THAT Is Not Notetaking

I am often horrified when I see teachers spend 25-30 minutes of instruction time so that students can “take notes.”

Take a moment and think about the last time you needed (originally I used the word “had.” We will talk about that revision in a moment.) to take notes for something – staff meeting, professional development, grad class? Now consider this, did someone actually tell you to take notes? Did you receive a handout? Were you using Cornell Notes?

Probably Not.

Why? Because you did not need Cornell or his notes to figure out the most important or relevant information. Instead, your listening skills helped you decode the conversation or speech. You listened, processed, and wrote the information most pertinent to what you needed to know. THIS is a valuable skill.

Instead of teaching that skill, we often take away the necessity for students to think, and we have them copy down, verbatim, what we say. We pause, wait for them to write, and resume. When this happens, students are not gaining any skill at all, and the teacher has lost valuable instruction time.

Let me reiterate that: When we allow students to copy down everything we say, and call it note taking, we take away their need to think. Additionally, we lead them to believe that they are actually “taking notes,” allowing them to find out later in life, that what they were taught is actually not the process.

Start at Application

Instead of having students fill in the blanks or copy down the presentation verbatim, try giving students the notes and starting at application. Application will yield far better results than faux note-taking ever could.

Consider this:

The teacher is presenting new vocabulary words with definitions. Students are expected to copy down each word with its definition. Students are also expected to write down the expectation for the new words. This could take anywhere from 5 minutes to 20 minutes depending on the number of vocabulary words, the length of the definitions, and the pace of the slowest writer in the class.
Instead, consider Bloom’s Taxonomy as explained by Vanderbilt University’s Center for Teaching and give students the notes so that they can start at application.


Here’s an example:

Activity: Vocabulary
Teacher “Using the new vocabulary words and definitions, complete a Critical Thinking Vocabulary Organizer of your choice.”
Student: Student chooses the Vocabulary Connections Graphic Organizer and makes word-to-text, word-to-self, and word-to-world connections with each vocabulary word.
Outcome: Instead of spending 20 minutes copying down definitions, the student spent 20 minutes making connections and learning the new vocabulary. The teacher can now have the student apply the skill to another activity, debrief with the student about the vocabulary, or formatively assess the students understanding of the new vocabulary words with an interactive activity.

The NEED to Take Notes

Note-taking is a very valuable skill. Whenever I have meetings, I take a pen and paper, no matter who I am meeting with. I understand the importance of writing things down, and even if I NEVER look at those notes again, I know that writing it down helps store the information in a way that is not possible if I simply listen to the information. Do I actually have to take notes? No. In my adult life, I have never been told that I HAVE TO take notes. Has it been suggested? Absolutely, but once it was “suggested,” it never had to be suggested “again.” That said, it is definitely beneficial for students to learn the skill of note-taking, but we need to make sure that we are actually teaching them how to think so that they can decipher note-worthy information and effectively and efficiently take notes of their own volition.

1 Comment

  1. This insightful and relevant piece on Note-taking is poignant. During my teaching I’ve often realized that the skills I possess, as it relates to critical thinking, I assume my students possess the same skills. When I learn that is not the case I find myself struggling with how do I go about teaching a skill. I don’t remember my teachers teaching me how to take notes, but I do remember my teachers telling me to take notes and that prompted me to listen intently so that I wouldn’t miss important information that I may need later on during an assessment. I like the idea of giving the students what they need in order to accomplish what I want and this method of having students start at application to teach a skill will not only decrease the frustration level for both student and teacher, it will also increase productivity in the teaching and learning environment.

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