Have you Defined your Note-Taking Purpose?

  • Elementary
  • Middle School
Mary Moser

This year, I’ve been able to allocate some of our building hours to offer professional development on AVID strategies that we as a staff identified as our top needs/wants.  Up first, I offered Focused Note Taking, which is a growth by AVID towards a more inclusive idea of notes than simply offering Cornell Notes.

We focused on the question: “What is the purpose of these notes on this day in this lesson?”  It’s important to ask ourselves a detailed question because consider your answer if I asked you: “What is the purpose of notes in your class?”  Is your answer something close to: to help you study, to help you process what you are learning?

With such ambiguities, one wonders why our frustration mounts as the students begin to not take notes, not have paper ready on desks, not know how to study. While giving crayons to my toddler at a restaurant can satiate her while I eat, giving a pencil to a student and saying “take notes” doesn’t have the same affect in the classroom.  It doesn’t have quite the same allure.

Defining Purpose and Form

For almost everyone in the room, including myself, defining the purpose of note-taking was new.  Perhaps, I had defined the purpose internally, but I don’t think I had ever stated it out loud to the students.  I was good about modeling notes and thinking aloud, and I had students that took the notes with that extra modeling step.  Sometimes, I even explicitly had students marking a certain way because of a goal in my mind.  So, of course, it makes sense why my students didn’t necessarily use the notes once that bell rang.

Consider the following:

Ambiguous Purpose:  I need notes because I’ll use this information in an essay.

Defined Purpose:  I need to take notes on Friar Laurence in this act in Romeo and Juliet so I can determine his fault level for an argumentative essay that I will write about blame.

Unless you’re using notes as a way to keep the room quiet, the step from an ambiguous purpose to a defined purpose won’t be super difficult.  It’ll be more like a change in practice.  Now, you’re going to verbalize to students that defined purpose, instead of hiding it behind the curtain like the Wizard of Oz.

By verbalizing purpose, you can also help your students become more aware of the types of notes and how one uses notes.  The purpose naturally leads to the question: what format should I use to help me be successful?  You could work with your students to think about the different types of notes.  You could teach them the different types of notes.  You could specify the type of note you will be using and why that note format is right for the purpose.  The goal would be that eventually your students become independent and able to identify and choose a note format that makes most sense for the task at hand.

For example, with the defined purpose above, I would probably have my students take notes the following way.  I would have them highlight in pink the places in the Act that show Friar Laurence is indeed to blame for the death of Romeo and Juliet.  I would have them highlight in yellow the places in the Act that show Friar Laurence is not to blame, or at least wholly to blame for the death.  If they could write in the book, I’d have them write in the margin on why the highlight was given.  Then, I would have them move those notes/post-its to a 2-column note chart with one side being “blame” and the other side being “not to blame”.  Depending on skill level, I might also ask students to rank their evidence for its strength to convince.  This would lead to a summary that would answer the question of whether Friar Laurence is to blame, which could act as a mini outline for their eventual essay.

My Favorite AVID Tips for Finding Things Worthy of Notes

  • Wait, Wait, Hold On – Instead of having students interrupt you during a lecture, video, reading…or worse, tune out because they get lost…students mark in their notes when they get lost or didn’t quite hear something. Then, you can go back with a partner, with the teacher, or with the text and specifically find that missing information.  No interruption to the pace of the lesson.  But, clarity still found for the student.
  • PAT List – Pay Attention To – Give students items that they should pay attention to while reading, listening, or watching a source/content. This helps them focus in on what’s important without spoon-feeding them their actual notes.
  • Word Banks – Provide a list of words generated by you or the students that should be used in notes or important to your lesson/unit. This will help them find the important pieces in the sea of content, especially for your ELL students.  It gives a platform to build their content knowledge upon.

Reflection Questions

As you build a unit, or a lesson, these are good questions to start your journey on making purposeful notes in your classroom:

  • Where is note taking necessary?
  • What is the purpose of the notes?
  • Which type of notes is going to best help my students and best serve the purpose?
  • How will my students use these notes if they are successful?
  • What support will I need to offer?

In the end, asking "what is the purpose of [insert any other activity]?" will help us be better educators and provide clarity for our students.


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