Photo by Rennett Stowe on Flickr.

A recent study showed that students who take notes in longhand retain information better than those who take notes on laptops or tablets. But what about the many students, in DC and elsewhere, who don’t take notes at all?

Note-taking is a hit-or-miss proposition in DCPS schools, with no prescribed approach or requirement that teachers focus on it, according to two DCPS instructional coaches who are former teachers. But, say the coaches, it’s a crucial skill that requires students to synthesize information and figure out for themselves what is important, something their students struggle to do. Both coaches are now taking the initiative to introduce note-taking instruction to their schools.

Research has found that students who take notes and then review them recall more material and score higher on tests. While some college instructors provide notes to students these days in an effort to reduce inaccuracies, experts have cautioned that instructors shouldn’t just spoon-feed content to students. In the long run, they say, students need to learn how to organize ideas for themselves.

Providing largely pre-taken notes to students isn’t a phenomenon that’s confined to the college level. Lauren Castillo, an instructional coach at the preK-through-8th-grade Truesdell Education Campus in Ward 4, says that she’s seen a lot of teachers use “guided notes.”

Those are handouts that include blanks for students to fill in, perhaps from a PowerPoint presentation. She says that in her experience that approach doesn’t really engage kids in what they’re learning.

"My first and second years teaching I used a lot of guided notes,” Castillo says. “I was a little afraid to say ‘take notes,’ because the students didn’t know what to do.”

Needs to be taught

Lauren Johnson, an instructional coach at Eastern High School on Capitol Hill, says people often assume kids will figure out how to take notes on their own. In fact, she says, it’s an essential skill that needs to be taught.

And, she says, schools don’t often do that. “I think schools are pressed with so many requirements,” she says, “that note-taking falls by the wayside.”

Johnson is a fan of a system called Cornell Notes, which has students divide their note-taking pages into one smaller column at the left side of the page and another larger one at the right. In the larger column, students write their notes. After reviewing them, they pull out the main ideas and important points and write those in the smaller column. At the bottom of the page, they summarize the main ideas.

Students can use their notes not only for test review and writing, but also for class discussion. Johnson mentioned one English class at Eastern where class discussions have been particularly rich because the students have been able to draw on “a wealth of material” in their notes.

Johnson introduced Cornell Notes to Spingarn High School when she was the instructional coach there and is now bringing the method to Eastern. And Castillo hopes to introduce note-taking skills at Truesdell next year beginning in 3rd grade.

"Our students are often struggling to summarize and to determine the main idea,” Castillo says. “Note-taking forces them to synthesize the information that is being delivered to them and put it into a format they own.”

Abbreviations and cursive

But if students are going to take good notes, they need to learn to write quickly. One way to teach them to do that is to introduce a set of abbreviations.

This year, both Eastern and Truesdell have been part of a DCPS pilot program that is trying out the Hochman Method, a system of writing instruction that includes prescribed abbreviations for common concepts. (Disclosure: I have supported the pilot program financially and am a board member of The Writing Revolution, an organization that is promoting the Hochman Method.)

Students can use a forward slash to indicate a new idea, or an equal sign for “means that.” An arrow stands for “led to” or “results in.” While some of the abbreviations may seem obvious, students won’t necessarily think of them on their own.

Both Johnson and Castillo say they were impressed by the student note-taking they saw during a recent visit to a New York City high school that has been using the Hochman Method for several years. “I was surprised to see the kids taking such fluid and engaging notes with almost no prompting,” Johnson said.

Another way to get students to write faster is to teach them cursive. Many school systems, including DCPS, don’t require cursive anymore, and only a few DCPS and DC charter schools offer it.

Castillo says she plans to introduce cursive at Truesdell next year in 2nd or 3rd grade. Not only will it enable students to take better notes, she says, but the kids are also clamoring to learn it. “It makes them feel empowered,” she says. “They can’t read things in cursive.”

Some argue that cursive is just a quaint relic of a low-tech era that has little relevance now, and that schools should focus on other, more important things: reading, math, and keyboarding skills. Those things are important, but if students aren’t taking notes they may not actually be learning much.

Typing leads to “mindless transcription”

And keyboarding doesn’t work that well for note-taking. Students who take notes on a laptop or tablet are able to recall as many facts as students who take notes in cursive, according to a recent study. But they do significantly worse on conceptual questions.

Why? The authors of the study found that students who use laptops engage in more “mindless transcription,” writing down the content of a lecture almost verbatim. In other words, like students who are handed pre-taken notes, they don’t engage in the process of figuring out which points are important and therefore worth recording.

Instruction that relies on technology has its place, but it’s possible that many of its touted benefits—like getting kids to “own” their learning—can be achieved through old-fashioned, cheaper methods. And in the case of note-taking, those methods may actually work better.

It’s time for schools in DC and elsewhere to realize that simply pouring information over students doesn’t ensure they’ll absorb it. For that to happen, they have to actually grapple with the information themselves. And schools need to start teaching them how to do that, in a systematic way, as soon as possible.

Tagged: dcps, writing

Natalie Wexler is a DC education journalist and blogger. She chairs the board of The Writing Revolution and serves on the Urban Teachers DC Regional Leadership Council, and she has been a volunteer reading and writing tutor in high-poverty DC Public Schools.