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Teaching Students How to Take Notes – Moving From Mechanical to Effective

by Alexandra Recasan on December 18, 2014


Improving Note Taking Techniques (With Some Resources and Tools to Help)

Effective note taking can make a genuine difference in student learning. Teaching your students to use good essential strategies and adapt them to their learning style is a must.

As a new lesson starts, students are faced with three main challenges. One: active listening to information (at first unfamiliar). Two: Transcribing that info fast enough to keep pace with the lesson flow. Three: Organizing the data to reflect the overall concept. This is not a simple task. No wonder important ideas are often “lost in translation”.

Note-taking isn’t just a way by which teacher info gets to students. It’s a skill. A skill that needs encouragement, strategy and preparation since when it comes to exam time, chance really does favor only the prepared mind.


Encourage your students to prepare in advance

Being unfamiliar with the material that is presented can make note-taking more difficult and can lead your students to try to write down everything. To help avoid that, advise them to read or skim the text prior to attending the lecture and strive to sort out the following.

  • Establish their objectives for next class note taking. Are they for exam preparation? Needed details for a special project? Their notes should reflect this goal.
  • Get the general overview of the main ideas and important concepts.
  • Identify unfamiliar terms and look up definitions to minimize confusion.
  • Spot the bits of material that are harder to understand and pay extra attention on those parts during the lecture.
  • Think of some questions to ask during the class in order to clarify everything.

If you are using digital materials like videos, podcasts, or interactives to provide a more blended or flipped learning approach, students should can and should still follow an approach along these lines.

Teach them to spot the key points from your lecture

If not properly guided, more often than not, students go through a real quest in order write down what matters most. Help them reach that goal by being an active partner. For example, offer a short intro at the beginning of the class to let them know what clues to follow in your discourse that pinpoint important data. You can further help them gain the overall picture by summarizing following a lecture. Also be sure to keep lectures to a reasonable length, and break them up a bit with things like digital supplements, activities, discussion, and so on.

Help them review and customize their note-taking methods

When it comes to methods, there are a lot of options out there. The trick is to guide your students in picking up the one that fits their learning style. Are they more of a kinesthetic learner, or are they visual or auditory? Run through the classical note taking methods and determine which aspects can be adopted and which can be improved or personalized.

Outline method

As WAC Journal points out, structuring notes in a hierarchy – the outline style – is the most beneficial to students, because it allows them to view important concepts in an easy-to-read format. While this method keeps data organized, it doesn’t always support the actual lecture experience, where the information flow isn’t necessarily as organized.

More approachable methods are the non-linear ones that permit your students to create their study guide as they go. These include methods like mind-mapping, the Cornell System or Smart Wisdom, to name some of the most popular.

Cornell and Mind Mapping method

The Cornell System is a good method for everyday lectures, due to its grid scheme. It’s a system and a format that builds on what is known as the 5R’s of note taking: Record, Reduce, Recite, Reflect and Review. There are no particular disadvantages or challenges with this method because of its simple structure.

For the visual learners, mind mapping helps visually identify relationships between concepts, phrases and key terms. The format is based on a main concept – placed in the center of the page – to which new ideas are added through connectors that illustrate the relationships.

Most of the non-linear note-taking methods can be used either on paper or digitally. The advantage of the digital notes being that typing allows students to take a larger quantity of notes in a shorter period of time. For the Cornell method you can print out a set of guidelines or simply grab a free template for using it online. As for mind-mapping, you have lots of options for digital notes as well as on paper use.

Sketchnotes method

Last but not least in this walkthrough are the sketchnotes – made to revamp your student’s note taking practice and make it more meaningful and interesting. It is a method that helps them make sense of information through the use of images, text and diagrams. It’s like doodling, with a purpose – that of developing the listening, organizing and synopsis skills!

You don’t have to be an artist in order to take up sketchnotes. You can use shapes and hierarchical visuals, while inserting your main ideas in the sketch with the help of containers, icons or connectors. Here’s a comprehensive video that offers hints on how to handle this method.

Encourage them to establish note review habits

No matter how efficient and smart note taking can get, if you don’t prompt students into developing a reviewing discipline, the whole effort won’t provide value over time. As for strategies, there’s no more reliable approach than periodical review and self-testing, in order to enhance memory and prepare for the exams.

*Image CC-BY-SA, source:


Alexandra Recasan is a PR specialist with 123ContactForm, the form and survey builder that helps businesses streamline their feedback-gathering and other marketing processes. She works with small businesses and educational institutions on building their forms for data gathering, information management and more.

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{ 4 comments… read them below or add one }

Ronald Gary June 16, 2015 at 7:33 am

How has the educational experience for your students been transformed since you’ve been blogging with them? Obviously it has not been transformational for everyone. I have had many students have transformational experiences

Kelly Walsh December 19, 2014 at 7:38 am

Hi Don – I did some searching through the subscriber database and found an email address I assumed may be you, and have sent a copy of the eBook (I am guessing that you can’t locate your original copy). Hopefully I found the right subscriber!

By the way, over the holiday break I will be doing a major overhaul of this resource to create a 2015 update, which will be sent to all subscribers!

Thanks, and Happy Holidays!

Don Coke December 18, 2014 at 11:46 am

Free Ed Tech Resources eBook

If I have already subscribed, is there another way to access the book referenced above?

Ritesh December 18, 2014 at 8:11 am

Nice article, very well written. Thanks for sharing great information. :)

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