Episode 9 – Taking notes and engaging with content

In this episode, I discuss the importance of teaching our students how to take notes well and engage with content for learning rather than simply consuming it. I talk about some of the key aspects of good note taking and why it is effective in improving learning when done well and why it helps prepare students for a life-long learning.

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Taking notes and engaging with content by Daniel Jackson is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 4.0 International License.

Theory

  • Taking notes requires the learner to:
    • Be selective of content that is important for the learning outcome
    • Organise this content into some form of system for later revision
  • However, note taking also:
    • places a significant cognitive load on the brain, as the student listens/watches and takes notes with more information coming as they write. – Annie Piolat et al

Why?

  • Taking notes will help students as they want to quickly refer back to something that they have already covered
  • It mimics real life, where we take notes for later referral. This could be a meeting, conversation, or when we do our own research to learn about a new topic.
  • It helps prepare students for a future when they might need to learn a new skill or piece of content as they learn how to identify key ideas and concepts and how to string them together themselves.

How?

It is important that we remember the cognitive load that note-taking adds and adjust the process to help students focus on the new items and connecting them rather than trying to listen and write at the same time.

One way to help this is to show students how to interact with the content. If it is a piece of text, explain how to identify key pieces of information, and highlight, circle, underline etc the text. Get them to write notes on the text or arrows for how concepts connect.

Make sure any notes taken are not verbatim but instead are the key ideas written in their own words

Pam A. Mueller and Daniel M. Oppenheimer found that “laptop note takers’ tendency to transcribe lectures verbatim rather than processing information and reframing it in their own words is detrimental to learning”

Try to make sure that notes are not taken live. I.e. don’t ask students to take notes while you talk. This will increase their cognitive load and make the processing and learning or information or skills difficult.

Instead

Record what you would normally speak or present as either a video or audio that they can then control… ie) pause, rewind, fast forward etc as they take notes. This will help to reduce the load and allow them to focus on structuring the information and making connections.

Note taking is also very specific to its context. Notes in Science, for example, have a different focus to those in art or history. So it is important that you teach your students how to take notes for the subject matter at hand and learn to adapt their notes to the context and the learning goals/outcomes.

One example of note taking is the Cornel method, which is used a lot in flipped learning. Here students break the page into 3 areas, one with the general notes, one with the key terms and ideas that come out of the notes and the last area as a summary of the page.

I would also recommend including guiding questions or comments. When I flip I often use tools such as EdPuzzle and Insert Learning because they allow me to guide the student’s notes and keep them focused. I might ask open-ended questions from the reading or video that helps them identify key items and then another that helps them connect them.

I can also highlight key items as they watch or read so they know that it is important and should pay attention to it.

It will also show me if they have learnt the information and concepts etc as I look at their answers… before class.

I also like to get my students to mind-map items to show the connections between items and group them together. This helps them structure what they have covered for better memory and learning.

Give it a go

  • Choose a lesson and take some time interacting with the content you will be giving the students to allow for it to be interactive and teach the students to take notes from the content.
  • If you can, present the content as either a text, audio or video… or better yet, provide all 3 and let them choose what they prefer.
  • Set up some form of system to help them with the note taking, whether that be Cornel, or simply a series of questions that help them to focus on the key items that need to be connected. This can be a simple question sheet.
  • This note-taking should be modelled, taught and have the students progress to simply having a piece of paper to write on as they develop this skill for your context or subject.

Give them time, make note taking a regular habit that you help them create and perhaps it will help them later in life as they look to learn a new skill or as they analyse new information they want to learn.

References

Piolat, A., Olive, T., & Kellogg, R. T. (2005). Cognitive effort during note taking. Applied cognitive psychology19(3), 291-312.

Mueller, P. A., & Oppenheimer, D. M. (2014). The pen is mightier than the keyboard: Advantages of longhand over laptop note taking. Psychological science25(6), 1159-1168.

For more information on the importance of context for taking notes, see also:

Hattie, J., Biggs, J., & Purdie, N. (1996). Effects of learning skills interventions on student learning: A meta-analysis. Review of educational research66(2), 99-136.

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