Education has changed dramatically from the days when kids in one-room schoolhouses wrote sums and letters on slate tablets, but one thing hasn’t changed — the importance of taking notes. On any given school day, your child will be inundated with information. It’s too much to ingest at one time, and yet it’s all needed not only for tests but for academic progress, as each new concept leads to the next.
That’s where effective note-taking comes in. Taking good notes helps learners process and recall important information, but in traditional schools, effective note-taking skills may not be consistently taught. At CCA, we believe note-taking is an art to be learned and individualized to the unique learning style of each student, just like our approach to education. These note-taking tips for students help them hone their practice for a sharper academic edge.
How Note-Taking Strategies Help Students Succeed
As children grow, how and why they take notes changes with them:
- Note-taking for elementary school: Elementary students taught how to take notes show significant improvements in reading comprehension. Good note-taking facilitates the transfer of information into long-term memory, builds comprehension, strengthens spelling skills and the connections between letters and sounds, and can even help teachers pinpoint problems in studying skills. Poor readers, especially, benefit when taught effective note-taking tips. At this level, children can learn to ask questions by using their notes to reveal gaps in their knowledge. Note-taking can also help young learners stay focused on the teacher and tune out distractions.
- Note-taking for middle school: In middle school, subjects grow increasingly complex. This is the time to start manipulating information — making connections among varied concepts — to make it “sticky.” As tests become harder, this is also a good time for students to learn that note-taking skills are the key to good study habits — and that makes tests less stressful!
- Note-taking for high school: High school students are learning how to organize ideas and apply them to their own thinking and ideating. Note-taking tips for exams help students recall and retain material for quizzes and tests. Effective note-taking also embeds information into the brain’s long-term memory for easy recall.
The important point is that each student must develop a system that is their own. Over the years, researchers and educators have devised many methods. None is necessarily better than another. Any student can benefit from one of them, or even mix and match for the perfect system:
- Cornell method: Summaries capture main points, details and study cues.
- Mapping: Visual arrangements reveal relationships between topics.
- Outlining: Headings and bullet points make sense of highly detailed topics.
- Charting: Facts are organized by columns.
- Sentence method: Jotting down main points captures a lot of information.
1. Be Prepared for Class
It might seem counterintuitive, but preparing for class promotes good note-taking. Yes, your student is learning new concepts that are captured in their notes, but each idea is built on one before. Help your child create a habit of getting ready for each class. Review the previous day’s notes. Scan reading assignments in advance, to build familiarity with new terms and words.
Think about questions unanswered from the last lesson, and use this class to find answers.
Preparation is a key element of the KWL method, which incorporates note-taking into an active learning strategy that promotes retention and comprehension. KWL stands for what we know, what we want to know, and what we learned. Preparation is the K, prompting learners to think over what they know about a topic before they dive in to learn more.
2. Don’t Overdo It
One of the dictionary definitions of “note” is “a condensed or informal record.” Some students feel they have to write down every word a teacher says but, of course, that’s impossible. One of the benefits of note-taking is its power to teach learners how to prioritize and organize information as they’re hearing it and as they study and process it later. Your child should never feel the need to capture every word the teacher utters or to write down notes in full sentences. In fact, you should encourage them to develop abbreviations and symbols — not all that different from texting — for commonly used words and notions.One of the dictionary definitions of “note” is “a condensed or informal record.” Some students feel they have to write down every word a teacher says but, of course, that’s impossible. One of the benefits of note-taking is its power to teach learners how to prioritize and organize information as they’re hearing it and as they study and process it later. Your child should never feel the need to capture every word the teacher utters or to write down notes in full sentences. In fact, you should encourage them to develop abbreviations and symbols — not all that different from texting — for commonly used words and notions.
3. Stay Organized With Bullet Points
Outlining is a classic note-taking method, especially valuable for subjects full of detail, subtleties and complexities. A heading — one of the main points of the subject — is followed by bullet points supporting the primary idea. Bullet points keep notes organized and can reveal at a glance the relationships between ideas. As bullet points move farther to the right under the main header, their relative role in the scheme of things becomes clear.
Bullet points offer another advantage for studying, because they can be turned into study questions. A note such as “igneous rock, molten” could become the question “From what material is igneous rock made?”
4. Express Ideas With Visuals
Maybe you remember when kids who doodled were considered absent-minded.
No more. Researchers now know that visuals stick in our brains. Through a notion called the picture superiority effect, pictures stay in our minds longer than words or text. Add a picture to something that students read, and retention of the information within three days jumps from 10 percent to 65 percent. Another theory called dual-coding simply means that our brains process the words and visuals of a new concept differently, creating two distinct pathways for recalling that information.
Children who draw their own visuals in their notes are actually learning to comprehend new material. It doesn’t matter if they have the “talent” to draw or, for that matter, if the learning coach has no artistic ability. Romeo and Juliet can be stick figures on a balcony. A lightning bolt can be a squiggle on the page or the whiteboard. When children struggle to understand an idea or a word, drawing a visual can spark comprehension.
