10 Strategies to Assist in Developing the Soft Skill of Note Taking

Amy Konen
Elementary School Teacher

Do you have students in your class that become frustrated when they are asked to take notes on the material you are presenting? Do they try and write every single word that you say and ask you to repeat your words to try and capture it all? Do they become overwhelmed and simply not write anything down? Is that because they are slow writers or is it because they cannot decide what is the most important thing to write? If you answered yes to any of these questions, then you are not alone. Some of my students will tell me that they are concentrating so hard in writing what I say that they do not hear my current instruction while they are trying to write. Truth is that students have an average writing speed of about 0.3 to 0.4 words a second while a teacher speaks at a rate of 2-3 words per second. So, the students will never be able to write fast enough to write down everything that is being said. (Piolat, A.) Research also tells us that students' performance can improve with effective note-taking (Lee, Lan, Hamman, & Hendricks, 2008) When students are taught to summarize and process what is being said with a visual, they earn higher grades than when they simply write verbatim what is being said. (Lahtinen, Lonka, Lindblom,-Ylanne, 1997).

Yes, there will be times when information will need to be presented through direct instruction but not all information delivered needs to be done so in a sit and get format. Even with sit and get information, we still need to pause with our students to allow them time to process and interact with the new information delivered.

Let's look at 10 strategies that will assist us in note taking and analyzing the content.

1 - Confer, Compare, and Clarify

This strategy allows students to read each other's notes, make comparisons to what is in the notes, and then add to their own notes. I like this one because my students can see how others take notes and how they set up their recordings. I have students working in small groups of four, going through information in a social studies chapter. They take notes while they are interacting with the information. They then trade notes when done with a section and go over how their teammates took notes. They ask their partner any clarifying questions about any information presented as well. After they finish with one partner in the small group, they work with another partner within that small group and repeat the process. If there are any questions, no group member could answer, then when we debrief, we go over those whole group to make sure everyone has the same understandings. They add to their own notes and discuss why students included or did not include certain information. They discuss and add a one sentence summary of what should be in there and adjust their notes accordingly. Also during the debrief, I have the students reflect on how their notes stood up to the task. Did they have the most important information in there or did they mostly have to add on to their notes? They talk about what they did well and what they will work on the next note-taking period.

RELATED - Check out our social studies lesson plans.

2 - Graphic Organizers and Prepared Packets

"Guided Notes" are teacher-prepared notes or handouts with cues or spaces for students to fill in key information during a lecture. In a study done by Konrad, Joseph, and Eveleigh (2009) they found that guided notes provide students with a model for taking accurate and complete notes (pg. 442). I love to use these during social studies when there is a lot of information for students to keep track of throughout a chapter. These then become study guides for our tests. In addition, I love to use them during math when I introduce new vocabulary or a new concept. This helps students process the new information in a visual way that supports their understanding.

3 - Anticipatory Guides

This is another great way to introduce new material to students. I like them because it gives them some practice to interact and learn how to approach true/false statements about the content to be learned. I do not use true and false statements very often and then when my students get to their state testing, they have troubles with those types of statements. I create true false statements about content to be learned and then I have the students predict what they think based on what their prior knowledge may be. We record our answers in a column marked "before". We then pair-share, use thumbs up/thumbs down, or a chalkboard splash to record what our rationales for our answers are. My favorite is creating statements that can be either true or false depending on what evidence is presented. This creates the most engaged discussion from my students. Just like in a K-W-L chart (what I know, what I want to learn and what I learned chart), I try to revisit this chart as well and we have columns that are titled, "Before", "Statement", and "After". We fill them out as we move through the material.

4 - Picture Notes

These are meant to complement the written notes we took and not replace them. I have a group currently working on a social studies chapter about the New England colonies. They read the material together as a team and I support. I then model the note taking process for them to help this group get the necessary information written down. I then have them take a concept from that section of the reading and we do a "picture-pause". In order to draw a picture, they have to effectively consolidate the concepts about the New England way of life, governments, religious beliefs, and culture and then be able to explain their picture to a peer in their group. This sharing proved very important because one student really got it and the other only had partial understanding and was struggling with his drawing. By sharing, he could gain more information and create a stronger picture. In order to make this more effective, it is important for the teacher to select strategic points in the information to be presented that would be good for stopping and processing. Plan for about five minutes for this picture pause. When we finish with this whole chapter on New England Colonies, the students will take all their drawings and create a "big picture" drawing along with a summary statement below that picture too. We will end with the students presenting their big picture drawings to their small groups and then bigger groups to ensure everyone has the same information.

