Andrea Trudeau
Students practice different note-taking strategies

“Try a version of this idea?” asked Ann Blythe, a seventh grade science teacher and a colleague of mine.

She had discovered the Cult of Pedagogy’s power lesson on successful note-taking stations at the high school level and reached out to me, our school’s library information specialist. According to Chang and Ku’s study, published in 2014, “teaching students note-taking significantly improved their performance in note taking and comprehension.” Ann and I had just collaborated on a whole-class lesson teaching annotation using the think-aloud teaching strategy. Now, before seventh grade students embark upon a major research project in English language arts, we wanted to teach our students how to take notes using note-taking stations to explore different techniques. 

In previous school years, teachers in our school taught particular note-taking strategies in isolation. As a former social studies teacher, I recall guiding students in creating two-column notes while the science teachers emphasized concept maps and the English language arts teachers encouraged annotation for current event articles. The problem? Students learned these strategies in a particular class and often only used each strategy in the class where it was introduced. They didn’t realize these strategies could be applied in their other classes to support their explicit and implicit comprehension. 

By using note-taking stations, we were excited to teach various strategies on behalf of all subject areas. No longer would these note-taking strategies be contained in subject areas. Instead, we broke the subject silos and empowered students with a menu of options. 

The power of teamwork

Ann and I enlisted a team for planning and support: teacher Kristen Geldermann as well as district curriculum specialists in social studies (Sarah Guillen), science (Dan Yablonsky) and English language arts (Ben Zulauf). As a team of six individuals with different expertise, strengths and viewpoints, we could create a well-thought-out plan that would benefit students. Staff members who were available on the lesson date volunteered to run a station for a strategy they were well versed in, and seventh grade science teachers were on hand to circulate throughout the space to support individual students’ needs and take on the role of timekeepers. 

Notable note-taking strategies

Since we had already covered “think aloud,” we chose to design our stations around three strategies inspired by the power lesson: Cornell notes, mind mapping and sketchnoting. 

Cornell notes. Devised by Cornell University’s education professor Walter Pauk in the 1940s, these are two-column notes. The first column is one-third of the width of the page where students write out key terms or phrases and the second column is the remaining two-thirds for notes. At the bottom of the pages is space to summarize the content.  

Mind mapping. Often attributed to the 2006 work by Tony Buzan, this is a diagram where content is organized visually and in a manner that demonstrates the relationships between the information presented. Mind mapping is closely connected to concept mapping, a strategy that has decades of evidence in the learning sciences based on the principle of dual coding

Sketchnoting. Created by Michael Rohde in 2006, this is a form of note-taking that uses dual coding, or using both words and visuals to make sense of information.  

Stations in action 

On the day of our activity, we created three distinct stations all around the school’s library dedicated to each note-taking strategy. At the stations, we had projection (either through a drop-down screen or tabletop-mounted monitors), tables, chairs arranged in a horseshoe formation and our materials — copies of articles, paper and pencils.

In order to emphasize the note-taking strategies instead of content for our activity, we searched for brief science-related articles from sources such as LiveScience, Newsela, Science News for Students, and Youngzine; the articles we selected were not directly connected to the students’ current study but instead centered on a topics of interest to seventh graders: poop. Bird droppings, dung beetles, and wombat poop to be precise.

In another study published in 2016 by Wang, Sundararajan, and Adesope, when students can take “good” notes, i.e. notes that capture the students’ understanding (not just paraphrasing or summarizing), students are more likely to learn the core content, even if the learning material has interesting content that is irrelevant to the learning objective (called seductive details). 

Sarah Guillen and I donned thematic hats for the content of our note-taking stations.

Students from both seventh grade teams joined us each class period for the activity, bringing their individual Chromebooks along with them to each station. We had anywhere from 10-15 students at each station at a time with the teacher seated among the students, allowing him/her to interact with all students readily. This seating arrangement and the small-group setting allowed for both increased collaboration and dialogue among members. Students who rarely speak up in whole-class lessons were observed answering questions, volunteering to read aloud articles or asking questions. 

