Critical Thinking

2 Ways to Encourage Better Note-Taking

Do your high school students think that taking notes during class means writing down everything you say? You can teach them effective note-taking skills that increase their engagement.

March 20, 2023
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As a science teacher I hate lecture days. They’re boring, they require a lot of energy, and inevitably I find myself repeatedly answering the same questions. Additionally, I need my high school physics students to be able to make connections between ideas, but this is often a challenge, as they tend to focus only on the surface structure.

Note-taking is seen as a passive way of acquiring knowledge. Too often, students take notes ineffectively because they believe they should copy the information. And they do exactly that, word for word. When the lecture moves fast, they’re so focused on copying that they can’t process the content. But it doesn’t have to be this way.

Here are two strategies I use in my classroom to drive student engagement and problem-solving bell to bell.

Retrieve note-taking

Retrieve note-taking leverages the practice of retrieval. Retrieval is simply asking students to recall from their memories using only their brains. 

Lecture: First, I give the lecture as normal. Much to my students’ surprise and chagrin, they’re not allowed to take any notes at this time. It’s important that the information I present is long enough that students aren’t just regurgitating information from their working memory, but short enough to allow for the rest of the activity. 

The first time I tried this was when I was discussing the rules of light for curved mirrors. These notes included sentences that described each rule, as well as visual representations. Because it was the first day of the unit, I added this lecture to two smaller chunks—first for concave mirrors, then for convex ones. This kept the volume of content manageable for students.

I’ve also done this with complex problem-solving. Most recently I shared with my calculus-based students that we would be having a notes day. I was going to present the derivation for an electric field in standard lecture format while students copied the example. This example  was similar in structure to a previous derivation for electric force. One of my students was happy that she wouldn’t "have to do much.” I decided immediately that we would do retrieve note-taking. Due to the many similarities to an earlier problem of the previous day, I presented the entire problem rather than in chunks as I had done for the light lecture.

Retrieve: Next, I ask my students to write down everything they can remember. I emphasize that it’s OK if they remember only one thing. Since this is a science class, we leverage multiple representations—drawings, words, equations, or any combination. 

Collaborate: This is where the magic happens. After exhausting their memories, my students discuss their notes with their peers. Through discussion, they add or change their notes as needed. Because each student will remember different parts of the lecture, this activity brings the class together as they piece together the entire content from the lesson.

Additionally, through these conversations, students immediately are tasked with thinking about and explaining the ideas from the content or problem. Points of clarification emerge within student groups, and they feel like they have to remember; they’re not asking me to tell them the answer. The best part is that since the focus has shifted from furiously copying all of the details to spending time with the content, students begin to see the big picture.

‘Notes to your future forgetful self’

The second strategy is one I’ve adopted from Building Thinking Classrooms, by Peter Liljedahl. Instead of telling students to copy their work into a notebook, I prompt them to “write notes to [their] future forgetful selves."

Recently we discussed solving motion problems with an energy approach. In these problems, students were expected to define the types of energy present at the start and end of the motion in question, which then created the mathematical model necessary to solve the problem. 

The following day, students gathered in groups of three at vertically mounted whiteboards around the room. I presented a problem of an object moving with some initial velocity, then going up and around a track with a vertical loop. This problem required the core skills from the first day, but also required the students to dig into their prior learning about circular motion, which increased the complexity. 

When the writing slows, I tell my students if they are “done or stuck to take a walk” and discuss with their classmates. This process takes much longer for them than solving the problem in a traditional lecture, but I hear my students coming to their own realizations through discourse. It also allows me the opportunity to see where their thinking and misconceptions are in real time. 

 When my class has finished the problem, I prompt them to “write notes to your future forgetful self.” I follow this up with “What was something that made you say ‘Aha’ as you were working?” “What was a conversation you had with a peer that reminded you of an idea you did not think of initially?” “These are the kinds of things you should document so you can work on your homework tonight.”

In a traditional setting, I might have students sit back and wait until I finish, then pull out their cell phones to snap a picture of the problem. Surprisingly, while I observe students referring to boards as they write notes, few feel the need to pull out a camera.

The first time I tried these strategies, I was anxious about the amount of time they took. The payoff is worth the time. Not only are my students working through later problems more efficiently, but also they’re working more collaboratively and trusting their own genius.

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  • Critical Thinking
  • Teaching Strategies
  • Science
  • 9-12 High School

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