Remote Learning A-Z: N is for Note Taking

You know what happens the first time you give a third grader a highlighter and a text to highlight? 95-100% of the text comes back highlighted. The reason for this is third graders loooovve to use highlighters. And many third graders don’t know what in the world they should be highlighting. This same phenomena also translates to high school: just because the teacher said “take notes,” doesn’t mean the student knows what those notes should be about or how to take them.

From about fifth grade onward, we start expecting our students to take notes, either on what we say or what they read. But many students have never been explicitly taught the point of note taking, or what makes a good set of notes. Note-taking is a skill we have to teach if we expect it to be done well, like just about everything else.

Why Take Notes?

My son was so thrilled when he found out he could bring one index card to his tests in science last year. He would spend hours painstakingly condensing everything from the unit in microscopic print on that teensy card. What he didn’t realize was that the act of rereading his material and figuring out what to include was helping it all stick in his brain.

The purpose of taking notes is to have a reference for the information you want to ultimately stick in your brain. Notes should be the most important points of something, but they should also be a way to process and synthesize new information. For so many students, they act stops at the writing and never gets to the synthesizing part. Many students take copious notes, but either they aren’t reviewed, or they are so dense that when they are reviewed, it’s just like reading the whole book once more.

What Makes Notes More Powerful?

Cult of Pedagogy has a great podcast and research roundup about note-taking. To summarize them (and others), here are some key ideas to remember about powerful note taking:

  • Note taking helps: just the act of listening and writing helps things stick in our long term memory.
  • More is actually more: even though we call it a “note,” the more complete they are, the better.
  • Teach note-taking strategies: I said that! (see above)
  • Add visuals: if you ever wondered why you like Pinterest so much, it’s because of visuals make a difference. Visuals help us access parts of our brain that we don’t thought traditional note-taking.
  • Revising, reviewing, and reflecting on notes makes them more powerful: this is a crucial piece often missing from notes, but it’s so important to make notes stick.
  • Scaffolding is important: Providing students with a template or outline helps not only teach students how to take notes effectively, but in the retention of information.
  • Handwriting beats digital, but…: the research is still sparse about this one, but what seems to ring true is it’s about whatever note-taking system works for the learner.

Read With a Pencil

This is a skill students can learn even at a young age. Reading with a pencil is essentially annotating a passage to create connections and meaning. It forces us to attend to the text (and not only an English text: this works for math too!) instead of skimming. There are tons of versions of this strategy out there, with different symbols and ideas. For young students, just circling confusing words or underlining one idea they like is enough.

Graphic Organizers

For another note-taking strategy that spans all ages, I really do love me some graphic organizers. When done right, graphic organizers are an amazing scaffold for supporting student processing of information.

To get your freebie PDF of this graphic organizer, CLICK HERE.

An important thing to remember is that not all graphic organizers fit all purposes. Before you assign one, always think about the purpose of the lesson: is it to summarize, reflect, or respond? Do I want to know what students know, or do I want to support them in making deeper meaning?

Then, think about the easiest way to achieve that goal. Sometimes an elaborate story map or flowchart can end up being more busywork than learning. In some cases, it might be an index card (virtual or not) with a sentence response.

Return Often

Notes aren’t very useful if we only take them. Writing the words down is only the first step: we actually have to return to them to make meaning and get it to stick!

Color Coding Helps!

Anyone who knows me knows how much I love to color code. Everything. But even if you aren’t like me, having a color coding system for your student to review their notes can help identify what the know, don’t know, and questions they have. Read on for a Google Doc template that can help you with color coding!

Add Visuals

As a Bullet Journal devotee, I love sketchnotes, and it’s not just because I like buying pens and washi tape. The images below are not mine; I could never do anything so beautiful. They belong to the amazingly talented Amy. I find these so inspirational in their beauty and organization. I try every month to be like her, but I’m just not.

There’s something so pleasing about these notes! My son, who hates artistic endeavors in any form, also dislikes sketchnotes. But again, it’s all about what works for the note taker. I will say this: the act of creating a symbolic representation of ideas tickles a different part of your brain and makes you think differently. Even if you don’t consider yourself an artist, encourage your students to try it. Not one has to look at them but you!

If you’ve been taking effective notes along the way, you may have noticed I haven’t provided any remote tools in a blog series on remote teaching. Remember, since notes are for the note taker, handwritten notes might give our screen-overloaded students a moment of offline time. But for anyone who’d like some resources for teaching note taking to students, here they are!

Notes in Google Docs

Google Docs is a great standby for note taking. It’s quick and easy to use, easy to share, and has all the word processing features you may need. But remember, a blank document is intimidating for anyone. Providing a template to scaffold students as they learn to take effective notes helps immensely!

This template in Google Docs takes students through the note-taking process and requires them to re-read their notes to summarize, color code, and comment with questions or confusions. The more they use this template, the more their note taking skills will improve.

Do you want a copy of this template? Of course you do! CLICK HERE.

Google Keep

Google Keep is a task management/note taking program that you may not know about, at least for student note taking. It’s available by clicking what we used to call “the waffle” in your account (the nine dots). It’s the one with the light bulb icon. There are quite a few ways it can be used for students, outlined in this article from Shake Up Learning. Here is a sample set of notes I took on story structure from the astoundingly brilliant Tim Storm.

Here are a bunch of things I love about using Keep for notes:

  • Easy : Just start typing and your notes appear!
  • Color coded: Need I say more?
  • Interactive: Students can upload images and files to annotate and add notes.
  • Visual: It’s visually pleasing, and also allows uploading of images, creating your own drawings, linking sources.
  • Reflective: Keep’s structure lends itself to review of notes, which we have already learned is key. You can go back and add more notes to anything, add any number of labels to help with organization, color code for things that are important or confusing.
  • Collaborative: in an area where Google is king, Keep also lets you share notes and collaborate with others. So many possibilities!
  • Organized: You can create as many labels as you want and then sort by those labels to only see them. In the example images below, you can see where I’ve labeled some things “Connections,” and others “Story Structure.” When I click on the label, it automatically only shows me the Story Structure Notes. Students could potentially take notes for all classes in one spot, then seen only those things by clicking the label. And when you’re finished with a set of notes, archive them!

Google Jamboard

In an earlier post I focused on Google Jamboard, the interactive whiteboard program. Jamboard is also a great option for quick close reads and notes! Simply drop in an image of the excerpt you want students to read, and let them go to town with the highlighter and stickies. And if you want to add visuals, this is the perfect place to do it!

Here’s a sample Jamboard annotation from Tim’s article:

CLICK HERE to see a PDF of this Jamboard.

We hope this helps your students make things stick! Let us know how it goes by leaving a comment below.

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