Note-taking is a critical part of the learning process, and a particularly much-debated topic in content-heavy STEM education. The approaches to note-taking seem to be nearly as varied as teaching styles. But which strategy is best for STEM classrooms (particularly classrooms using project-based learning methods)? Is there one “right way” to help students take notes?
“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?”
In her response – a blog post on Notetaking vs notemaking – Bigelow shares what she learned while studying that topic for her dissertation.
The “record of events” approach to note-taking aims for a “transcript” of the class period, she says. The teacher gives students handouts or has them copy from the board to create notes so that each child has a standard/uniform set of notes.
However, research shows that we tend to forget 40% of what we learn within 24 hours, even if we’ve written it down. People learn better and remember more when they’re actually doing something with that information, and recalling it soon afterwards, The Conversation reports in a recent post, What’s the best, most effective way to take notes?.
This also holds true for digital note-taking. While students who use laptops in class do take more notes, those who scribble by hand actually learn more, a Scientific American article reports (A Learning Secret: Don’t Take Notes with a Laptop). This advantage may be due to selectivity. Jotters have to be more selective to keep pace with the class. Rather than typing everything word for word, they’re forced to interact with the material, selecting the most important pieces of information. Paper also gives students the freedom to quickly create drawings, and mark up text in ways that help them remember the information more effectively.
Still, some hold that digital notes are effective when done right. You can redefine the digital note-taking processing by recording audio, video, and screencasts, including screen snips, collaboratively writing with others, and sharing notes, say Dr. Tom Grissom (EdTech Director, @tomgrissom) and Vicki Davis (@coolcatteacher) in a recent CoolCat Teacher post, Episode 145: Essential Digital Notetaking Methods.
This approach falls under notemaking, an approach where Bigelow says students process what’s going on in class individually to create customized notes using sketches, lists, text annotations, Cornell notes, and other strategies.
Many science teachers are coming up with their own unique and personalized ways of implementing interactive note taking for students. William Chamberlain (teacher at Noel Elementary School) wrote a blog post (Taking Notes In Science) about allowing students to take notes on furniture in science class:
“One of the fun things I have incorporated into our classroom this year is using our desks and tables as dry erase boards. The students are having fun writing with markers on items they are usually not allowed to. They have more enthusiasm to write the notes and I can easily see what they are writing. The notes taken here are from a video they were watching on water. The students learned about biotic and abiotic factors and were trying to identify as many as possible from the video. This lesson is part of our ecosystem unit. The students are working toward designing a viable ecosystem in our class aquarium.”
Guiding kids through the note-taking process is easier said than done, especially considering the near-endless number of tools and techniques available.
To help you with this task, we’ve been taking notes on what teachers and experts are saying on the Web and in social media about their tips and tricks. We’ve summarized a few of the most popular and effective strategies below.
1. Cornell Notes
It turns out that repeatedly quizzing yourself convinces your brain that the subject matter is important, making it a powerful way to retain information, a Business Insider post reports (You’ve Probably Been Taking Notes Wrong Your Entire Life).
The Cornell notes system and similar tools integrate this “flash card effect” with note-taking. Cornell notes use a “cue” column on the left and a note-taking column on the right. Simply cover the right side to recall information using the cues and questions on the left. Instead of reading static words on a page, students’ brains work harder to call up the concepts they’ve learned.
This approach has a growing fan base, according to a recent Reddit thread on helping high school science students take quality notes (Note taking in HS Science). Reddit user OrangeOnion204 asked the ScienceTeachers subReddit:
“First-year teacher here about to teach high school science (9 and 10 General Science, 11 Chemistry). As notes are an essential part of the content-heavy high school science courses, what have you found as being the most effective method of giving notes? Giving complete handouts with comprehension questions? PowerPoint while they copy? Fill in the blanks? Write it on the board while they copy? Distribute textbooks (which many of my colleagues during my student teacher days were against for some reason)? I know that each group of students is different and that I should do whichever method best suits their needs, but what have you found to be most effective in general? (Of course all of these methods will be coupled with all of the demonstrations, stories and whacky movements needed to engage students).”
