Teaching note-taking with notes templates

One of the questions I struggle with is “what is my class for?”  This has been a question forever, of course: is my most important lesson about Algebra, about being ready for college, about independent thinking, about forming a community, about the connection between me and my students?  It’s easy to get bogged down in this but it’s also easy to see that the answer is not Algebra alone.

One of the other things I try to teach my students is the skill of taking notes, and my approach revolves around templates for notes for each class.  At the beginning of the year, their templates will be almost completely filled out, and colorfully organized.  I use the trick of leaving everything but the f____ l____ of some words blank to give kids some ownership of the notes but to simultaneously make sure that kids have really important points written down.  There are spaces at the top and bottom of each template for a title (a super-short summary) and a summary of the class (a couple of sentences max).

A complex notes template

A complex notes template (click to download pdf)

As the semester progresses, we talk occasionally about what from the class would be important to remember, and how the students could have guessed at what material to write on their own notes template.  On a couple of days in the second or third month I give them the notes template at the end of class, and we take a little time for them to realize what they missed, and what they included on their own notes that I didn’t.  And the templates get simpler.

A simpler template (click to download PDF)

Creating these templates for class every day is a fair amount of work, but I find that focusing around the template can actually help me focus my lesson.  And, in those halcyon days of my imagined future self, in which I am following the same sequence in two consecutive years and sipping white russians and reading Robertson Davies instead of working frantically until 10 PM and still going to bed unsatisfied, these notes templates can be reused.

I don’t have data for you about how well these work.  I don’t grade the notes and I don’t control any part of the experiment.  Some students say they like them, and some don’t.  I can tell you this:

  • When a student comes to my office hours and asks a question, I can ask him to pull out his notes on the subject.  If he can’t do that, I’ve immediately identified a problem in his work habits.  Better still, it’s a problem that we can manage and check in on the next week.  If he can do that, he is empowered to help himself, and good study habits are fortified.
  • I am showing kids what it means to take good notes.  They can compare their own notes to mine.  I am no longer just expecting them to figure this skill out and getting frustrated when they don’t.
  • The kids who keep all of the templates in order have a binder they can really be proud of.  It looks nice.
  • I don’t have to give kids a ton of time to accurately copy complex diagrams or equations.  I just put those things on the template.
  • You can really supplement a powerpoint presentation with the right stuff on a complementary handout.  And there are some fun classroom activities to be had by subtly changing a few of the handouts in ways that students won’t notice right away 😀

I’d love to hear of any other ideas for teaching note taking, or any responses to mine.  My method is based on the Cornell notes system.

3 thoughts on “Teaching note-taking with notes templates”

  1. I really like the scaffolding approach of releasing responsibility to the students. I think it is what I was asking about a few weeks ago over at David Cox’s blog, re: posting notes online, providing outlines, etc.
    I’m bookmarking this one to read again this summer. Thanks for sharing, Riley.

  2. I have maybe 100 of these notes templates for Algebra 2 and Calculus. I’ve thought of uploading them all, but I can’t imagine them being too useful since they are so specifically tailored to my lesson plans. They’re all in word 2010, but I could slap them all up. Maybe someone has a convert-100-files-to-PDF program?

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