Sunday, June 25, 2006

How do you have students take and use notes?

This is a huge problem at our school! Our students have never learned how to effectively take notes in class, and then how to actually use them for completing homework and studying.

When I was in high school (and even college), all I did was write down what was on the board and important things said by the teacher, and it was clear to me how to use these notes to study from. I don't know how or when I learned to do this - and, since I don't remember learning how to make sense of this, I don't have a good idea of how to teach it.

The "just write it down and study it" method does not work at all for most of my students. I can get them to write things down pretty well, but I have had no success with getting them to actually keep and use these notes effectively. My students end up having binders stuffed with notes and handouts, but whenever they need to find something, they start at the beginning and flip randomly through it until they either find it (rare) or give up (frequent).

This coming year, a colleague of mine and I have decided to have students organize their binders conceptually instead of chronologically. He will do this for Geometry and I will do this for Algebra 2. Our idea is that, at the beginning of the year, we will come up with a conceptual structure for the entire year, and students will be required to keep their binders structured that way. For example, Geometry may have the following categories: Points, Lines, Planes, and Angles; Triangles; Quadrilaterals; General Polygons; Circles and Spheres; Logic and Proof; Synthesis. These will be the sections in their binders. Additionally, there will be a summary sheet at the beginning divided into these same categories. At the end of each lesson, students will be asked to file their notes in the appropriate section (this will be scaffolded away as the year progresses), and to make an entry on their summary sheets. Homework and other handouts will also be filed in the appropriate section, next to any relevant notes.

We think that this will help students access their notes much more effectively - which will encourage them to actually use them for studying! For example, if they see a problem with a diagram of a right triangle and a missing side length, they may not know what information they need, or when that information was taught (do we even remember when we taught what?) but they will know to look in the "triangle" section. Then, if their notes are complete, it should be a lot easier to find something useful.

Any thoughts on this? Has anyone tried this? How do you get students to effectively keep and use their notes?


Anonymous said...

The organized notebook is definitely a step up in study aids--I require my college freshmen to do much the same thing in my basic statistics class. Some students also benefit from having a flowchart or diagnostic table that leads them through the process of deciding what type of problem they have and which technique they use to solve it. Constructing such a chart might be a good way to organize a review session.

Darren said...

The Cornell Notes system, used extensively in AVID programs, is pretty nifty. I'd recommend looking into that--as well as AVID, for that matter! From what I read in Joanne's book, your school seems ideally suited to an AVID program, if there's room for it in your catch-up schedule.

Dan Wekselgreene said...

I agree.. I've learned a lot about how to teach math from watching the English teachers at my school in their quest to teach reading. A good reader doesn't need to activly employ strategies to understand a text, because their brain does it for them simply and easily; therefore, when you're a good reader, it's not intuitive how to teach poor readers correct and useful strategies. Deconstructing the reading process has helped the English teahers be more successful in scaffolding reading instruction.

I find the same thing to be true in math. A "fluent" math person is usually able to automatically diagnose, classify, and begin working on a math problem. If I see a right triangle with an angle and a side given, my brain instantly fires off a "use sohcahtoa" message.. or for a harder problem, it may take a few seconds or minutes of mulling it over.

I've realized that, for many students, even if we have just been studying trig properties, the connection is not so obvious or easily made. I need to figure out a way to deconstruct the process that a fluent math thinker goes through when presented with a problem, and then figure out a way to teach the process to my students. I think this would be similar to Polya's problem solving method, but that approach works for more open-ended, higher level problems. I need something that will make a student go, "Oh yeah, a right triangle with a missing side... I need the Pythagorean Theorem!"

Your flowchart idea might really help out. I'm going to try it either this summer or in the fall.

Dan Wekselgreene said...

Darren, we do teach our students the Cornell Notes system in our College Readiness class (that all 9th graders take). We've tried over the years to employ it in math, but never with any better results than regular note-taking. I think it's because we always focused on how students take notes, and not how they organize and use them later on. I saw many beautifully done Cornell Notes tossed in the trash at the end of class.

That being said, I do think that playing with some different ways for students to actually digest what they are seeing and hearing in class is essential.. and also to think about how the expectations we have of students from year to year should be well scaffolded.

This summer, I am going to try something I saw in a recent NCTM journal article, where the notes page is divided into columns (concepts; examples; background information), and has an essential question written at the top. I hope that this, combined with the conceptual restructuring of the binder, and more explicit coaching on how to use notes will yield positive outcomes.

Anonymous said...

My experience is in teaching science to college students, but a lot of the issues are the same. It is always amazing to me to see how many students never review their notes or only review them before exams.

I think that's the key skill you need to give them -- to actually USE their notes. I've found that with first-generation college students, if it isn't "worth anything" they don't realize it could be important and they don't do it. They are a lot less likely to review or recopy notes, or to create flashcards or other study aids.

