George Lucas Educational Foundation
Critical Thinking

A Testing Strategy That Promotes Good Note-Taking

By testing students twice, first without their notes and then with them, a high school teacher fosters strong note-taking skills.

December 8, 2022
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How do we encourage students to study for tests and teach them valuable note-taking skills at the same time? If you’re like me, you value careful note-taking, a crucial skill that students will take with them to postsecondary education and the workforce. Yet, many students resist taking notes.

I’ve begun using a new test-taking strategy that I’ve found encourages my high school government students to take comprehensive notes, as well as study for tests. 

Using the learning management system Schoology, my students take their tests twice. The first time, they complete the assessment using only their own brainpower. On the second attempt, however, I allow them to use their notes and then average the scores. This method incentivizes studying and conscientious note-taking. 

The importance of note-taking

In a perfect world, my students would take notes on what they read and heard in class. These notes would be organized and thorough, and successfully identify the main points of the topic covered. The students would then use these notes to study for the test.

We don’t, however, live in a perfect world.

Research indicates that handwritten notes improve retention and understanding. I’ve written before about the importance of taking thoughtful handwritten notes and the reasons why I promote, and sometimes mandate, note-taking. 

With this in mind, I ask my students to use a traditional notebook in my class. Letting students know that they’ll be able to use their notebooks during the test is a great motivator for them to keep orderly and well-maintained notes. They know that the better the notes, the better they’ll do on the assessment.

What’s more, students become more receptive to learning note-taking strategies. When I give lectures and pointers on ways to keep a more useful notebook, students are often eager to listen. After all, they want their notebook to serve them well come test time. 

Setting up the test

Administering my tests using Schoology allows me to modify the settings so that students have two attempts. I also adjust the automatic grading so that the average of the two attempts is taken as the grade.

The bulk of the test consists of matching, multiple choice, and true/false questions. Schoology grades this immediately upon completion. The short-answer and essay questions require my review.

Studying is still key

The term open-notebook test may conjure up thoughts of students frantically copying down the whole textbook and never once stopping to actually learn what they write. The test-averaging method avoids this scenario by requiring students to first take the test sans notebook. They use only the knowledge they’ve acquired through classroom work, homework, and studying. 

Students know that to secure a higher grade, they must first do well on the test using their knowledge alone. This determines their first score.

When students understand that the two test scores will be averaged, as opposed to the highest score being taken, they’re motivated to do well the first time, and they prepare accordingly.

After they’re finished taking the test without notes, I allow the students to use their handwritten notebooks. The repetition of taking the exact test twice also helps them to internalize the material.

Points to remember

Note-taking is a learned skill. Too often teachers tell their class to “take notes.” Kids need to learn how to take good notes. Consider ways to help your students take better notes by doing the following: 

  • Give a lecture, with examples, of effective note-taking
  • Grade notes
  • Provide feedback on notes
  • Give periodic open-notebook quizzes that will help students get a feel for how to prepare beneficial notes

Use it often or sparingly. Every class is different. Teachers should gauge on a classroom-by-classroom, assessment-by-assessment basis whether this method is appropriate.

  • I use the test-averaging method for several key assessments I feel would profit the class as a whole.
  • Each teacher has to judge when this method would be the most useful.
  • My students know from the start of the semester that they might be able to use notes on tests, but I don’t always tell them for which assessments in particular they’ll have the privilege. 
  • I’ve taught my subject enough to know that this method works particularly well for a few assessments that ask the students to learn some rather tricky historical details.

Technology is essential. Let your learning management system do the heavy lifting.

  • I couldn’t employ the test-averaging method without my learning management system. It does the hard work for me. That said, all short-answer, essay, and open-ended questions must be graded by me. 
  • If you don’t have a learning management system, consider doing this on a short quiz, only periodically. Otherwise, you’ll burden yourself with too much work (you’re essentially doubling your grading).

Think about time. Taking a test twice in a row can be taxing for students, as well as time-consuming. Keep this in mind when creating the test. 

  • Gauge how much class time you have.
  • Create a test that allows students enough time to think about questions deeply without having to rush.
  • Remember that students will be taking the test two times.

I still grade. Not all questions can be answered by a machine.

  • My tests almost always include subjective short-answer questions. I tell the students that if they’re comfortable with their first response, they need not answer the question again on their second attempt.
  • However, if they wish to rewrite the question using their notes, I will review and grade each response.
  • Because of the time constraints of taking the test twice, I eschew lengthy essay questions and incorporate questions that require a paragraph response.

The test-averaging method has been very successful in my class. It’s essentially a test retake. Students, especially those who struggle, benefit from taking certain assessments a second time using their notes.

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  • Critical Thinking
  • Assessment
  • 9-12 High School

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