Several of the responders (all science teachers) mentioned Cornell notes.
marxistjerk: “I’ve been using Cornell note-taking with my Yr8 (13-14yrs) science class and it’s a great introduction to note-taking/studying for younger kids. I modelled my format from resources off this school’s.”
lleclair: “Scaffold, assume the students (9th grade especially) don’t have a lot of experience taking notes. Teach effective note taking as part of your class and include as part of your grading system. That may start with guided notes or teaching a note-taking system like Cornell. Consider shifting note taking to homework so you can allow more hands-on time during class. Be aware of students with IEP/504 plans and be sure you are meeting their needs. For example, some students may need copies of your notes, be allowed to make copies of notes of a classmate, or allowed to type/dictate notes. Good luck!”
gborroughs: “I like modifying powerpoints using emphasis to show which words might be used na Cornell bullet. I also tend to use a foldable [in] which I provide the images from the PowerPoint, which are so important and leave the bullet to be filled out by students.”
2. Fill-in-the-Blank Notes
But teachers also shared a variety of other tools, tips, and techniques. Many use fill-in-the-blank notes they say saves time while still making kids think.
leeshis0019: “…I find that a long powerpoint drives me mad. The students write slowly and it’ll eat up a lot of time. Handouts are excellent as-long-as they are designed well. For chemistry, I like the ChemQuest handouts that you might have heard of. They aren’t all great, but most of the time they’re fantastic. Fill-in-the-blank can alleviate the timing woes of long powerpoints. Writing on the board is a time-honored-tradition and great as long as you keep things concise and copying from a textbook is foolish.”Textbook’s tend not to be written for students to read. They are written for the perfect student to read. There are no perfect students. The textbook should always be considered a supplement and not a primary method of learning.”
scigeek1701: “I do partial notes, with blank spots or small sections of writing. If they have to rapidly write everything then they stop paying attention to the actual content. It also decreases the amount of time spent on lectures.”
3. Visual Notes
Redditor, SkepTeach, points colleagues to articles about the power of “doodling.” No longer the province of the bored daydreamer, visual notes are being recognized for their ability to make kids better listeners, and to help them learn better. “When ideas and related concepts can be encapsulated in an image, the brain remembers the information associated with that image,” a recent MindShift post reports (Making Learning Visible: Doodling Helps Memories Stick). Representing a concept visually requires students to choose which information is the most important. Thinking in images and stringing them together in “story chains” can also be a great strategy for naturally imaginative children. It’s also an opportunity to engage naturally artistic kids in STEM education more fully.
SkepTeach: “I’ve been teaching science (Biology, Anatomy, AP Bio) for 6 years and have tried a few methods. Something I haven’t tried that I’m going to give a shot this year, since I’m only teaching AP/Pre-AP classes, is doodling notes rather than standard or Cornell note taking. Here’s an article about it: Making Learning Visible: Visible Doodling Helps Memories Stick
And another: Why Doodling is a Habit You Don’t Need to Break
Seems like it would be a good way to keep them engaged without them spending too much time writing what you’ve said word for word or, worse, what it says on the board word for word.”
Popular education blogger and school principal, George Curos (Principal of Change, @gcouros) wrote a blog post comparing visual note taking (in this case, taking pictures of notes) with standard note taking that garnered a lot of teacher feedback (Taking Notes vs. Taking a Picture of Notes; Which Wins?). His conclusion is one that many educators would agree with:
“What is important here is how you make your own connections for deep learning. When I speak, I try to challenge people to create something with the information I have shared, whether it is write a blog post, reflection, podcast, video, or any other type of media. If they really want to process what I have shared, they will need to make their own connections, not the connections I have made for them. Having easy access to the information is great, but what we do with it, is what really matters.”
4. Interactive Student Notebooks
Interactive student notebooks (ISNs) are “learning scrapbooks” where students collect and organize their notes, drawings, handouts, homework, and activities for a specific class. Kids use their creativity to create unique notebooks that reflect their own learning styles. Advocates say ISNs develop creativity and independent thinking.
In her comment on the NSTA Blog post, Nancy writes:
“I gave up “notes” a few years back and now work with a journal system, based on Teaching Science With Interactive Notebooks by Kellie Marcarelli. Each unit centers on the connection page with the big question, and students go back and add to this as each lesson is done with more thoughts and questions. I like this better as the students are able to think and create their own ideas instead of just repeating what they were given.”
