During my time as head of sixth form, I noticed a phenomenon. In subjects that are text heavy, where sources or novels or social theories need to be studied in detail, some students made extensive, copious and beautifully presented notes in every lesson. Their folders became artefacts – precious receptacles of the knowledge that was doled out by teachers in lessons. If a teacher tried to move on from a particular PowerPoint slide before these note-takers had copied down every last word, they would panic, raise their hand and ask for another minute on that slide. Alternatively, they would ask for permission to take a photo of the slide. At the risk of offending, I will say that the most beautiful, well-organised and comprehensive folders I saw across sixth form subjects usually belonged to girls – though not always. These students were hard-working and conscientious, but they weren’t necessarily the students who learnt the most in lessons.
After a lot of thought, I came to the conclusion that these beautiful student folders were pretty much useless. Please, bear with me. Ultimately, the proper receptacle for knowledge and skills is the long term memory of our students. Folders full of notes are of no use in the exam hall, or in real world application of knowledge. At best, they are a place where students write down the things they want to store in long term memory. They are a kind of temporary holding pan, where students jot down the salient information from the lesson in order to refer to it at a later date – perhaps in preparation for assessment or examination. This makes no sense. If the purpose of note-taking in lessons is to prepare a revision resource for a later date, teachers should obviate the need for note-taking by providing centrally produced revision notes. The cognitive load created when students are required to listen and take notes at the same time is suboptimal: the resultant split attention is unnecessary. If you want students to really listen to you, you shouldn’t also require them to write down every word you say or every word that is displayed on your PowerPoint. You want them to feel they can give their full attention to listening and understanding. Your job is not to create human photocopiers. To reiterate the point, notes in folders are completely useless unless they translate into knowledge. Notes aren’t knowledge. On this basis, we could make the argument that students shouldn’t take notes in lessons at all, as the act of doing so detracts from their ability to focus on explanations and new information; however, that argument is not quite right.
I believe note-taking can play a role in memorisation (i.e learning) but it is absolutely not useful when it is mindless verbatim transcription of dictation or human photocopying from the PowerPoint. Therefore, if we simply want students to all have a written record of the material covered in class, we should provide that. It will be free of errors and constructed by an expert. With the purpose of creating revision notes eliminated, what purpose for making notes remains? I think that note-making needs to facilitate learning in the moment in order for it to have any real utility. We have already decided that word for word note-taking is useless: this largely automatic process requires no actual thinking about the content that is being reproduced. It is merely mechanical. I think this gets to the crux of the issue: note-taking is only valuable if it facilitates thinking. How can we make sure that note-taking involves thinking?
One way of ensuring students think while making notes is to require that they be selective about what they write down. If students are allowed to only make brief notes (a few words, no full sentences) they will need to think of the best way to summarise each idea. When students take notes in this way, their writing is an externalisation of their summative thinking, rather than a verbatim replication of the verbal input. They have cognitively manipulated the content before reproducing it in a more concise form. This demonstrates thinking and at least a degree of understanding. Teachers can provide constraints that force students to aim for concision in their notes: a limited space for note-taking on each topic or simply limiting the time allowed for note-taking will suffice. Alternatively, teachers can disallow note-taking during instruction, but allow students to try to write down what they remember after the explanation has finished. This forces students to think – to recall what they have just heard. The notes may not be accurate, so they will not necessarily be a useful revision resource. Teachers will have to provide centrally produced and quality assured revision notes for this purpose. Ultimately, the point I am making is this. Teachers should think very carefully before requiring students to take notes: they might record the information on paper, but the cost of this may be that they can’t simultaneously record it in their memory.
To summarise the above, I have suggested three constraints that can turn passive note-taking into active thinking:
- Limit the space allowed for note-taking, so students must summarise.
- Limit the time allowed for note-taking, to heighten urgency of concentration during the explanation
- Disallow note-taking during the explanation, but allow retrospective note-taking immediately after the explanation to promote recall practice
An additional way to scaffold students’ thinking during note-taking is through the use of graphic organisers. I think the best graphic organiser for note-taking I have seen is the Cornell notes method. This is something I shared with all sixth form students at the outset of their studies. This method provides students with a template that allows them to order their thoughts. A Google search will quickly provide you with plenty of free downloadable Cornell notes templates.
The power of Cornell method, like all graphic organisers, is that it scaffolds the thinking process for the students. First, students are allowed to make stream of consciousness style notes in the main note-taking column. They record anything they feel is important, but they must be selective: they don’t have the space or the time for human-photocopying. Next, they add key words, subheadings or cues on the left hand column, beginning to summarise parts of the content. Finally, the summary section is used to draw out the most important pieces of information from the lesson. A good approach is to ask students to fill in this section after the lesson, possibly the next day, facilitating retrieval practice.
There are so many free graphic organisers available online and they are well worth investigating and trying in lessons. They are easy to reproduce freehand, so you don’t necessarily need to photocopy mountains of worksheets. Students can create the diagrams in their exercise books. Graphic organisers help with note-taking: the way in which learners organise information on the page influences the way they think about that information. A Venn diagram promotes comparative thinking. A mind map organises thoughts into hierarchal topics and subtopics. A timeline promotes chronological thinking. Flowcharts a great for scaffolding thinking about processes, and they can help to make explicit the causal links between stages in a complex process. In all of these examples, the graphic layout of the students’ notes makes the connections explicit. This information is the opposite of that information. This process catalyses the next process. This event happened chronologically earlier than this event. It requires thinking during the note-taking process, because students must deploy their notes appropriately within the particular graphic organiser selected by the teacher.
Notes aren’t knowledge. Unstructured and mechanical copying down does not lead to learning. However, by adding appropriate restraints, we can introduce desirable difficulty into our students’ note-taking. We can turn a mindless activity into powerful thinking. We can guide our students to summarise, compare, sequence or categorise. We can require them to retrieve information, instead of simply copying it down immediately. The golden rule is this: if they aren’t thinking, they aren’t learning.
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