In this final post of my miniseries on notes, I look deeper into what a new way of note-taking might entail. If you haven’t read the first several posts, I recommend you start with those.
- Part 1: Notes, but why though?
- Part 2: The Purpose of Notes
- Part 3: Aligning the Purpose and Process of Notes
If you recall, I left off my prior post with the following vision for the purpose of note-taking
“I still want students to take notes so that they have an artifact of their learning. I want them to have a reference for when they study that is of their own creation. In addition, I want notes to provide a means for my students to think about their thinking: a metacognitive tool. I don’t want the notes to be a restatement of my thoughts, rather, I want them to be a record of their interpretation and sense-making of the ideas we discuss.”
So, how do I help foster a note-taking process that aligns with these purposes? Here’s what I came up with (though I am always open to new ideas!).
Typically, note-taking occurs concurrently with content delivery. It is difficult to think about what you are writing when you are simultaneously listening. [Note: I don’t mean writing solely in terms or text, pictures and diagrams also constitute writing] In order for note-taking to serve as an artifact of learning, there must indeed be learning. This means, students need to understand an idea or concept and they then need to synthesize their understanding well enough to create a written artifact. Thus, students must be fully present and involved in the discussion of the ideas as they occur. It is often difficult to be present if you are frantically recording information word for word. Instead of note-taking occurring at the same time as the discussion of new ideas, why not provide time/space for note-taking after that discussion?
Here’s an example of what I imagine. Say I am teaching about quadratic functions. Whether it be an activity or direct instruction, students engage in the process fully. They may briefly jot down some questions or note a key term, but they are discussing the ideas that are brought up and asking questions as they arise. Then, I (the teacher) give them some think time to consider the big ideas they think they might want to remember about our discussion. They think it over in their brains, maybe discuss with a partner, and then I ask them to make a record of what they want to recall in their notebook. I don’t have a designated format for this, I ask them to create a record that is meaningful to them. Students might restate things in their own words, draw pictures, create metaphors, note important examples and non-examples, etc. I’m actually not sure what they will come up with, which I find intensely interesting. The goal is for students to create notes that they can make sense of later as they look back through them. Following this process, we can, as a class, discuss some of the ways they noted their understandings.
There are a number of things that appeal to me about this process of note-taking. First, students are present during important discussions . No longer will they be frantically transcribing what I write. Instead, they will be invested in understanding. I also think the time to synthesize is key to learning. Giving students freedom to record their thinking in a way that makes sense to them is exciting. This is not only a skill that will serve them well in many areas of life, but it also serves as a formative assessment. I can see how they are linking ideas or how deep their understandings are. I do think that it may be necessary to discuss different ways you might record your thinking, but I don’t think I need to prescribe particular forms. For example, I might suggest that diagrams or examples could be helpful or that they might consider creating a metaphor or analogy to help them make sense of an idea, but they don’t have to.
I think this process aligns well with my goals for note-taking to serve as a metacognitive tool and an artifact of their learning. However, in order for notes to serve as a reference from which to study, I think we must discuss how one might accomplish this. Not all students know how to study. If we expect students to later reference their notes, we should take time to share strategies for studying with notes. For example, I read through my notes, discuss ideas with friends, do practice problems, etc.
As I think some overarching guidelines for note-taking in my courses, here is where I am at:
- Discuss the purpose and process of note-taking with students. The note-taking process should not be taken as a given. Let students understand why it is important to note their understandings and think about what they are learning. Furthermore, students may not know how to use their notes as study aids. Discussing the studying process with students is important!
- Provide time for students to think about what they intend to write prior to writing. Don’t expect students to transcribe what is said as it is being said. Multi-tasking doesn’t work well. Also, it is really hard to know what you do or don’t understand if you are worried about recording rather than understanding what you are hearing/discussing. Students need time to think. The writing process is used to further refine their thinking and to record their ideas for future reference.
- Don’t force students to take notes in a particular format. Notes must carry the meaning for our students, not for us. Allow students to experiment and reflect on those experiments. Also, provide space for students to share their note-taking strategies with one another so they can expand their repertoire.
So there it is. I’ve thought through why and how I want students to take notes. I’ve reflected on the past and created a process for the future. I’ve also tried out this process myself as I read articles for work. Instead of taking notes as I read, I read and then pause, think about what I want to take away, and then go back and note some ideas. I link to other ideas that are relevant, note ways I might draw on the ideas for particular projects, etc. I have enjoyed the process and I think it is making me think more deeply about what I am reading. I am looking forward to trying this out with students.
Professional Learning Opportunity: Take some time to think about and jot down your own process and rules for note-taking. Remember, these are not set in stone, you should revisit them to see what is and isn’t work. Revise as needed or as you get new ideas!
I’d love to hear from others regarding your purpose and process for note-taking. Feel free to discuss your thoughts and experiences in the comments.