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Using Outlines to Support Student Note-Taking

Taking notes on readings doesn’t always come naturally to students, and having a framework to follow helps them focus on what’s most important.

May 4, 2021
Dobrila Vignjevic / iStock

Note-taking is a skill that’s critical to most reading assignments, and sound, thorough notes can help students read for deeper comprehension. The process of encoding that occurs during note-taking forms new pathways in the brain, lodging information more durably in long-term memory. Good notes can go a long way toward preparing students for tests, and they can also help reduce their stress.

But note-taking isn’t a skill that comes naturally to many students. Without explicit instruction, they can struggle to determine what’s relevant or most important—then wind up either trying to write down everything or taking notes that are too scant to be helpful.

Many teachers give students a head start with note-taking for reading assignments by preparing an outline for them that provides structure and guidance, often by including prompts for key points (headings), relevant details (subheadings), and vocabulary. That way, teachers encourage students’ interaction with the material, prevent them from feeling overwhelmed, and build their confidence in their understanding—all of which greases the wheels for learning.

Tips for Creating a Reading Outline

Select content intentionally: The challenge is finding a balance between including too much information and providing too little. As you draft the reading outline, ask yourself questions to stay focused on what’s most important—and to head off overly granular note-taking:

  • How does this heading address the content standards or course expectations?
  • Which concepts are essential for discussing the main ideas?
  • Has this idea already been examined via another heading?

Consider readability: Make the outline easy to follow; it should flow in tandem with the text. Use the same terminology that students see in the text to reinforce new vocabulary. Include specific textbook pages with helpful examples or visuals to encourage students to revisit the text. Use cues (white space, numbered lists, and boldfaced type) so that students have a sense of how much to write and what content to prioritize.

Be consistent: Use a similar structure for each outline so it becomes familiar to your students. That includes the number of pages, headings, and prompts for supporting points. Commit to making the outline available at set times (before the reading, during the reading, or after the reading) and communicating its availability to students in advance. Adhere to a single organizational style, such as providing a complete outline or a partial outline that includes some concepts but requires students to insert the missing information. Use a single writing style—e.g., complete sentences or fragments.

Incorporate active reading strategies: Give students ample opportunities to process new concepts so they can absorb the material they’re reading in different ways—and so you’re creating space for different learning needs. Ask students to rephrase material in their own words (e.g., “How would you explain this concept to a friend?”) and create analogies to explore relationships between key concepts.

Encourage students to make text-text connections (e.g, “Does this term remind you of vocabulary you learned earlier?”) and text-self connections (e.g., “Which characters or events do you most relate to?”). If understanding the reading in front of them depends on their understanding of previous chapters or resources, remind them where to go to refresh their memories. Also, offer additional exposure to the content, such as video links, diagrams, and graphic organizers so that they can absorb the information in different ways.

Plan for challenges: If you notice low performance on practice activities or assessments, encourage the student to share their completed outline early to allow time for feedback. Ask students to share their experience with using reading outlines created by other teachers. Do they always find reading outlines challenging? Are there other note-taking strategies that they’ve found easier to follow? Does the outline method work for them when they’re preparing for tests?

Although most students have had experience working with reading outlines, many may still need guidance and even practice. Provide students with low-stakes opportunities to experiment with adding appropriate information to outlines, such as examples and specific characteristics of key concepts. If you have a student who is hesitant or resistant to using the outline, share with them how the information from the outline can support study methods like flash cards. Consider showing them how content from the outline can be converted into assessment questions.

Evaluate: Assess the effectiveness of your prepared outlines. Observe the types of questions that students ask (factual, analysis, application, etc.) and when (while working on the outline or before an assessment). Consider trends, such as if multiple students leave the same outline areas incomplete, or anomalies, such as if a particular student consistently does not complete particular parts of outlines.

Ultimately, you want to look at the big picture: Does the time you take to prepare reading outlines have a clear positive outcome? That’s the point, after all: that the reading outlines you carefully create help your students with their reading comprehension and test preparation.

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

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