making a commitment to teaching my students how to experiment and improve their notetaking skills.

Providing students with the tools and framework they need to become a become better notetakers empowers them to succeed in the classroom as well as in their future careers. Here are a few ideas for helping students experiment with different notetaking strategies in the classroom.

Where to start

Familiarize yourself with different styles of notetaking. This guide breaks down five types of notetaking: 1) The Outline Method, 2) The Cornell Method, 3) The Boxing Method, 4) The Charting Method, and 5) The Mapping Method, though there are certainly other types out there. I’ll highlight two of my favorites here.

The Cornell Method breaks a page into different sections, providing a big space on the right for notes, a smaller left column for keywords and comments, and a bottom space to summarize and reflect on a page of notes.

Before researching for this post, I’d never seen anything like the Boxing Method, but I’m in LOVE with it because it so suits how I visualize and remember what I’ve learned. (Click the right arrow in the preview below to see a clearer version). I love how @ipadstudying mixes boxes, concept maps, diagrams, and other features as appropriate.

I gave this method a try, and I looovved the structure this gave to my notes.

Teaching Notetaking in the Classroom

Teaching notetaking might not necessarily be intuitive for us as instructors, especially if we’ve never been taught how to take notes, and if so, we may not have ever seen how this can be done. Here’s one approach to doing it via Note Taking Stations. While this post uses examples from a high school classroom, one could totally tackle this in a few stations in a college classroom or by giving students handouts with different instructions, and asking them to take notes on different items or pages from a book. By providing students an opportunity to practice these skills, they can see what works best for them while also being exposed to new ideas of notetaking styles and methods of being intentional in their notetaking.

Modeling notetaking can also provide an opportunity to help students identify new techniques of notetaking as well as evaluating their effectiveness. All of the above examples could be provided to students by an instructor as a way to compare & contrast styles of notetaking and discuss study skills and class preparation.

Physical vs. Digital Notes

This seems to be a common debate among faculty — to ban, allow, or encourage laptop or technology use in the classroom. While I love writing notes by hand, sometimes I like typing, writing on a tablet, or even live tweeting to take notes on both oral presentations and readings. Allowing our students to know what works for them and to use that strategy is part of empowering students to make responsible decisions about their own learning. While some research certainly shows that handwriting notes can be more effective for retention, this doesn’t encompass all people’s experiences. And, banning laptops is an accessibility issue (If you’ve banned laptops and someone has an accommodation, this immediately singles that person out). Instead of banning tech in the classroom, help students learn and practice different notetaking strategies and teach students about responsible technology use. We are all bombarded with technology in our daily lives, and not shutting it out of your classroom can help students be more effective at taking notes and focusing out of the classroom as well as in. See also the reflection in section 8 in Jennifer Gonzalez’s Notetaking resource on this topic.

Additional Resources

  • Jennifer Gonzalez’s “Note-taking: A Research Roundup”: This post tackles several myths of notetaking and adds to our understanding of notetaking and learning, with the research to back her claims. For example, “More is Better” in notetaking, as quantity directly correlates to retention, and “Revision, Collaboration, and Pausing Boosts the Power of Notes.”
  • How To Study With A Highlighter: The Three Pitfalls That You Should Avoid: This post suggests: 1) we make a second pass of the reading to highlight (once we know what’s important so that we can avoid “panic highlighting, 2) we don’t use highlighting to replace taking notes and processing the information we’re reading, and 3) to adapt a color-coding system that uses multiple colors (e.g. different colors for terms, examples, arguments, etc.). When I highlight, I even color-code on a scale of importance (yellow for least important, blue & green for more important, pink & purple for key arguments or items relevant to my own research).
  • Sketchnoting resources by @sylviaduckworth: Sketchnoting is a really cool way of embedding icons, images, and other visuals into notetaking. While it’s certainly not for everyone, this is another possibility you can share with students.

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