Typhani Harris | February 2014

Focused Notes: it’s not the note-taking, it’s the note-making that counts

Last week I grappled with the idea of college readiness.  What does it mean?  How do we help our students achieve it?  And will Common Core help us get there?  With this in mind, and as we move into the Common Core, it is important that we provide our students with the tools that will not only prepare them for Common Core and career readiness, but also the consistency of college readiness.  One of the most fundamental techniques that can achieve success in all three is simply: note taking.

I ask you: when were you taught how to take notes? Or were you ever taught note taking methods?  Most people I ask, confirm that they were never given formal instruction on effective note taking.  Because of our lack in proficient note taking skills and strategies, we went to class, wrote down everything we thought was important, and shoved the notes into the abyss of our backpacks, to never reappear until the night before a test when we feverishly skimmed our notes in hopes that our short-term memory would kick into play and provide enough memorization to pass the test.  If we think back to our college years we can all attest to pulling the proverbial all-nighter with a handful of notes, streaming with inconsistency and a plethora of incomprehensible phrases.

What was the teacher was talking about?  What does this mean?  Why did I write this?  By the time we revisited our notes, the information was gone from our memory, and we were unprepared for the test.  In fact, we often spend our study session relearning what we have already learned.  If we only interacted our notes instead of  just taking them, study sessions would have been much more productive and knowledge retention much greater.

The same thing occurs with our students, they just start writing things down in hopes it is the pertinent information needed to be successful on an examination.  We unconsciously encourage this behavior by walking into our classrooms daily and imparting content knowledge as our students feverishly attempt to write down everything we say.  But are their notes effective?  And what do they do with their notes after they take them?  If we do not efficiently prepare them for taking notes, and more importantly using notes, then how can we say we are successfully preparing them for college where an inordinate amount of time is spent on lectures and note taking?

Adequately teaching our students effective note taking methods and efficient study skills will address both the Common Core and college readiness.  Whether they are annotating informational text, listening to a Smarter Balanced classroom discussion, or attending a lecture in college, fundamental note-taking strategies and constructive study skills will provide them with a solid foundation for success in all arenas.

AVID (www.avid.org) uses Hermann Ebbinghaus’ Curve of Forgetting as a foundational rationale for effective note-taking and study skills.

Curve of Forgetting

Day 1: knowing nothing, but at the end of a lecture knowing 100%
Day 2: by doing nothing with the information we lose 50%-80% of what we learned the previous day
Day 7: knowledge retention continues to decrease
Day 30: you are lucky if you remember 2%-3% of the original information.

Interacting with notes each day will alleviate the Curve of Forgetting

After Day 1, review the information for at least 10 minutes.  Use this time to interact with the notes by chunking sections, writing questions, and/or highlighting important information.  This will help to retain approximately 100% of the information.  Skim through notes for at least 3-5 minutes everyday for the next 7 days.  Paraphrase sections on a post-it, draw visual representations, and/or discuss the notes with a friend. This will assist in the continuation of knowledge retention.  If students maintain a consistency of reviewing notes for 3-5 minutes per day, by Day 30, the brain will only a few minutes to kick into high gear and officially commit the information to memory.  So, it’s not the note-taking, it’s the note-making that counts.  Make the notes work for you!

Now, how do we get our students to consistently review their notes in a manner that it becomes second nature and subsequently accompanies them to college?  Make it part of their day.  Whether it is a sponge/warm-up activity, exit activity, used during a quiz, or given as homework; help your students to habitually interact with their notes by making it an expectation of the class.

The following are some note taking methods and strategies for note interaction derived from “Focused Notes: The Cornell Way”.

Have students:

  1. chunk their notes by topic.
  2. go through and highlight important information, check off things they already know, and put question marks by information they still need help with
  3. read their notes to a friend and discuss similarities and differences in their notes
  4. put questions in the margin that can be answered by that section of notes
  5. use their questions as a class quiz
  6. paraphrase sections on write on a post it note
  7. make connections to other readings or lectures
  8. create visual representations of main concepts
  9. separate main ideas from details by adding color (underlining, boxes, circles)
  10. brainstorm a list of pertinent vocabulary
  11. create an overarching question that addresses the notes (this is considered the Essential Question in AVID strategies)
  12. answer the overarching question at the culmination of the notes

The Cornell Way is a codified technique for focused notes that has evolved from Walter Pauk’s original “Cornell” note-taking system devised in the 1950s.  Since then, the term “Cornell” notes has been loosely passed around and often misinterpreted as simply two-column notes with a summary.  To address the frequent lackadaisical approach to the research-based system, the use of an essential question was developed to summarily synthesize the notes.  Consequently, the summary’s purpose is to answer the essential question as opposed to mere regurgitation. The underlying principle is that we teach, foster, and encourage our students to interact with their notes, not just take them.

If you conduct a web search on focused notes the Cornell Way, you will find a vast amount of information to help your students build comprehensive notes.  These note taking methods and strategies will not only help prepare students for annotating informational test and actively participating in the Smarter Balanced class discussions, but will assist them in college readiness by being prepared to attend collegiate lectures.

 Next Week: Teacher Talk

Life Long Learners: the quest to practice what we preach

As educators we need to be life-long learners who are in a constant state of change, revision, and renewal.  We can’t possibly teach the way we did a decade ago, we can’t even teach they way we did last year.  We need to be the proponents of change, which means we need to embrace the ideology of life-long learning.

About the Author

Dr. Typhani Harris, author of Putting the Performance in Performance Task and Stop Teaching, brings over 2 decades of educational experience to The Institute. Originally a high school English Language Arts teacher, Dr. Harris transitioned into a dance educator who cultivated an award-winning collegiate style dance education program at a public school in California. Prior to joining the Institute, she was an educational leader and instructional coach specializing in preparing new teachers in secondary urban schools.  As the Chief Academics Officer, Dr. Harris maintains courses, conferences, and the accredited certification program at The Institute.