In the ScienceTeachers subReddit (which we wrote about recently, How to Use Reddit to Pump Up Your STEM Classroom and PLN), science educator Gratefulfreebird recently asked about ISNs and expressed ambivalence about them on the :
“I was thinking about using interactive notebooks in my science classes this year. I have tried to use them in the past but felt like the cutting and pasting took too much time out of instruction and since my subject was a tested subject, I felt it was very hard to implement. This year, I am teaching 9th grade physical science at a new school (not a tested subject) and I was thinking about taking the time to try them again. I am a big pro and con list creator before making a decision and thought maybe all of you could help me make my list and ultimately my decision on implementing these in my classroom. I have done a lot of reading on them but I am still on the fence. Can those of you who have used them let me know the cons/pros of using them? Also, since this is my first year teaching this subject let me know if you all think I may be taking on too much since I already have to plan all of my lessons from scratch. If any of you have resources or know a good place I could look for ideas for physical science lessons that would be great! Thank you! :)”
Other contributors to the thread had helpful things to say:
Tlaw44: “I think they are a great tool for students and for you. At the least it keeps their notes, bellwork, exit tickets, and assignments in one place. Also, it creates a space for the students to reflect and self-assess their learning. I have done this in a language arts and science classroom, and I will continue to use them. Way more pros than cons.”
Psisquared11: “I used interactive notebooks last year in my 9th grade physics class. I found the structure of the notebook very helpful for students at this age. The cutting and pasting/taping was not too much of a burden and offered a nice kinesthetic break for kids during a class. Since this is your first year teaching the subject you may find the structure of the notebook also helps you structure your lessons. You will definitely find the class develops a flow that your students key into which can be helpful.Ultimately, I chose not to use them again for one major reason. I found it extremely difficult to give students timely feedback on their work. My students did everything in their notebooks including homework so I couldn’t collect them very often. When I did, it took me an enormous amount of time to provide feedback and it was often too late to be useful to students. As a result the notebooks never really improved and students got bored with them as the year went on. If you can solve this problem I would say go for it.One last thing. If you use the spiral bound college ruled notebooks, your students will destroy them shoving them into their backpacks. I would recommend something a little sturdier perhaps with a hard cover like a composition notebook. Good luck!”
Rugger2Teacher: “9th grade Physical Science here. I went to the AMLE conference and the lady presenting interactive notebooks gave some great pointers on time management and such. The use of glue: emphasis a dab will do them and restrict the amount of glue they have on hand and how it comes out of the container. I ordered a bunch of hotel shampoo bottles (1-2 oz) and it has helped alot. With the time it takes for cutting give them time frames in the instructions: “you have 10 secs to cut this…” then count out loud to ten. This gives them a sense of urgency and a time frame. I use a notebook for everything in my classroom, one thing I like to do is printing information dense text on 1 side of the paper and have the kids do close reading to find definitions, examples, etc and then on the blank side organize the information. if you fold the paper into 4 sections you will have 1 to glue down and 3 to use for other information.”
For more tips and insights on interactive student notebooks, pop into the weekly #ISNchat (“Interactive Science Notebook”) tweetchat. The next scheduled chat takes place August 30 (7PM, CST) and will be moderated by science teacher Aleta Boddy (@).
5. Project Boards
1. the “big questions” associated with the unit
2. the smaller questions about the learning set
3. the reasons they’re doing the activity
4. the results of their investigations
5. their understanding of the science content
The class creates a new project board at the beginning of each unit; students fill it out and make revisions as they progress through the lesson. The incremental approach gives students opportunities to compare their conclusions with what they thought they knew at the beginning of the set, giving them a better understanding of what they’ve learned along the way. This is extremely important when teaching students real-life science research practices. This note-taking method is a one of the many reasons why project-based learning is so effective. Below, Curriculum Specialist Barbara Zahm outlines how to effectively implement project boards in science classrooms.
The Big Picture
There may not be a one-size-fits-all solution. Just like students, educators have their own styles, methods, and preferences. Still, the prevailing attitude seems to be that note-taking should be interactive – notemaking, if you will, and should help students to think creatively about the content (not feel encumbered by it). Whichever strategy you use, teachers shouldn’t assume that kids know how to make good ones, Bigelow advises. The key is to guide them through the process, which will prepare them for college, the workplace, and the rest of their lives.
What are your thoughts on effective classroom note-taking for students? Share them below or tweet us at @ItsAboutTimeEDU!
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