Teaching Students How to Take Notes

Good note-taking helps students focus in class and learn organizational skills

As anyone who has taught middle school knows, seventh grade can be an interesting time for students and teachers alike. Some students arrive almost ready to move on to high school and start conquering the world, while others seem like they would be more comfortable in the warmer, friendlier confines of an elementary school. As seasoned educators we know that they aren’t any more likely to conquer the world at this age than they are to return to elementary.

The demands of school can be a difficult balancing act. They are out of sixth grade and any sense of being an elementary student, but they are not yet in eighth grade getting ready to move on to high school. I’ve often felt that part of my job as a middle school teacher is to prepare my students for what they are going to encounter as they enter eighth grade and beyond. Their teachers will increasingly expect them to come into class ready and willing to learn and to have the required work ethic to succeed.

Unfortunately, many students are shocked and surprised at what they are expected to be able to know and do: they are expected to constructively manage their time and prioritize tasks; they are expected to have well developed study skills; they are expected to be able to work independently and with their fellow students on long- and short-term projects, all while using the latest technology. In short, they are going to be treated the way any adult who has a job would be treated. To many students this may seem unfair, and to a degree, they might be right.

Taking Note

So what is a well-meaning, well-intentioned middle school teacher to do? I tried to look at what I could do that would help my students, not only in my class, but also in school in general. Should I focus on test taking strategies? Maybe jumping in with both feet on technology usage? What about building up their self-esteem? How about making class nothing but fun, fun, fun?

After lots of thinking and debating, I decided on something that was simple and ordinary, but potentially powerful. I was going to teach my students how to properly take good, useful notes in class.

I know what you might be thinking, note-taking is not very 21st century … students don’t like taking notes…they never use their notes … it’s boring! I focused on note-taking because of the benefits to my students. Good note-taking can help improve focus and attention to what is being taught in class. It can help increase memory, retention, and comprehension, something many of my math students need. Note-taking can help students learn how to prioritize and organize material and discard unnecessary information. It can help them improve their organizational skills and can even help them increase their creativity.

Method to the Madness

I looked at different note-taking models to get an idea for what would be the best method for students in my class. I looked at several different types from the Cornell Method to mapping and charting methods and all of them had things that I liked, but didn’t necessarily fit exactly what I needed in my middle school math classroom. So I decided to take some parts from these different methods and come up with a hybrid method of my own.

I started the school year by having all of my students purchase a college ruled notebook, not a spiral bound one (I keep each period in a separate crate and the spiral ones tend to get hooked on each other.) I told them that I would be keeping the notebook in the classroom but that they would be free to come in and get it if they needed it to complete an assignment or to study from for an upcoming test.

Every student labelled their notebook and created a pocket in the back for our (semi) daily warm ups. I had each student attach a blank table of contents page to be filled out as we finish a page or section and also a goals section that they could fill out and tell what they wanted to get out of their notebook. I also informed them that there would be periodic notebook checks so as to make it more meaningful to them.

On any average day in my classroom, students will have around four different parts to their notes: a warm up, topic heading, vocabulary, and examples or practice. On some days there may be a time when I have my students tape, glue, or staple a chart or graph into their notebook if it is something that is difficult to take notes from.

Most days we start with a warm up to get the math juices flowing, it is usually something that they know from a previous lesson that will tie in with what we’re doing today like two problems on adding and subtracting integers or multiplying and dividing integers. Students complete them and share with a neighbor, then I ask for volunteers to share with the class. We do these on a separate page that goes in the warm up pocket in the back of the notebook.

When we start the lesson, I teach them from the start to write what the topic is at the top of the page or halfway down the page if that’s where we left off previously. I limit any new vocabulary to no more than four words and their definitions; any examples that we do together are done under the vocabulary (if there is any) and so are any examples that they have to do independently or with a partner.

Learning As We Go

The first couple of weeks were a learning experience for many of my students, some of them tried to write down absolutely everything and would want to start over if they made a mistake or if it wasn’t done neatly enough. So I had to teach them how to look for the important and relevant information, I even went as far as saying, “Don’t write this down but do write this.” I also had to teach them that it’s ok to abbreviate as long as they know what it stands for and that if their notes are a little sloppy that’s ok too as long as they can read what they wrote down.

As the year has moved along they have gotten better at recognizing what was important and what was not. They have gotten into good habits with their notes. The great thing about teaching note-taking is that I have also had many students come in and get their notebook to use when doing assignments and also to study when we have an upcoming test. Having them learn this useful skill will only continue to help them as they continue their scholarly journey.