Note Taking, Active Learning, and the Writing Process

Note taking is a crucial aspect of the writing process, and yet it is a skill that is often under-emphasized in pedagogical practice. Aside from exhortations to “take notes,” it is rare that instructors take time to assist their students in understanding the functions note taking serves or in acquiring concrete strategies for developing their own note taking habits. Generally speaking, note taking serves as a means of both recording information and facilitating reflection. The former is often taken for granted, obscuring the many different approaches that can be taken. The latter is often under-appreciated, and as a consequence, note taking is construed as being prior to the writing process rather than constitutive of it.

There is nothing passive about note taking. Rather, it is an active engagement with the material that has concrete benefits in its own right. Whether listening to a lecture, participating in a discussion, or reading a text, taking notes requires an attentiveness to the situation at hand, thereby unconsciously improving engagement with the material (Piolat, Olive, and Kellogg 2004). Writing notes also produces a “generational effect” (Foos, Mora, and Tkacz 1994). The cognitive tasks of sorting, coding, and arranging new information leads to stronger connections between newly received information and that which has previously been encoded in long-term memory. Note taking also facilitates the construction of more complex analyses, as notes themselves can serve as external storage, enabling students to hold more elements in mind at once than would be possible from rote memory (Cary and Carlson 1999).

These cognitive benefits suggest that a better incorporation of note taking within the writing process, might lead to more developed written analysis. Writing Across the Curriculum pedagogy is grounded in a view of knowledge that is dialogic, a view of learning that is focused on developing the capacity for critical thinking, and an understanding that writing is a fundamental tool in that development. Not taking, I would suggest, is central to the dialogic aspects of knowledge production, since it places students in a position of active engagement with the material. Not all notes are equal, but when implemented as an active learning strategy, note taking can encourage students to think critically about the information they are engaging with.

Taking notes can strengthen the analysis and organization of student writing in at least three ways.

First, many of the challenges students face when writing stem from difficulties with reading, and note taking can strengthen students’ facility with understanding the texts they are being asked to engage with. Reading notes serve as the first opportunity for students to grapple with, unpack, and understand the key concepts that they will need to conduct written analysis. There are several ways to encourage students to develop their note taking skills while reading:

    • Annotations: Incorporate reading annotation into course requirements. This can be done by asking students to make a minimum number of annotations per page, asking students to write out in their own words any sentence or concept that they underline/highlight, and asking for different kinds of annotations. For example, an English professor I worked with at a community college asked students to include one personal reaction, one summarizing annotation, and one question on each page of the reading.
    • Dictionaries: Another way to encourage close reading of texts is to ask students to find definitions for words or key concepts that they do not understand. The act of finding and writing out the definitions encourages students to pause and reflect on difficult aspects of the reading rather than skimming over them.
    • What It Says/What It Does: For each paragraph in a reading, ask students to write a sentence summarizing what is said and a sentence explaining what the purpose the paragraph serves in the context of the whole reading (Bean 2011: 170). This type of assignment encourages students to do the metacognitive work not only of understanding the text, but of understanding how analysis is structured.
    • Outlines: By reconstructing the structure of the reading in the form of an outline, students learn to recognize the hierarchical nature of analytical writing. Asking students to identify the research question, the argument, the literature review, the evidence, and the findings can also familiarize students with practices for organizing their own writing.

Second, note taking can serve as the basis for more formal, written assignments. When students have engaged in note taking that promotes active thinking, they will already have done aspects of the analytical work required of the assignment. There are several ways to encourage students to take notes that prefigure the analytical work they will be expected to do in their formal writing assignments.

    • Thesis statements: Ask students to write, in their own words, the thesis for each of the readings you assign. Doing so encourages students to view readings as arguments in their own right rather than merely as sources of information.
    • Author’s Frame: Ask students to reflect on the author’s reasons for writing, and to consider how the author’s own positionality may be informing the analysis itself, making note of places in the text that provide support for the student’s claims. As with the thesis statement, this kind of note taking/mini-analysis fosters an awareness of the dialogic aspects of knowledge production by situating the reading within an intersubjective context.
    • Before/After: Help students understand that texts are attempting to persuade them of a particular view by asking them to respond to the following questions. “Before I read this text, the author assumed that I believed…; After I read this, the author wanted me to believe…; The author was (not) successful in changing my view because…” (Bean 2011:174).
    • Summaries: Asking students to write brief summaries of the readings, in which they simply restate the essential argument and ideas of a text without quotations, both helps students to internalize the information and can serve as the basis for future analysis.
    • Diagrams: Ask students to find ways of visually representing the arguments of different texts or illustrating how different texts can be situated relative to each other.

Third, many of these note taking strategies can be employed as tools for self-reflection during the process of revising one’s own work. Ask students to take notes on drafts of their own papers using some of the above assignments. Engaging with their own text as a reader can help them to identify areas in need of stronger analysis as well as strengthen the structure and organization of their writing. Similar note-taking tasks can be incorporated into peer-review, to guides students towards providing feedback on higher order issues of analysis, structure, and organization.

In short, treating note taking as a serious analytical task offers a window into some of the ways writing and learning are mutually entangled. Focusing on the activity of taking notes helps to illustrate the linkages between reading, drafting, and revising, and throws into relief the iterative nature of writing. In doing so, we undertake the difficult work of reorienting our expectations away from products and towards process. From a student perspective, note taking offers an opportunity to learn to treat texts as vibrant interlocutors rather than dead documents to be harvested for facts. In this sense, spending time teaching note taking not only helps students develop their reading, writing capacities; it helps empower them as producers of knowledge in their own right.

