Taking notes in class is a standard expectation: Beginning in middle school, or earlier in some schools, students are expected to record information from a text or direct instruction and use that information for another purpose—to write a paper, create a presentation, take an exam, etc. Some students take to the process easily, some need some support, and others struggle.
And note-taking can be hard for some students because the process is really complex. As Paige E. Northern and colleagues write, good note-taking “involves multiple decisions, including determining which and how much information should be included… [as well as ensuring] the completeness and correctness of ideas.”
The complexity of this process becomes even clearer when viewed through the lens of cognitive load theory, which says (essentially) that the brain doesn’t multitask well, so expecting students to listen, understand, analyze, and synthesize all at the same time is a big ask. Students need to copy slides or information (What did the teacher say?), understand (What does this mean?), apply (What does this mean in context?), analyze (What ideas make up this idea?), evaluate (Which of these ideas are important enough to record?), and create meaning or synthesize (How do I represent these ideas in a way that will allow me to remember them?).
Adding to the complexity of the task, there is often a big difference between the strategies that students perceive to be effective and the ones that actually are. For example, with the advent of flipped classrooms and recorded lectures, some students feel they can just review the recording rather than take notes, though research on college students shows this to be a much less effective way to study.
Finally, if students find that their note-taking efforts don’t result in improved grades, they may feel that the task isn’t worth the effort, decreasing what’s known as the task value: Their intrinsic motivation to take notes drops with a perceived lack of results, leading to lower engagement and less effort, experience, and skill with note-taking. Ultimately they will have less confidence in their ability to take notes at all.
Sharing the Workload
Given these difficulties, it’s clear that students need to be taught explicitly how to take notes—but teachers have another avenue for scaffolding this task, which is to have students work together.
Collaborative note-taking provides a way to decrease complexity, share the cognitive load, and increase the task value of the process. Unlike teacher-scaffolded notes, in which students are provided with outlines, slides, or study guides to fill in during the lecture, collaborative note-taking allows for opportunities for students to share their individual notes with a partner, a group, or the whole class, either during or immediately following the lecture, in order to check for understanding and revise, extend, or correct their notes.
Research by M. Brielle Harbin suggests that collaborative note-taking can “level the playing field for students entering [the] classroom with wide-ranging levels of prior preparation” and provide “a consistent access point for evaluating student comprehension and learning.” It can also improve student outcomes when used with individual note-taking strategies.
3 Ways to Have Students Work Together on Note-Taking
1. Cocreated notes. In this option, the teacher and students work together to draft the notes, writes Rachel Jorgensen. “As the teacher delivers content, they utilize questioning and discussion to elicit connections and synthesis from the students,” Jorgensen explains. “For example, rather than simply presenting a new vocabulary word, the teacher may ask students to share any background knowledge they may have as to the word’s meaning and include a student-generated definition in the shared notes.”
Asking all students to work together in one document is messy, but it allows students to ask questions as they arise. You can use one of the G-Suite options—Docs, Slides, or Jamboard—with everyone working in the same space. Mural, Lucidchart, and OneNote offer similar formats.
If the entire class works together to create a single document in real time, you’ll be able to not only monitor the choices they make but also correct misunderstandings as they work. This strategy is an excellent way to scaffold collaborative note-taking and can be very useful in short bursts. It’s also a great way to teach a specific note-taking strategy such as Cornell notes.
2. A trusted set of notes as backup to individual note-taking. With this strategy, Nikole D. Patson writes in Faculty Focus, students take individual notes, and two or three students are assigned to create a set of notes that are reviewed by the teacher and shared with the class. Have the assigned students take notes in a Google Doc that you create—that way, you can check students’ understanding of the material while you’re teaching.
You may also choose to give students a copy of your notes, with the caveat that there are errors they need to find. Working together to discover and correct your mistakes can provide a different perspective on the material.
3. Breaking things up. “Pause and partner” is a great way to use collaborative note-taking to break up a lecture. This updated approach to the familiar turn-and-talk and think-pair-share strategies provides opportunities mid-lecture—every 15 to 20 minutes—for students to compare and revise their notes. Pro tip: Provide a framing prompt like “Compare your notes about this concept, and highlight the differences in what you wrote down” to get students started.
As we noted in the Edutopia newsletter The Research Is In, “After confirming the previous finding that revising notes can boost student achievement, the researchers conducted tests to find the optimal revision strategy. That turned out to be having students revise their notes with a partner during a pause in instruction—the researchers found ‘a modest partner effect—those revising with partners recorded more original notes than those revising alone.’”
Collaborative note-taking requires that students be willing to work together and know how to do so, which requires a strong learning community. Luckily, nothing builds community like meaningful work, so collaborative note-taking can be both an outcome and a supporter of a strong learning community.
To get started, assess your students’ current note-taking skills and preferences, and engage in some reflection on what’s working and what isn’t. Next, talk to your students—present the ideas above and see what seems interesting to them. Try something, reflect together, and then make adjustments. Ultimately, you’ll be teaching your students not just academic content but also how to collaborate on important work, a skill they’ll use for a lifetime.