With that in mind, you may want to think about having them turn in their notes occassionally or on a "spot check" basis. You could also require that they rewrite their notes, or require that they create study guides (or as mentioned before, flow charts).

I think that the key is to encourage their use of the notes as explicitly as possible, and to explain what it is supposed to do for them.

Dan Wekselgreene said...

I have definitely seen the "if its not worth points, why do it?" effect in my students. I do plan on assessing their notes, and collecting the entire binder to be evaluated as a portfolio (which will have a rubric as soon as I make one!).

However, I think this points to the much larger issue of intrinsic vs. extrinsic motivation. We struggle with this a lot at DCP. Will forcing a student to use their notes (through grades, punitive consequences, etc.) translate to higher achievement on exams, which will in turn inspire the student to continue on with these habits after the extrinsic motivators are removed (i.e. they go on to college and are not under our thumbs anymore!)? I think this is an unstated, underlying philosophy of a lot of what we do, but I'm not convinced that it works like that.

I wish I knew more about developing an intrinsic motivation for students - or, more about helping students who are motivated make connections between their short term behaviors and their long term goals. Why will many of my students complete a study packet for a unit test only if the packet is worth "points". They know that a single homework assignment is relatively meaningless compared to the weight of an exam, they want to do well on the exam, and yet there is some disconnect that happens which I have not been able to identify.

Rudbeckia Hirta said...

Dan, just as you mention in your comment about breaking down how experts read or how experts do math, I think you also need to apply that reasoning to note-taking and note-using.

I say this because, despite having been a good student, I have NEVER looked back at a note I have taken in class, and I still find the process of note-taking to be fairly mystifying. Eventually (in college and grad school) note-taking became an activity that I would do during the class period to force myself to pay attention; the archive produced was just a by-product of that process. In classes that were easy to pay attention to, I never took notes. The only reason that I took notes in the first place (especially in high school) was that it was what was expected of us as standard classroom behavior.

In most of the math and science classes that I took, instruction followed a text-book pretty closely, so if I ever wanted to look something up, I would just check the book. The book had the advantage of having an index. :)

For your students to be better note-users, they probably will need explicit instruction in what to do with notes.

Anonymous said...

You can't expect students to have organized notes if your presentation isn't organized... so the first thing to do is to make sure that your teaching is presented in the way you want the students to keep the notes.

The second thing is to grade them on the notes. Make it count.... maybe 5-8% of the total grade. Have every student turn in their notes at the end of class, and hand them back out with a check, a check plus, or a check minus. It shouldn't take more than thirty seconds per student (which is still a lot of time but no one ever said this would be easy).

The only reason I (and several other people I know) take good notes is because a history teacher in 9th grade made us take notes on our textbook reading and graded us on the notes. He made study skills an integrated part of the curriculum.

Dan Wekselgreene said...


Thanks for your input. I agree with you, and I plan on assessing the binders as a significant component of their final grade (10%). I also agree that an organized presentation is critical. Because I am going to have them use a 3-column structure, I will present the info on the board in the same way. As the weeks pass, however, I want to scale this back, because ultimately, students have to learn how to organize info for themselves. Let's face it - in college, I can't imagine that many professors will tell students how to organize their notes, or will assess their notes. I think this removing of the scaffolding is going to be the trickiest part. I've seen our freshmen get very attached to a model (for writing an essay, for example), and then not be able to move beyond it. You know, when all you have is a hammer, everything looks like a nail.

Anonymous said...

It's good to see a maths teacher teaching how to take notes.

We got taught that at high school, but only by humanities teachers. When I got to uni to do engineering the note-taking lessons at high school about brain mapping and the like were completely useless for lectures made up of proofs and methods for solving problems.

Anonymous said...

a nice tool for the cornell notes method is

I stumbled on this approach long ago in college and found it was a lifesaver ... as was finding the column-ruled paper which made it a snap to implement.

Anonymous said...

Dan - great blog!
You wrote:
wish I knew more about developing an intrinsic motivation for students - or, more about helping students who are motivated make connections between their short term behaviors and their long term goals. Why will many of my students complete a study packet for a unit test only if the packet is worth "points". They know that a single homework assignment is relatively meaningless compared to the weight of an exam, they want to do well on the exam, and yet there is some disconnect that happens which I have not been able to identify.
- - - - - - - - - - - - -
I think a lot of this is just the short-sighted immediacy of youth.

Habit wins out in this case. Ingrain the habits of note taking by making it "worth something" to your kids, include/refer to class notes in your homework review and test prep sessions to show the connection.

When they need the skill, they will have it. Some will - like me and others here - get by without note taking. Some will need it more.

But at least they'll know what to do. This "mechanical" learning of work habits is the best that can be expected, together with imparting the course work and (hopefully) inspiring interest.

bill_carrera said...

Just running through old links while i have the time. Good ideas in the post and the comments.

I have created tests that relied on using the notes, and then didn't let students share notes. After a test or two, the non-note takers got the concept. It still felt like I was cheating somehow.