Why is it important for your students to take notes? Studies find that notetaking helps students' focus attention, promotes more thorough elaboration of ideas, and encourages efforts to relate ideas and organize materials. In short, notetaking helps students to process information more deeply.

As an instructor, you can do a number of things to help your students take and use their notes more effectively. Here are some tips:

  • Outline Your Lecture. Be overt in the organization of your lecture, both orally and visually. For example, write your lecture outline on the board. Second, since studies show that students usually record what the instructor has written, be discriminating in your use of the board or transparencies. Third, during the lecture, refer to your outline to highlight shifts in topic. Last, use signaling phrases and transition statements such as "this is important," "you'll want to remember," "these differ in three important ways," "the second point is," or "next,..."

  • Use a Framework. If appropriate to your subject matter, give students a framework or schema for how to organize information. Most information can be organized into one of two frameworks: sequence or classification. Sequence is used to explain change, influence, or phases.

    For example, if you're presenting information that illustrates time, space, or a process it's most likely a sequence; "stages of development" suggests a process that can be illustrated with arrows. For example: infancy---->childhood---->adolescence---->young adulthood

    On the other hand, if the information consists of types, parts, characteristics, components, or elements, you can classify it and present the information as a hierarchy. For example:

     BehaviorismHumanism
    Major Theorist  
    Central Premise  
    Examples  
    Therapy  

    Both patterns can help students contrast and compare the material for similarities and differences.

  • Tell Students What to Record. Should they record examples, sample problems, the questions discussed in class? What about explanations of examples and solutions to problems? Is it necessary to record names, dates, and research cited? The answers to such questions differ from one course to another. You can help students by providing explicit instructions, at least in the first few classes, about what to include in class notes.

  • Challenge Students to Think. Pause from time to time and ask them to paraphrase what they have written in their notes -- to rewrite definitions, to restate relationships, to retell an examples. Urge them to use their own words. Suggest that they explain their notes to a student seated nearby. They, ask them to write their paraphrased explanation in their notes.

    To get students to elaborate and extend their notes (and their understanding), ask them to write endings to sentences: "Another example of this might be..."; "The last time I saw a problem like this was..."; "I remember talking about this issue with..."; "This information might explain why..." Such prompts encourage students to connect new material to what they already know, another step toward understanding and retention.

  • Train Students to Take Notes Better Notes. Give students feedback on their notes. Occasionally hand out your version of lecture notes after class, so that students can compare their notes to yours. Note: Just be sure your lecture actually corresponds to the notes you give them!

    When you meet with students who are having trouble with your course, ask them to bring in their lecture notes. Poor notes (or no notes!) may be the source of much of their problems. Many faculty also recommend that students in trouble re-copy their notes, and in the process organize them, fill in gaps using the text, and ferret out the points not completely understood which require extra study.

  • Make Time for Notetaking Activities in class. Remember: you are using notetaking as a vehicle for encouraging students to think more deeply about the lecture content.

Many students do learn from taking notes and reviewing them. By showing concern for notetaking in your classes, you exhibit your interest in helping students "learn how to learn". And you may increase the likelihood that your students learn what you teach them.

References:

Erickson, B. L. & Strommer, D. W. (1991) Teaching College Freshmen. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass.

Keirwa, K. Learning How to Learn. Presentation to Campus-wide TA Workshop, University of Nebraska-Lincoln, August 1997.

Relative to Teaching, faculty newsletter of the University of Arkansas, March 1994