On student note-taking and determining importance

I was walking around our media center, excited to read over my students’ shoulders as they worked on an integrated project. Within five minutes, both my teaching partner and I had lines around us with students waiting for conferences. A hum fell over the space, but not the hum of productivity – the hum of frustration! Our students had no real idea of how to research or take notes, at least not independently. I used their frustration to hook their interest in learning how to take notes, and spent most of the next nine weeks teaching them how to take notes. I used the Q-Notes strategy that I describe in this post. The rest of the year we focus on reading and taking our own notes versus using the handouts I had used as a single subject teacher, and it was good.

The next year, I started out with note-taking strategies and found that my students struggled with the Q-Notes. My teaching partner found a different strategy, Boxes and Bullets on Learnzillion, and we tried that with the students and still they struggled. The root problem was not the note-taking strategy, but that these students had a real difficulty in determining what was important and what was not in the text. Their difficulty was in creating a filter for the onslaught of information, something that they will need to do for the rest of their lives. I thought a great deal about how we read informational text as adults, and realized that I was going about note-taking in an inauthentic way. I have never taken notes on an entire article, chapter, or nonfiction book in my adult life unless it was an academic assignment; however, I read nonfiction text all the time as most adults do. I read to be informed about issues that matter to me, or to solve a problem that I might be having – in other words, I read to answer questions. The fault was not in my student’s note-taking skills, so much as it was in their questioning skills.

Aha! Students were trying to take notes for me, and not themselves. This is possibly the root of all school problems.

At the beginning of the next unit, I put the standards students were supposed to master up on the Promethean Board. We discussed what they meant, and any unfamiliar words. I then asked students what questions they would need to be able to answer to prove that they had mastered the standard. I modeled the first one, and then had students work together create questions for the rest of them while I circulated. We had a great conversation about thick versus thin questions and answerable versus debatable questions. During sharing time, we agreed upon a set of questions we would use for our note-taking/research for the unit. We then discussed what resources were available in class, and that students were to focus their research on these questions – this is what we agreed was important to know. Students not only used the class resources, but they shared helpful internet resources on Edmodo. It was an amazing, student centered experience.

Once I switched my focus to teaching my students how to create good questions, their notes became more focused and their research improved dramatically.  It did require some scaffolding, and practice over the next several units but students really responded and it had the added benefit of creating student ownership of the content. I continued to expose them to different styles of note-taking, and then encouraged them to use the methods that worked best for them. We would meet about their notes throughout the unit, having them compare with other classmates and discuss what was working for them and what was not. It was better.

This year I’m going to start with the idea of generating questions to frame the research/learning that we will do over the course of a unit. I plan to use the QAR framework to create a common questioning vocabulary and to use Webb’s Depth of Knowledge chart and these stems to help students develop more meaningful questions. I want to help students to recognize that the structure of informational text can also be used to determine if a piece will be useful in their research and how that might change or guide their note-taking.  I will continue to expose students to a variety of note-taking structures until they find what works for them. The last piece to implement this year is a note-taking conference that will happen during each unit or project, where students will select their best example of notes so that we can evaluate their progress together and set goals.

How do you help students take good notes, independently?

5 comments so far

  1. Alicia Perkins on

    I am so happy that you are returning to blogging! I found your blog about a month ago and cannot tell you how excited I am to use your strategies in the upcoming school year! I will be in my seventh year of teach fifth and sixth Social Studies and have searched for years for a blog like yours! Thank you so much for taking the time to share ideas and experiences. I look forward to reading more posts!

  2. mrsgannon on

    Thank you! I appreciate your kind words.

  3. Clare on

    I am starting my 3rd year teaching 6th grade social studies and have found your blog to be very helpful! I too am thrilled you’ll be blogging again. I like your idea about discussing the learning targets and creating questions. Would you say it is somewhat similar to Cornell notes?

  4. mrsgannon on

    It is very similar to Cornell Notes, just a little more self directed and the summary isn’t always included.

  5. Beth on

    My sister just introduced me to our blog, and I am thoroughly enjoying each post! While reading your blog, I myself have so many of my own a-ha moments! Thank you for blogging!

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