Effective Note Taking Strategies: A Smart Literacy Strategy for Secondary Students

Teaching students effective note taking strategies is a vital component of building life-long, independent learners. Note taking is a simple and smart literacy strategy for secondary students to use to take ownership of their learning. This week of the 6 Smart Strategies for Student Success PL Series is all about Strategy 2 – Effective Note Taking Strategies.

Teaching students effective note taking strategies is a vital component of building life-long, independent learners. Note taking is a simple and smart literacy strategy for secondary students to use to take ownership of their learning. This week of the 6 Smart Strategies for Student Success PL Series is all about Strategy 2 – Effective Note Taking Strategies.

Why Note Taking is a Smart Literacy Strategy

We can all agree that because of technology, the economy’s changing rapidly–think about the seismic shifts brought about by AI over the past couple of years alone.

In order to prepare students for the future economy, we need to shift focus from what to learn to how to learn. Our students’ future in the workforce will be a series of learning new jobs or learning new techniques for doing their old ones. They won’t be doing the same thing the same way for thirty years like our grandparents did.

Life-long learners will be the most successful in the emerging economy. Literacy is key to preparing our students for that success. Effective note taking is a necessary skill.

Effective note taking requires students to synthesize and summarize information, interpreting key ideas and anticipating questions. Effective note taking goes beyond transcription–it involves information processing.

Cornell notes are a simple and effective note taking format. In the spirit of keeping it simple, that’s the format I’ll use to discuss

Effective Note Taking Strategies

Cornell notes involve a three-column structure, requiring students to pick out key concepts and ask questions, identify and elaborate on main ideas, and summarize the notes on totality. Cornell notes look like this:

Teaching students effective note taking strategies is a vital component of building life-long, independent learners. Note taking is a simple and smart literacy strategy for secondary students to use to take ownership of their learning. This week of the 6 Smart Strategies for Student Success PL Series is all about Strategy 2 – Effective Note Taking Strategies.

I like them because they’re easy to teach and students can easily make them for any subject using notebook paper.

I recommend three phases for teaching your students how to take Cornell notes. This strategy is scaffolded and relies on the gradual release of responsibility model.

Effective Note Taking Strategies Phase 1: Modeling the Process

I’m going to demonstrate this method with a lesson that you can grab for free here.

The world history teachers at my school have been implementing this model of note taking. It was painful at first. Students fought it because “I don’t learn that way.”

Teachers were worried because they felt they were falling behind county pacing in a content-heavy course.

Seeing the phases through is a slow process. Building and then removing the scaffolding takes time. However, once students practice and it becomes natural, the agency they gain as independent learners allows for the course pace to speed up as students take ownership of their learning.

The initial struggle has big pay-offs.

Phase 1 has 6 Steps:

1. Start with the first content lecture you give during the school year. Copy the state standard (or portion of the Course and Exam Description for an AP class) that it covers into the first slide. Add the substandard beneath it.

2. Highlight keywords from the substandard. I use green for the verb, red for words that students will need to define, and blue for words students need to be on the lookout for examples. These are their cues. Next week, we’ll discuss standard annotation further.

Let’s use Ancient Egypt as an example. This standard is our guide:

SSWH1 Analyze the origins, structures, and interactions of societies in the ancient world from 3500 BCE to 500 BCE.

The substandard we’re considering would look like this:

A. Compare and contrast Mesopotamian and Egyptian societies, include: religion, culture, economics, politics, and technology.

3. Set up your Cornell Notes on the second slide. You can do this digitally or handwrite them and take a picture. It’s important that you only have your outline at this point. When you lecture, you’ll be modeling each step of the process. For our purposes, these notes will be over Egypt, and they will be five pages long–one page for each word in the substandard highlighted blue. The setup may look like this:

Teaching students effective note taking strategies is a vital component of building life-long, independent learners. Note taking is a simple and smart literacy strategy for secondary students to use to take ownership of their learning. This week of the 6 Smart Strategies for Student Success PL Series is all about Strategy 2 – Effective Note Taking Strategies.