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5 - Lecture T-Chart

Students make two columns and on the left side take their notes. For my kids in need of accommodations, I have the notes already there for them on the left side. I then have stopping points planned throughout the lesson to allow for students to read over their notes and summarize in the right-hand column. They can use a quick-draw or words to do that. I also include pair-sharing so they can talk to a partner about what is in their summaries and this helps students be more thorough in their understanding of the information.

6 - Reflection Logs

This is where you divide lessons into logical sections and create a template to record the processing of each section. The teacher stops the lesson at each pause point and then ask students to take two or three minutes to provide a brief written summary and explain what was presented. When I do this, I then have kids stand up and move to share with someone. After a few minutes, we also share out whole group. By doing this, students have a movement break and time to process material. This is particularly helpful when the information being presented is overwhelming or when there is a lot to be covered. These movement breaks and share outs help kids have time to interact with the new material and process it as it is presented. In addition, it helps with stamina for the students when the presentation relies heavily on teacher-presented or lecture material.

Reflective Writing - University of Hull

7 - Pause, Star, and Rank

This activity allows students to review their notes while the material is fresh in their minds. They can clarify what they wrote while they can still remember why they wrote it. Students are asked to place stars next to the most important concepts. They then select the three most important concepts and create a summary sentence for each concept. Next, they work to rank the three summary sentences chosen in order of importance with one being the most important. We share our choices in a pair-share and then share out whole group in a chalkboard splash so they have another opportunity to write down the important summary statement from the material presented. I like this one because I can do it anytime when I have a few minutes and it does not require any extra preparation from me.

8 - Key Word Dance

This is another activity that allows students to review their notes while the notes are still fresh in their minds. The students review their notes and underline a specific number of keywords that are essential to understanding the material in the chapter or lesson. Once they highlight certain words, they make them "dance" by writing the words in the form of a poem. For my fifth graders, I have to model how to use repetitive phrases to make it more poem-like with their words. I also include a pair-share so that kids can borrow words from each other when they talk with each other. What I like about this is the higher-order thinking that occurs as the students are analyzing their notes and developing criteria to choose words for their "‘dance".

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The teacher creates a prompt that asks students to make a judgement and using the content, take a position to defend. Display the prompt while the students are filling out their template. I give the students a paper with a giant square divided into four sections. In the first box, they give their opinion and explain their reason for that opinion. We then pass our papers to the right and read what is in that box. We then fill in a second box with another reason that would support that new person's response. We pass our papers to the right again and now read Box one and Box two. In Box three, the students add an opposing rationale (whether they agree with that rationale or not). In the final step, pass the papers to the right again and students add their own opinion with supporting rationale in the last box. Now we return the papers to the original owner and share out some of the arguments for and against the original opinion.

10 - Cut & Pastes

I love to use this one for activities where we identify prefixes and suffixes. I challenge them to use as many prefixes and suffixes as possible in a word with as few base words as possible. I then have the kids work through what the base word means and then ask them to add the correct prefixes and suffixes to the base word. Finally, we go over how it changes the word and its meaning. My students love it when I can change up a lesson in grammar by adding in scissors, glue and cutting. It breaks up the monotony of a worksheet and allows them to use higher order thinking when they have to justify why their choices make sense to them.

Effective note taking is a critical skill that is learned. It is important to take the time to teach it to our students so they feel equipped to handle the pressures of middle school and high school classrooms they will be entering. It is our job to support their acquisition of this skill and by using some of these ten strategies, your students will use higher-order thinking skills to process content being presented.

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  • Konrad, M., Joseph, L.M., and Eveleigh, E. (2009, August). "A meta-analytic review of guided notes". Education and Treatment of Children, 32(3), 421-444.
  • Lahtinen, V., Lonka, K., Lindblom-Ylanne, S., (1997). "Spontaneous study strategies and the quality of knowledge construction." British Journal of Educational Psychology, 67(1), 13-24.
  • Lee, P., Lan, W., Hamman, D., Hendricks, B. (2008, May). "The effects of teaching notetaking strategies on elementary students' science learning." Instructional Science, 36(3), 191-201.
  • Piolat, A. Effects of Note Taking Technique and Working-Memory Span on Cognitive Effort. Kluwer Academic Publishers. (2004).
Amy Konen



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