Teaching Strategies

A Guide to Teaching Effective Note-Taking

Teachers often expect older students to know how to take notes, but most need explicit instruction to develop this skill.

June 14, 2024
Johner Images / Shutterstock

Something that has become abundantly clear to me as I’ve progressed in my career is that many skills that are essential to student success are never explicitly taught, such as note-taking and studying. In talking to the high school juniors, seniors, and college students I teach, a large number of them have said that they wished their prior schooling had taught them these two skills in particular. Given this, I believe it’s essential that we as educators make a more conscious effort to build such skills in our students.

When done well, notes should aid in both studying and the initial learning of material. The act of taking notes should result in students deepening their understanding of the material, but often students do not take notes in a manner that accomplishes this.

One problem is that a lot of students believe that note-taking means they should write down everything word for word. Some students are even explicitly taught that this is what they should do, and there’s a reason that it sounds like such good advice to students and teachers alike; this method would result in students having exactly what was taught whenever it comes time to review.

However, there are two main reasons why this is a problem. First, it is a very passive form of taking notes and uses System 1 thinking, which relies on long-term memory and tends to require less effort, meaning it’s easy to write all of the information down without initially remembering most of it. In addition, it’s very easy for students to write down things they don’t actually understand when using this technique. You could very easily copy verbatim a paragraph written in a language you don’t speak, but you would have no idea what it meant.

Effective Note-Taking

The best thing for students to do is summarize the material and write it in their own words. As students think about the information that was presented to them in order to summarize it, they mentally work with the content more and incorporate more of System 2 thinking, which improves recall rates as it requires working memory and generally takes more effort. This ensures that students properly understand the material as they are taking notes.

Will there be times where students don’t properly understand it or know what to write? Of course! For those situations, students need to be taught and encouraged to ask questions so that the teacher can explain it in a different way or with more details.

For teachers who like the use of guided notes, which I personally have used a lot in my high school classes, it’s important to design the notes in a way that encourages and allows for this method of note-taking. Filling in the blanks results in very shallow processing of the material, much like asking students to write everything word for word.

There will no doubt be some resistance from students at first, but teaching them and preparing them for this method of note-taking will only help them in the long run, particularly if students are encouraged to ask questions whenever needed.

2 Additional Strategies to Aid in Note-Taking

1. Shorthand. Sometimes, students worry about having too much to write and not being able to write everything they want to while also paying attention. Using abbreviations can help with this—for example, using an arrow instead of discussing that something activates or leads to something else. Compare the following two options for writing down the same concept—one is clearly a lot quicker to write than the other.

  • ↑ cars= ↑ CO2 = ↑ temp
  • Greater numbers of cars will result in increased carbon dioxide emissions, which contributes to global warming.

By writing in this manner and saving time, students will be able to more actively listen to and pay attention to their teacher. A tip that could also be helpful for them is to write down a key for new abbreviations when they’re first used, to avoid problems such as forgetting that “MM” is referring to the mitochondrial matrix.

2. Annotation and summarization. After taking the initial notes, it also can be helpful to review them and develop one’s own entire summary of the topic. Annotating the notes with more details, writing in new examples, and emphasizing key points allow you to review the material, think about it in an active way, and improve your notes while also increasing your memory of the material.

These strategies are what common note-taking systems, such as Cornell and AVID notes, are developed around, as they increase System 2 thinking. I personally like to encourage my students to use a different color when they annotate, and I suggest that they draw attention to main ideas, draw connections between concepts, and include small notes or mnemonics (such as that exons are what is expressed) to help them remember when they later review their notes.

Finally, it’s very important that where possible, students write out their notes as opposed to typing them. A lot of research has been done on handwritten versus typed notes, and it’s shown that typing notes results in faster note-taking but worse retention and grades in the course. Not only is this because of increased distractions from typing notes, but handwriting results in deeper processing of material and greater recall of concepts.

It’s helpful to start class with some instruction on how notes should be taken; we tend to assume that students know how, but they rarely ever actually receive such instruction. It may take some time for students to get used to changing how they take notes, and many may be upset at first about “not knowing what to write,” but it can be remarkably helpful.

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

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