4. Go through each slide, one at a time, and pull out information from the slides and readings and videos (if any) that you’ve linked on the slides. Every time you add new information, use a signal color. Mine is red. Make a copy of the note slide and add it to other presentation areas where information about the category is discussed. Be sure to change the text color to black. Only add new information in your signal color. Here is the difference between my notes on politics on slide 13 and slide 43 (this will be a big presentation because of the modeled notes slides–remember, we’re demonstrating every step of the process).

Teaching students effective note taking strategies is a vital component of building life-long, independent learners. Note taking is a simple and smart literacy strategy for secondary students to use to take ownership of their learning. This week of the 6 Smart Strategies for Student Success PL Series is all about Strategy 2 – Effective Note Taking Strategies.
Slide 13
Teaching students effective note taking strategies is a vital component of building life-long, independent learners. Note taking is a simple and smart literacy strategy for secondary students to use to take ownership of their learning. This week of the 6 Smart Strategies for Student Success PL Series is all about Strategy 2 – Effective Note Taking Strategies.
Slide 43

5. After going through the process for each category, I realized I’d been remiss. My presentation excluded economics. When the horror of not teaching everything I was supposed to in previous years dissipated, I saw this as a learning experience (for me and the students).

Why not let the students point out that they had no notes on economics at the end of the presentation? As a class, brainstorm what to do about it. Guide the students to conclude that finding information on omitted information is up to them. They decided to watch a World History Crash Course film on Ancient Egypt. We pulled information about the economy from that.

This is a crucial step. If students are pulling their note outlines from the standards, they’re responsible for getting the information. This is a beautiful example of scaffolding up to independent learning, and it came early. Always be on the lookout for teaching moments like this.

6. At the end of the presentation, copy a slide of each completed category of notes. The first one should be fully completed (summary and all). The others will have all of the category notes completed and some of the key concepts. You’ll use the first to exemplify, the second to model doing in front of the class, and the remainder to practice with the class and partners.

Teaching students effective note taking strategies is a vital component of building life-long, independent learners. Note taking is a simple and smart literacy strategy for secondary students to use to take ownership of their learning. This week of the 6 Smart Strategies for Student Success PL Series is all about Strategy 2 – Effective Note Taking Strategies.
Completed
Teaching students effective note taking strategies is a vital component of building life-long, independent learners. Note taking is a simple and smart literacy strategy for secondary students to use to take ownership of their learning. This week of the 6 Smart Strategies for Student Success PL Series is all about Strategy 2 – Effective Note Taking Strategies.
For Modeling and Practice

When you model this for your students, instruct them to set up as many notebook pages as they need for Cornell notes. Walk them through each step, talking aloud and asking them questions to prompt thought.

For example, when you project the standard, say something like, “This tells me what I need to know about Ancient Egypt. I can see I’ll need to make a category in my main ideas for Culture. What else do I need to make a category for?”

Students should also be taking notes along with you as you go. Model, and ask questions like, “What do you think is important for us to know about Egyptian Culture based on the information on this slide?”

Don’t forget to grab the sample lesson!

Effective Note Taking Strategies Phase 2: Use Standards to Create Note Outlines Collaboratively

In Phase 2, you’re not introducing anything new. You’re implementing gradual release by guiding students through collaboratively setting up their notes, allowing them to take the notes collaboratively, and providing them feedback throughout the process.

An easy way to set this up for a lecture is to embed slides into your presentation that prompt students through each step. When you’re setting it up for a reading, create a set of slides just for this purpose.

