My kids are awful note takers. It’s not just me, this is what they are telling me. Each Friday I ask kids to do a 6-question weekly reflection with questions like “This week I took useful notes.” For that item, students all consistently report the lowest scores over the first 4 weeks of the class. It’s clearly the biggest takeaway from doing all of these weekly reflections, so I should probably address it.

Notes were an important takeaway from what I learned when I began looking into the thinking classroom. In the past I didn’t do notes, but I had really well laid out tasks which included everything I want students to take notes on. These tasks would be organized in such away that they could review the important things whenever they studied. The act of deciding what things are important seems like an important academic skill, and by not expecting them to do this meant I was setting them up for failure in higher ed. The meaningful notes that Peter Liljedahl described echoed this:

…teachers can highlight particular parts of the work that is on the boards, but it is important that the students select themselves, and synthesize and reorganize notes on their own.

Unless of course they don’t. I’m not sure why the students aren’t reporting that they are taking notes, but I can assume that my teaching has something to do with it. I usually I rush through the notes at the end of the class, perhaps because I don’t yet stop early to give them to time to write things down. I could write a whole post around my issues with pacing and the thinking classroom (tl;dr version: “how is class over already!!!”), but maybe it would help to give kids some more guidance around the note taking process. Perhaps the reasons they are saying they struggle taking useful notes isn’t because they don’t have time, but that they aren’t used to doing it. I have been giving them some structure so far which you can see in this google doc. On the first class I gave them the just the first page, a note sheet with a few blank lines and said “Write a letter to your future dumber self about what we learned today.” I quickly pivoted to something with more structure. They got a two-page document with a number of important things that the we would cover over the whole course. It had lots of places for kids to put in things that were relevant, and they could do so over the course of the class. What I found was that kids treated it like a worksheet, looking to show me one that was totally filled out (one kid even went and googled some of the new stuff), while others filled out nothing while planning to sort of wait until later when they would “know what to write.” The last page on this is what I made for today.

Download (PDF, 23KB)

Today I decided to make it a point for kids to take notes on an important equation, the vertex form of the quadratic equation, since they will need for the project. I made a note sheet and I had the kids do it after we worked through a bunch of different quadratic equations and graphs on whiteboards. The activity they worked on encouraged them to make connections between tables and equations and we stopped with 15 minutes to allow time for note-taking. Then I handed out the note sheet above and basically told kids “We’re going to take notes now, these are going to be important later, and you can use what you see on the boards to write down the important parts”. This was definitely the best notes they have taken so far, even though some kids kept their paper blank and others wrote things they will not be able to refer to later.

So it wasn’t a complete fix to our problem with note taking, but I’m not taking it personally. It is a new routine, and it is one that contradicts a lot of norms that in the school altogether, as well as messages that the kids are being sent about school and learning. Our school is about experiential learning, so students who choose to come here probably aren’t kids who instinctively look to document things with the future mind. Kids also have some pretty damaging thoughts about how learning and knowledge happen. Ronny, who spent the whole time with a blank paper in front of him, “I already know this, so I don’t need to take notes…the right answer will just come to me later.” What a difficult set of beliefs to set for oneself. Leonardo DaVinci, Martin Luther King, Abaraham Lincoln and all these other genius needed volumes of papers to write their thinking down, but somehow when you get done learning you can skip the notes? We talked some more and he has a lot of reason to believe what he does. He is basically saying that the Regents is the only place where it is important to use what you’ve learned, and in his 11 years of experience, he was able to be successful. This way of thinking doesn’t set up Ronny for success in the future and places an impossible burden on him for when he gets older. If you struggle in college, wouldn’t it be nice to say “my notes are bad” instead of having to say “I guess my brain stopped working”? Seems like some kids don’t think of my class a chance to practice using the effort to become smarter, but as a chance to reinforce the smartness that they already have.