Critical Thinking

Teaching Note-Taking Skills to Guide Students to Self-Directed Learning

These strategies help middle school students improve their critical thinking, in turn encouraging them to take the initiative in their learning.

August 29, 2023
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Building self-directed learning, while especially valuable for high school students, is also important at the middle school level. One way to guide your students toward self-directed learning is through a scaffolded note-taking approach, which can improve the metacognitive and critical thinking capacities that underlie self-directed learning. 

Begin by being strategic in scaffolding note-taking during the prereading, reading, and revision stages. To scaffold, start with templates you create that target identifying information, making predictions, or answering questions.

Later, move to collaborative work for greater independence in reference creation. An added value of collaborative work is the communication skills that students develop as they process, decide, and create a joint reference.

Finally, as their thinking capacities advance, encourage students to work independently or in pairs. In this way, self-directed learning develops as students take ownership of the note-taking process.


Prime your students’ brains by working with them to set goals, plan strategies, and create a reading reference. Be sure to model setting realistic goals to avoid having overwhelmed students become discouraged. After all, reading, prioritizing, and recording new information is a complex process. At the same time, setting a measurable goal encourages a growth mindset by cultivating an attitude of incremental gains.

Set the stage early on for decision-making by adding text headings, subheadings, and specialized vocabulary to your template. A two-column format highlights the hierarchy of information. By contrast, a mind map establishes relationships. Either will guide decision-making about sorting, selecting, and organizing main ideas during reading. As students’ decision-making improves, turn the creation of the reading reference over to them.

After establishing a basic reference, add questions for students to answer as they skim the chapter. When writing questions, you can spiral back to previous learning or encourage your students to consider new information. In time, model formulating questions and making predictions to build the critical thinking skills of observation and analysis. Eventually, turn this responsibility over to your students through collaborative or individual work.

Finally, after reviewing the reference document, brainstorm note-taking demands. Be sure to stay focused on the specific goal established and reviewed in class. Having students evaluate their knowledge and skills concerning the task’s requirements engages their metacognition. Challenge your students further by posing questions to encourage them to consider possible adjustments.

Reading as a critical thinking activity

Emphasizing critical thinking during note-taking increases analysis, decision-making, and problem-solving opportunities, all capacities required for effective self-directed learning.

Making decisions about information to note in their reference sheet helps students monitor their reading comprehension. Further engage analytical thinking by building in the use of a cueing system to note areas of confusion and also possible connections to previous learning. As you withdraw scaffolding, decisions about main ideas lead to noting supporting details. As they progress, your students will increase their ability to identify when their thinking process or skills impact understanding.

At the same time, establish a foundation for problem-solving during revision. For example, provide an opportunity for students to formulate questions about confusing information. Then, tap into their critical thinking skills of observation and analysis by having them identify prereading questions they couldn’t answer or inaccurate predictions they made.

Reviewing and revising

Experience tells us that students tend to bypass reviewing and revising their notes. Yet, this stage holds significant benefits for developing self-directed learning. Not only are students exercising processing, organizing, storing, and retrieving, but their mental capacity and focus time improve.

Implement the strategies of spaced study and periodic review to increase information processing, storage, and retrieval. Allowing time for mental consolidation increases comprehension and inhibits forgetting. In the end, information stabilization allows for greater critical thinking in working memory.

Next, devise a collaborative revision activity to remediate information gaps and inaccuracies. Decision-making and problem-solving develop as students process their individual notes and the text to find the necessary information. This is a good time to have students create a joint set of notes.

Include paraphrasing as a way for students to monitor their comprehension. Why? Restating information clearly and concisely indicates understanding. Equally important is the opportunity for further information analysis when paraphrasing. As class time and student motivation are factors to consider, focus on one or two note sections for instructional purposes.

Help students understand that they can expand the scope of their notes through elaborative rehearsal. Ask them to add examples to apply the information in a larger context. Then call upon their ability to synthesize the new information with prior learning. 

Reflection as a metacognitive exercise 

Exercise metacognition through reflection by revisiting the note-taking goal. As students discuss their approach and performance, they consider their effectiveness and efficiency.

Provide questions such as these:

  • Did you achieve your note-taking goal? 
  • What was one success you achieved?
  • What was one challenge you encountered?
  • What is one approach or goal you can use to address your challenge?

Include an opportunity for students to revise their notes based on the goal they identified in their reflection. Collaborative work here enhances the depths of thinking. You might assign partners to work on separate sections of the reading. Then have each pair give a teach-back to the class. This lets students take another step toward self-directed learning through comprehensive note-taking.

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  • Critical Thinking
  • Collaborative Learning
  • 6-8 Middle School

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