Helping students take notes

During many classes, I would look around the room and be baffled at how few students were taking notes.  Many just sat there, watching me teach as if I was a television show.  So, I have taken the initiative and told students about how to take notes and what they should take notes on.  The following are ideas from Harry K. Wong and Rosemary T. Wong’s The First Days of School: How to be an Effective Teacher, which is written for teachers in all subjects and of all grades, and from my own experience.  I would be happy to hear more of your ideas too.

Taking notes in class

The Wongs suggest that you give students a method to take notes–they prefer the Cornell note taking method.  This method and other methods that I have encountered all incorporate the same principles: organized notes that are easy to read, easy to see key points, and an easy to find summary of the rest of the notes.  This note taking method also helps students review their notes quickly, and find relevant information quickly.  In my experience, I think students need to be convinced of the value of note-taking too: that it is the quickest way to review for a test or quiz.

In Classics, we also deal with a lot of foreign names of people and places, so I make sure to include the correct spelling of important people and place names on the powerpoint or chalkboard so that they can accurately include these in their notes.  I often also show a map with the places labeled to provide more context–a practice based on my love of the maps in the Landmark Thucydides book.  I tell my students that is why the names are on the board.

At some point during the semester–during the first few days and/or after the first test–I mention to students what it makes sense to take notes on (i.e. what I view as the main ideas) and that they should not simply copy the information from the PowerPoint because I will share this with them through BlackBoard.  This advice helps students prioritize what to take notes on so that they are not writing down everything that I say.  Additionally, at the beginning of each class, I help students prioritize by giving them an overview of what today’s class will focus on (i.e. a few questions or two, or the major grammatical concept).

Taking notes from the textbook

The Wongs suggest that students survey the material by looking at the headings or skimming the textbook to see what the reading is about and where it will go.  As part of this surveying practice, students should ask “What is the section about?”  As they read the section, they should answer this question.  After they read the section, they should write this answer down to review the material in the chapter.  Personally, I find this very idealistic and most college or high school students will not do this.  Therefore, I tend to provide students with my own set of questions that they should try to answer from the reading or a list of important names from the reading to pay attention to.  This is very helpful when students read literature and there are fewer headings that help students see what they will be reading.  It also helps students cope with the many long lists (i.e. Homer’s Catalog of Ships in Iliad 2) or the many names that may not be all that important (How much do we care if they know who Nisus and Euryalus are? or the messengers in Athenian tragedies? We each have our own preference).  Many students have said that they found these reading questions very helpful when going through the readings.

Of course, this all comes back to a point I mentioned earlier: we need to also tell students why to take notes.  If they see no value in it, they will not do it.

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