1. Begin with the standard already highlighted and the Cornell Notes already outlined. It can look something like this:

Teaching students effective note taking strategies is a vital component of building life-long, independent learners. Note taking is a simple and smart literacy strategy for secondary students to use to take ownership of their learning. This week of the 6 Smart Strategies for Student Success PL Series is all about Strategy 2 – Effective Note Taking Strategies.
Teaching students effective note taking strategies is a vital component of building life-long, independent learners. Note taking is a simple and smart literacy strategy for secondary students to use to take ownership of their learning. This week of the 6 Smart Strategies for Student Success PL Series is all about Strategy 2 – Effective Note Taking Strategies.
  • After the first example, set the words you’re adding to animate in so that they don’t appear on the screen when the slide appears. Use the standard to ask the class what the title of the notes should be. When they answer, animate your title in. Students may not have chosen the same title you did and that’s fine. Explain why you chose the title you did. If students chose an appropriate title, they should keep it. This will demonstrate that there’s no one right answer.
  • Next, ask the class what the first topic should be. When they answer, animate your text in and provide your explanation.
  • Then ask them what the subtopics should be. When they respond, animate your text in and provide your explanation.
  • Last, set a timer for a specific amount of time, pair students up, and ask them to create Cornell note outlines for the rest of the standard. When their time is up, place the pairs with another pair and time them as they share their outlines. Let them know that they’re free to discuss and make changes. When time is up, groups should share their outlines with the class as you provide feedback.

2. Project the next substandard, but don’t highlight the text. It can look something like this:

Teaching students effective note taking strategies is a vital component of building life-long, independent learners. Note taking is a simple and smart literacy strategy for secondary students to use to take ownership of their learning. This week of the 6 Smart Strategies for Student Success PL Series is all about Strategy 2 – Effective Note Taking Strategies.
  • With the same partner, ask students to pull the key verb, terms to define, and terms to find examples for out of the substandard. They can create a three column chart on a mini whiteboard or use a piece of paper and highlighters to accomplish this.
  • When their time is up, call on students to identify key terms for each category (verb, definitions, examples). Either write those on the board or pre fill a slide with the highlights already complete and advance to it.
  • Give partners a set amount of time to use the categorized terms to create their Cornell note outlines.
  • Merge partners with another pair to discuss their outlines.
  • Then discuss outlines as a class.

3. Present the content, ensuring that you offer cues and pauses in appropriate places to give students time to process and paraphrase the information. Periodically stop to allow students to share their progress with their partner, then their group, and then the class.

This phase can be repeated depending on the needs of your students.

Effective Note Taking Strategies Phase 3: Use Standards to Create Note Outlines Individually with Periodic Teacher-Checks

This is the release phase. By Phase 3, students should be adept at taking Cornell notes from lectures. That does not mean that teacher guidance won’t be needed. Here are some tips for guiding and holding your independent note-takers accountable:

Tip 1: Continue to implement cues and strategic pauses during lectures. If students aren’t given time to process information, they may revert to transcription.

Tip 2: Circulate the room and offer targeted feedback. If you don’t understand why they’ve organized their notes in a specific way, ask for clarification on their thought process. Redirect when needed. When you notice that a student has done something particularly well, use it as a quick exemplar.

Tip 3: Hold students accountable. Give periodic open-note formative assessments. Implement notebook checks.Require students to submit a Cornell note summary as an exit ticket.

Tip 4: Continue to project the standard as students are setting up their Cornell notes. Even independent learners need to understand what they are supposed to be learning.

Always remember that learning is a personal journey and that every student comes to you at a different point in their journey. Some students will reach phase 3 before others. Continue to support students who need it and remove the support for those who don’t.

Support can be as simple as you noticing that a student is lost while the majority of the class has reached phase 3. You may need to return to phase 1 with that student by showing them your notes on the current topic and talking through the process again. This can be done with small groups, as well. Modifications like this don’t require a lot of bells and whistles. Just continue to model your thinking and provide struggling students with examples. Then have them practice.

The goal for each student is independent learning. It may take some longer to get there, and it may not happen during a single school year, but we should constantly be guiding them in the right direction.

Think about how you can use this smart strategy in your classroom to improve student literacy. I’d love for you to reach out and let me know how you plan to use it in the coming year.

Don’t forget to come back next week for the third literacy strategy, standard annotation.

Email
Facebook
Pinterest
Twitter

You might also like...


Welcome! Stay a while and browse classroom-tested tips, strategies, and resources that will take your teaching to the next level!

Learn More

Want Access To The Free Resource library?

Sign up, answer the short survey, and get the password!