Should students be taking notes?

Organising Students - Should students be taking notes? Image of a hand writing notesIn our conversations with students lately, we’ve noticed a shift in discussions around note taking. Not only do our students need encouragement and guidance in how to take notes (that is normal!) but many students are also uncertain whether they should be taking notes at all. Sometimes this is because they have tried it and weren’t convinced it was helpful, but it can also reflect a classroom policy of (either intentionally or unintentionally) which deemphasises note taking in favour of other modes of learning.

In certain respects, note taking can seem a bit old fashioned and oriented around a ‘rote-learning’ approach to the classroom. And if teachers are opting to shake things up in the classroom to reflect a range of learning styles, that is going to be very helpful for a lot of students. But, from our experience of teaching our students the whole picture of how we learn — what we call the Learning Cycle — and from the perspective that what we are cultivating here are not just study skills but life skills, good ol’ fashioned note taking is indeed still good, even if old fashioned.

In this blog post we will address the questions of why students aren’t taking notes, and why they should. If this is a conversation you have also been having lately with your child or your students, read on. In a future blog post, we’ll look at strategies for getting started with note taking, with a focus on those students who may find it more challenging or who aren’t being given the space for it in the classroom.

Why aren’t students taking notes?

Sometimes students don’t take notes in class because they are distracted, disengaged or because they find it difficult. However, for some students it can reflect the reality that their class time is not oriented around much or any note taking. We haven’t done an exhaustive study investigating why this is, but from our conversations with students and educators we suspect it comes down to two main reasons:

1. A shift towards using a wider range of learning methods to aid student engagement. Teachers are placing more of an emphasis on ‘learning through doing’, such as completing activities, answering questions, problem solving, group discussion. These are all important elements of learning and many students tell us that they find this style of teaching very helpful.

2. A shift that started during the Covid years and has continued to shape both the students and the classroom. During periods of lockdown, teachers had to make a lot of learning resources available to students online. They were also unable to directly oversee their students taking notes, and it was easier to check students’ work by having them complete and submit activities. For students who were in early secondary school during this period (now in year 11 and 12), a crucial opportunity to develop this skill was missed. At the same time, this mode of teaching may also have been transferred back into the in-person classroom, with a lot of resources being provided for students and therefore little felt need for note taking.

Each of these factors shifts the emphasis in the classroom away from note taking, and the combination of the two of them can have the consequence of squeezing out note taking altogether.

Why take notes?

Organising Students - should students be taking notes in class? Image of a student taking notes in a classroom

Before we answer this question, we need to be more precise about what note taking is.

Here’s our working definition: note taking is capturing information by putting it in your own words and arranging it in a way that makes sense to you.

That is not the same as copying information down word-for-word from the board, slides or a textbook i.e. it is not rote-learning. Copying can be a step in the process of note taking, but as we often discuss with our students the process shouldn’t end there.

With that definition in place, here are six reasons note taking is still an essential skill for all students, both at school and in life:

1. It is the first step in the Learning Cycle: Before they can learn information, students need to be able to capture it and have a reference handy to continue the learning process.

2. It starts the process of creating study materials for ongoing revision: As we always discuss with our students, note taking often starts in the classroom but it doesn’t end there! Creating summaries, charts, mind maps, cue cards etc. all emerge out of the note taking process.Organising Students - should students be taking notes in class?   Image of a student studying notes

3. It is a test of understanding: Have you ever had the experience of thinking you understand something, and then trying to explain it and realising that you don’t? Note taking, done properly and in the student’s own words, has the same revelatory function.

4. It is an assumed skill at University: At University, the volume of information that students are expected to learn greatly increases. This results in a significant reliance on the lecture model of teaching, another ‘old fashioned’ method which has stuck around because it is highly efficient at communicating a lot of information in a reasonably short space of time. Universities may be altering the format slightly by producing pre-recorded lectures or breaking them down into smaller segments, but it is essentially the same teaching style. In addition, Universities rarely provide pre-made revision resources to students as it is expected that by this stage students will have the skills to make their own.

5. It is a ticket to being able to learn anything, anytime, anywhere: If we really do want our students to become ‘life-long learners’, as many schools proclaim, we need to be passing on this skill. It is especially important for being able to learn in an informal context, as in the absence of structured course content it is always available to you to read or listen to something, and then jot down a few key points or a summary in your own words to help you remember.

6. It is a life skill, not just a study skill: Sometimes when discussing note taking during a coaching session, I might ask the student where they think I learned to create the notes I send out after each session. The answer is that I learned this skill in school! There are many jobs that assume this skill, whether that’s in sending or keeping notes for clients, compiling key points of information to share with a team, taking down minutes or critical things to remember from a meeting, and probably much more. Secondary school is a great time to be developing this skill which students can then be taking with them into the future.

If all this helps to convince you that your student really needs to work on developing their note taking skills, then stay tuned for the next blog post which will have some more practical strategies.

And in the meantime, don’t hesitate to get in touch if you would like to learn how we can assist your student with this through our coaching.