Note Taking for the 21st Century

Today, I am writing in response to an article from The Chronicle of Higher Education titled “The Benefits of No-Tech Note Taking,” by Carol E. Holstead, published on March 4, 2015.  Click here to view the article.  It uses research to highlight success in the classroom using little technology, an idea highly oppositional to current trends in education, and trends that I actively support!  Taking notes is an extremely beneficial skill for students of all ages.  I believe it is a skill because it is something that can be learned and practiced in order to improve.  But, what exactly makes someone a good note taker, and why is it important?

In particular, Holstead writes that “[t]he researchers found that students who used laptops were inclined to try to take notes verbatim—even when they were told not to.  The longhand note takers took selective, organized notes because they couldn’t write fast enough to get everything down.”  The act of taking notes verbatim is extremely linear.  Words are transcribed exactly as they are heard, and it could be possible to miss something important.  When students individualize their own note taking, they are forced to be more creative in how they transpose the information.  They have the ability to make the information understandable for their own purposes.  As time progresses, students are able to practice and improve upon their note taking, for example, by using similar layouts or outlines in order to maintain consistency.  In actuality, having students take their own notes with pen and paper can exercise differentiation, because students can decide for themselves how they visually want to organize their own notes.  Perhaps this works best for older students, but starting a form of self-guided note taking in the earlier grades can help build this skill and experience to be improved upon in high school, college and future careers.

Let’s incorporate more details in this scenario.  Holstead is a college professor in the field of communications.  The class she speaks about in this article is a “Visual Communications” class.  So, does the subject matter and age level make a difference in how notes should be taken?  What are the other factors involved?

Age, subject-matter, learning type, learning disability, teacher, layout of the room, format of the class – these are all important factors to consider in students’ learning, and in particular, when guiding students on the most appropriate way to take notes.  The reason is clear: taking one’s own notes needs to be done in a way that is best understood by oneself.  Perhaps some students need to be guided in a certain direction, or need help in scaffolding the important information.  Some students may need to use technology, and others may need to use pen and paper.

Active note taking during class differentiates learning and aids in retention.

The subject-matter could make a difference.  My math classes are based upon discovery, proof and examples, so students are constantly in need of a method to visualize and compartmentalize concepts learned in class.  Sometimes I guide students into a format I feel is appropriate and useful, sometimes I give students choice, and many times, students offer their own suggestions to each other that I may not have seen myself.  We all actively contribute to class in this way.  In my class, most students take their own notes during class discussions and activities.  Students use colored pencils and highlighters to emphasize certain points and diagrams, while others create their own tables and charts to organize information in word problems.  My auditory learners “take it all in” first, and then follow-up with their own summaries and notes in their notebooks.  Students who need to use technology are free and able to use that technology to organize the information.  I’m not worried that someone will miss something, because at the end of each class, I always post a PDF copy of the notes taken on my SMART Board to my class website, which is accessible by everyone.  Students know this, but don’t use it as an excuse.  My students know they pay better attention, and get more out of the lesson, when they engage themselves in active note taking, active listening and active participation.

I recently came across a concept called “sketchnoting.”  Sketchnoting is the act of making your notes (using pen and paper) visually pleasing to the user so information is remembered and retained.  Click here to view an article about Sketchnoting on Smashing Magazine.  This article focuses on adults taking notes during conferences to share with others, but I do believe sketchnoting can play a positive role in the classroom, as well. Proper sketchnoting incorporates different colors, fonts and formats in order to highlight various points.  This article in Smashing Magazine on sketchnoting states: “you are your own target audience.”  This is absolutely true!  The note-taker needs to use grit and self-direction in order to make the notes most useful for himself or herself.  Perhaps in the future, I will introduce sketchnoting to my students.  I am interested if anyone has tried using sketchnoting, or has specific success in having students take control of their own note taking.  I consider interactive notebooks (INBs) similar to sketchnoting.  While I have not instituted INBs in my classroom, I have alway been curious about this method, and would possibly try this in the future to help students organize their notes.

An example of sketchnoting in a Statistics class.
An example of sketchnoting in a Statistics class.

Effective note taking can play an important role in a classroom that incorporates reaching all types of learners through cooperative learning, technology-based activities, and whole class discussions.  It keeps the students actively focused on the discussion, and enforces the students to creatively decide how the information should be sorted and organized.  This skill can be improved upon over time, across disciplines, and across grade-levels, and it can be individualized to fit the needs of each unique student.  As we progress in the 21st century, let’s not forget the effectiveness of paper and pen, but aim to blend various types of technologies and methods to reach each of our students.  Let’s teach and encourage our students to be effective note takers, a skill they will truly utilize and appreciate later in life.

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