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Collaborative Learning

How Collaborating on Note-Taking Boosts Student Engagement

Working together on their notes empowers middle and high school students to see how they contribute to constructing meaning in the classroom.

August 25, 2021
High school students take notes on paper and laptops in class
FatCamera / iStock

There’s a large body of research that supports a shift in the role of the teacher from the traditional lecturer to that of facilitator, where students become co-constructors of meaning as the class engages with the content. In the rapid move to online learning, many educators turned to innovative means to involve students in cocreating knowledge in virtual learning environments.

This cocreation can continue as we head back to the classroom, and whether students are participating in online or in-person learning, cocreated notes are a helpful tool to increase ownership and empower students to take part in meaning-making in the classroom.

How Cocreated Notes Work

The teacher and students generate cocreated notes as class unfolds. The structure and format may vary, but the fundamental principle remains the same. As the teacher delivers content, they utilize questioning and discussion to elicit connections and synthesis from the students. 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.

As students reveal their thoughts, they contribute information to a shared document that the class organizes together. The teacher highlights important pieces of information to ensure understanding, and this results in teachable moments that the teacher can utilize to clarify important concepts.

The following guidelines can ensure success with cocreated notes.

Select a format: There are many viable options for note-taking to share with students. For example, teachers can create blank Cornell notes through a T chart on a Google Doc. The teacher then shares this with students so they can make contributions throughout the class. Another option for shared note-taking is Lucidchart, which allows for shared creation of mind maps or Explain Everything shared whiteboards for visual note-taking together.

As the class creates notes, the teacher uses the chosen format to organize the information into reader-friendly chunks, adding bulleted lists or boldfaced headings to sections of the notes, for example. It’s even better if the students suggest strategies for organizing and chunking information.

Communicate expectations: Teachers know their students. Some classes will be able to responsibly share editing rights for the note-taking document in real time. Clear expectations can set the stage for success during shared editing. Guidelines might look like: include appropriate information only, try not to type over each other’s text, and no one should worry about spelling errors. Some classes will need to receive the notes in a view-only format and make verbal suggestions throughout class to create the shared notes.

The key is that this is a living document that’s created, edited, and revised using student ideas, direction, and voices.

Plan ahead and be purposeful: In addition to planning for the format of the notes, the teacher can identify the essential content they wish to add to the notes. Then, they can craft questions that will encourage students to provide this information as the class explores the content. These questions may vary based on the desired responses. A range of question types may best engage students, including open-ended inquiries whenever possible. Question stems aligned to Bloom’s Taxonomy can help elicit critical thinking and discussion. Bloom’s Taxonomy offers teachers the chance to craft questions that invite critical thinking, elaboration, and inferential reasoning.

The idea is to invite student-to-student discussion about the material. After the students chew on the content together for a bit, the main question is “What should we include in our notes?” This allows for student-led synthesis and increases the likelihood of retention.

Share and revisit: Once the class has polished the final product, the teacher makes sure the notes are shared with all students. The teacher can credit the class with helping to create the notes and revisit the notes often as everyone makes their way through the content together.  As students become masters of cocreated notes as a classroom routine, they can divide into smaller groups to create shared notes with greater independence. The groups submit their notes to the teacher, who pulls them together into master notes for the class to study. The intent is that the teacher and the students create the notes in a collaborative format with a focus on student voices, not the sole voice of the teacher.

Encourage simultaneous note-taking: Some students may elect to take their own notes, and this can be a positive. For these students, the cocreated notes become a backup resource to bolster their own collection of information. It’s crucial to encourage student autonomy in note-taking so that the teacher doesn’t own the knowledge. The teacher and students delve into the material together and harvest the main nuggets together. Whether this means the students rely on the cocreated document or they create their own using another medium, all participants have a shared interest in finding the key points embedded in the body of content.

Sharing ownership in the classroom involves a bit of risk. Teachers must let go of the expert role and understand that students do best when they have the opportunity to take part in meaning-making. Strategies such as cocreated notes offer a structured approach to collaborative learning in the classroom, inviting students to work with their teacher to construct meaning from content knowledge.

When students understand that their background knowledge, perspective, and critical lens are welcome in the classroom, there’s a much greater likelihood that they’ll stay engaged at a high level.

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  • Collaborative Learning
  • Teaching Strategies
  • 6-8 Middle School
  • 9-12 High School

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