5. Don’t Be Afraid to Ask Questions
Remember the KWL method of note-taking? The “W” stands for what we want to know. Note-taking and inquiry go hand in hand. Good notes make gaps in knowledge apparent. For instance, a heading might say, “Civil War, 1861,” and the first bullet point says, “Firing on Fort Sumter.” Your child might wonder, “Who fired on Fort Sumter, and why?” Maybe the teacher covered that point, but your child missed it. Or perhaps it wasn’t part of the discussion but your child wants to know.
No matter the circumstances, notes can be a powerful tool for teaching your child to be curious and ask questions. Many children fear that asking questions will make them look uninformed or unable to manage problems on their own. This is the time for learning coaches to teach kids that asking for help isn’t a sign of weakness but shows maturity and independence. Explain that teachers want to help, practice ways to ask questions, and review those notes so that questions become clear, and your child will be raising a hand every day.
6. Pay Attention to the Context
Your child’s note-taking system is unique and useful. In time, practice brings improvement, as the method chosen does its purpose of planting information in the brain, for recall during tests and beyond.
Even within the system your child develops, there will be times to make changes and try new things. The notes your child takes from a lecture will differ from those written to summarize a textbook chapter. Maybe a field trip was full of exciting discoveries that your child wants to write down later for retention. And, of course, as your child grows up, note-taking will become more sophisticated.
No matter how or when notes are taken, it’s important to maintain the habit and make sure that all the notes work together, like pieces of a jigsaw puzzle that fit to form a complete picture. If notes taken recently don’t make sense a week later, it’s time to make adjustments.
7. Have Your Textbook Handy
So the teacher led the class in exploring how DNA works. Your child took great notes, and now it’s time to study for the test. One of the notes states, “DNA contains genetic code.” But wait a second. Your child can’t quite remember what genes are.
Turn to the textbook. This kind of foundational knowledge is written in grade-level language that your child can understand. Learners who find reminders of basic concepts in the textbook are better positioned to continue studying and gain deeper insights into the topic.
Learners can also improve retention by taking notes while reading their textbooks. After all, who hasn’t gone through a chapter of a book and then realized that they have no memory of what they just read? Encourage your child to read one section at a time, taking notes as they go and then stopping to review the material they just covered.
8. Focus on Handwritten Notes
Typing is a necessary skill for the digital age, but that doesn’t mean it’s always the best way to take notes. It’s faster, so a note-taker can capture more points from a lecture. It’s also convenient to open a laptop and turn the day’s lesson into notes.
However, research shows that handwritten notes can be better than typed notes. First, the open laptop is a distraction, beckoning with a quick check of TikTok or a visit to YouTube if a lesson seems unengaging or difficult. Secondly, while typing may be conducive to certain models of note-taking like the Cornell method, the use of mapping or the inclusion of visuals is more difficult or time-consuming on a typed document.
Plus, people who type notes usually try to capture everything they hear. It might seem more efficient, but it’s actually gathering clutter along with the important points. Handwritten notes, because they can’t be taken as quickly, force your child to be selective. The brain works to understand relationships among the concepts being taught. In one study, students watched a TED talk. Later, those who took typed notes could recall dates and figures as well as those who took handwritten notes, but they did significantly worse when asked to explain the conceptual ideas presented in the lecture.
9. Make a “Mind Map”
Who says notes have to be linear and boring? That’s not how ideas work, so your child’s notes don’t have to be that way, either. Too often, we make the mistake of believing notes have to be written in the same order as the teacher’s lecture, but that isn’t necessarily the best way to learn.
Instead, try “mind mapping.” Ideas exist in all sorts of relationships to each other, and notes can reflect that. Encourage your child to write related concepts side by side or in thought bubbles. Put ideas in boxes, and connect the boxes with lines. Draw a tree whose roots and branches are all the factors contained within a subject.
Mind mapping is especially helpful for visual learners, who learn not only from seeing images but from creating their own.
10. Write Notes in Your Own Words
It’s a sad fact of schooling today, but 58 percent of U.S. high school students have committed plagiarism. Intentionally or not, they lift content verbatim from books and the internet, which might help them get through an assignment but does little for their comprehension.
Part of the problem, some educators believe, is that students don’t know how to take notes. If note-taking tips for students simply aren’t taught, they may believe that copying entire phrases and paragraphs is a natural part of research.
Instead, teach your learner to summarize the details of a lesson and to put their notes into their own words. This kind of rephrasing also helps a child put concepts into language they can understand, for deeper comprehension of their meaning and relationships.
Note-Taking Tips for Cyber School Students
It might seem daunting to think of something as basic as note-taking as a key factor in your child’s education, but there’s no need to worry about whether you’re teaching it correctly. There isn’t a right way or a wrong way to take notes. Instead, there is your child’s way — and that’s the important thing. At CCA, no parent is ever alone in the K-12 journey. Our comprehensive family services support families through the transition to online learning and beyond. Family mentors are CCA veteran parents who provide guidance in making the most of the CCA experience. Our Family Service Centers around Pennsylvania are drop-in sites for in-person help from administrators and guidance counselors. Learn more about how CCA offers a variety of resources to help students succeed.