At each station, we structured our lessons using Pearson and Gallagher’s Gradual Release of Responsibility Instructional Framework, sometimes referred to as “I Do/We Do/You Do.”  Teachers led their mini-lessons, discussing the strategy in general — what it was, the benefits of the strategy, and tech tools that could be used for the lesson. Once the mini-lesson was complete, the teacher distributed the article and modeled the strategy using a think-aloud approach. Next, the teacher encouraged the group to work together as a team to continue to apply the strategy and talk through the process. Lastly, the teacher gave students time to try out the strategy on their own while the teacher was there to provide any necessary scaffolding. In total, time spent at each station was approximately 15 minutes. At the end of the 15-minute block, the science teachers declared it was time to shift stations to learn the next strategy.

 

Sarah Guillen noted, “Students [were] highly engaged and interested in using sketchnoting in the future, especially when taking notes on media, given the inability to pre-organize subtopics since it can't be previewed. Sketchnoting allows you to go in any direction and synthesize the information through visual icons and well... sketches.”

What did our students think? 

After the lesson, we noted students’ enthusiasm for what could easily become a dry lesson. Several factors helped maintain student engagement: various teachers with their own individual teaching styles, working in small groups at stations, learning a variety of note-taking methods, the humorous content focus for the articles, and getting up and moving between stations. 

We also sought feedback from the students through Google Forms in order to better understand what the students thought of the four strategies. Results were as follows:

 

Which technique did you like best?

 

Which technique was most comfortable and practical for you to use?

 

Skills in Action

Days later, when the students were introduced to a long-term research project in English language arts, students were encouraged to apply the skills they learned from this lesson as they read various articles to better understand their topics.

One student noted that creating a mind map using MindMeister was “helpful for keeping herself organized” especially since this was a long-term project that required both a large numbers and diverse types of sources from nonfiction articles, a fictional book related to the topic, a letter from an expert in the field and videos. She felt this tool was better than traditional paper and pencil because “it’s easy to undo a mistake or unwanted add-in. ... MindMeister gives many options for formatting.” She elaborated, “With paper and pencil, you have to erase or start over, but with this tool, you just made some slight adjustments and keep going.” Digital tools helped her and many other students create mind maps efficiently and effectively, so the focus could be on comprehending and organizing the content to support their research. 

Another student said, “It was cool to learn new ways to organize information. I used to just write bullet points when I read articles without really thinking about it.  Using these strategies really help me focus on the information and what’s important.” He later elaborated, “Teachers need to realize that students may seem like they are doodling but they are really are making sense of information in pictures. ... This kind of note-taking can make understanding a topic much easier.” He hopes that educators will keep an open mind to sketchnoting and recognize the power it has for students.

Students felt that the visuals created through sketchnoting and mind mapping not only helped them better understand the material but also improved their memory of it as well. They are not wrong. Drawing can help students remember information better.

A student uses Cacoo to create color-coded mind maps for his research project in English language arts where the colors represent different sections of the article he read. 

Looking ahead

This activity was a great success based on the engagement and input from our students as well as the work they produced in subsequent research projects. For next year, we will run it again but instead add annotation into the stations to provide a look at all four strategies in a similar fashion. We also would like to do this much earlier in the year rather than in our second quarter as a means for building a foundation of note-taking strategies to be used all year long in all subject areas. 

One of our students advised: “If a teacher decides to try out these new strategies and use new tools with students, it’s important for the teacher to use it first to understand how the tool works and better help out students when they run into trouble.”


Andrea Trudeau (@Andrea_Trudeau), M.S.Ed., NBCT, is "no-shh” librarian who works in a #FutureReady middle school learning commons in Deerfield District 109 that emphasizes collaboration, risk-taking and fun. Andrea is passionate about project-based learning, literacy, innovative digital tools and resources, as well as the maker movement. Most importantly, Andrea believes firmly that the learning commons is the heart of the school, and she works diligently to help all those in her school community feel welcome, valued and connected.This post was written in collaboration with NarayanKripa Sundararajan (@KripaSundar), learning sciences specialist at ISTE.

This blog post is part of the Course of Mind project, an ISTE initiative made possible in part by a grant from the Chan Zuckerberg Initiative DAF, an advised fund of Silicon Valley Community Foundation. Tell us what you’ve learned and your story @courseofmind.