 

References

Bean, John C. 2011. Engaging Ideas: The Professor’s Guide to Integrating Writing, Critical Thinking, and Active Learning in the Classroom. San Francisco: John Wiley and Sons Inc.

Cary, Melanie, and Richard A. Carlson. 1999. “External support and the development of problem-solving routines.” Journal of Experimental Psychology: Learning, Memory, and Cognition 25(4): 1053-1070.

Foos, Paul W., Joseph J. Mora, and Sharon Tkacz. 1994. “Student Study Techniques and the Generation Effect.” Journal of Educational Psychology 86(4): 567-576.

Piolat, Annie, Thierry Olive, and Ronald T. Kellogg. 2005. “Cognitive Effort During Note Taking.” Applied Cognitive Psychology 19(3): 291-312.

One Reply to “Note Taking, Active Learning, and the Writing Process”

  1. I really appreciated this post Osha. I am, admittedly, an instructor who has not probably not placed quite as much emphasis on note-taking skills as I should. While I always speak with my students about close reading and annotation, repeatedly encourage them to take notes, and offer demonstrations of the way I personally annotate, I haven’t devoted all that much time to teaching the actual mechanics of note-taking in a rigorous sense. I think many instructors (myself included) tend to think that if we focus on helping our students form good insights of class material, useful notes will naturally follow. Your post has inspired me to think about how I can place more weight on the rudiments of note-taking in my instruction.

    I also really liked your phrase “not all notes are equal.” It brought to mind some of my own experiences in school. Without wishing to insult anyone (on the severely unlikely chance the person I’m going to talk about somehow comes to read this obscure comment on this blog post), but I had a history teacher in my small-town high school who presents a prime example of how note-taking *should not* be conducted. To learn the material, he had us copy down slide after slide of his own handwritten notes, which I suspect had probably not changed in 20 years. He would pick a student to switch out the slides on the projector for the day, tell us to start writing, and then take a leisurely nap in the chair at his desk. We would always have a test the following week to see how well we had memorized his notes.

    I don’t remember much from those classes. Actually, what I remember most were my various techniques I devised for memorizing historical material rather than the actual material itself. Clearly, an approach based on a “memorization” model of note-taking is deficient. And while I do find the idea of an instructor sharing their lecture notes with the class appealing, and potentially helpful in many ways, in this situation the teacher’s notes discouraged, rather than encouraged, our own proper note-taking skills. I think the variety of note-taking methods you’ve outlined to prefigure analytical work would’ve been an enormous help in fostering actual learning in that class.

    In a slightly different vein, I do wonder how the shift to online learning has affected the note-taking practices of students at CUNY. With classes living entirely online, it is probable that many of our students’ notes are living entirely digitally as well. But juggling multiple windows on a screen during a Zoom meeting while trying to stay engaged with the class is not exactly easy. I think this provokes some interesting phenomenological questions: How does the note-taking process (and its cognitive benefits) differ when conducted by hand or by word processor? How, additionally, is this complicated by the many differences between the in-person and online learning environments? Should we encourage a mixture of note-taking mediums (e.g., annotations and highlights on a pdf + additional handwritten notes in a physical notebook) or encourage students to keep things “all in one place” or format? How can we make sure we are allowing students enough time and space to take notes in our Zoom classes (e.g., should we include more pauses, provide more overt verbal cues)? If personal computers are increasingly going to be used for professional and educational video conferencing purposes (even post-pandemic), should we design note-taking software with this specifically in mind?

    In any case, my first inclination as an instructor is to be wary of too much standardization/systematization of note-taking as an activity. As instructors we should focus on best practices while still allowing our students freedom to experiment. Certainly, every individual crafts their own method of taking notes. In many cases I think this personal idiosyncrasy is beginning to erode a bit, as most digital tools, with their automatic formatting, tend to homogenize the structure of note-taking (usually all text, moving left to right straight across the page, probably some bullet points, some lists, maybe an arrow shape or two if you’re lucky). In other words, in many cases I think digital note-taking can lead to a depersonalized experience of what should often be a deeply personal activity. If pressed, I would likely argue that the doodles in the margins of my old undergrad notebooks are just as important as the notes themselves. There are, of course, many tools out there which attempt to imitate the more “freeform” tendencies of note-taking on paper; for instance, I have used draw.io (which gives you a blank page and a bunch of tools with which you can diagram things) to work out ideas for a paper on Proust, but often my manic desire for getting things to “look right” on the screen overrides the actual working out of ideas. Unless you have a tablet and a good digital pen, much of this work simply isn’t worth the time and effort. In any case, I’m not trying to sound like a sentimental handwriting apologist here, but I am skeptical of the idea that we can always overcome technological limitations with more technology. If we as teachers want to promote note-taking in our classrooms, I think these considerations regarding the way it is actually conducted are not trivial.

    I have quite a few more ideas about all of this but I think this comment is already getting too long and tangential. All in all, I very much agree that we need to encourage our students to view note-taking as an important part of the learning process. As you point out, like the act of writing more generally, note-taking creates learning through its very implementation. We just have to make sure we are not implicitly promoting the idea that knowledge is something one can simply “look up” or “save for later.” Note-taking is, as you say, a process that facilitates reflection and critical thinking, and this is what we should emphasize (and say directly) to our students. Thanks again for this post Osha, it has certainly given me a lot to think about!

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