Distance Learning and the Art of Note-taking

The move to distance learning during this fraught time has been difficult for most of us, especially those who have built years of experience and teaching methods on the basic assumption that you get to meet with your students in person at least once a week, usually more. In today’s blog post, in light of the adaptations we are having to make in terms of how we communicate with our students during this time and how they process that information, I would like to revisit the important theme of note-taking practices.

The WAC program likes to offer a student workshop on this topic each semester as we believe that best note-taking practices are the underpinning for student success at the college level. There is a huge step-up for many students between high school and college, where it is expected that for every piece of new knowledge you gain, you also respond and add to this knowledge with your own perspective and input. This higher expectation of their level of engagement is frequently only possible if the student has first digested properly the original information, and secondly has cultivated a conversation with themselves within their notes and materials that they can refer back to as an ongoing narrative that evolves in line with their thinking and learning.

In the context of distance learning, this internal dialogue within the student becomes even more crucial as a way to check in, problem solve, and develop new answers and theories in response to the task at hand. These actions become much harder in the absence of a spontaneous, collaborative learning environment that happens naturally in a physical classroom with twenty other students. When we adapt our courses knowing that the student will be receiving our material in isolation, probably at different hours of the day from a regular school schedule, and often in more challenging and distracting environments, we should help to counter these difficulties by making sure students are armed with the best tools within themselves to assess, quantify, respond to, and deliver new information.

So how to teach best note-taking practices? The first thing to do is assess the current note-taking habits of your students by testing their ability to record and then reproduce information. This is more difficult to do remotely, but a basic method could be giving a spontaneous, short lecture via a live online platform (live so they can’t press rewind later and thus must rely on the notes they make at the time!) on a new topic from the course, perhaps with one or two visual aids – remember that there are different styles of learning and some will be better at taking notes from a display such as PowerPoint than they will be just listening to your voice – then immediately asking students to free-write for 5-10 minutes in response to the topic discussed. This can and should be low stakes so they don’t feel the added pressure of assessment, but the idea is to firstly figure out who needs more support in their note-taking abilities based on the fluency and content of these responses. Holding an online blog discussion about current note-taking habits could be another way to get an idea of how students approach this topic, for example asking whether they typically take notes during lectures; how they mark important sections for themselves; whether they plan more lengthily assignments using their notes; and if they have unique methods for recording information (e.g. symbols, colors, splitting the page into sections). Starting a frank discussion around this topic will get some students to share methods, and others less well-versed in note-taking to start considering it as a viable way of learning. Some students may never have been taught how to take notes before, and thus never consider it as an option for themselves. We have all had a student who arrives to class without a notebook or pen, sits staring blankly for the duration of class, and then struggles later on with assignments.

Once you have an idea of what level your students are at with their note-taking, you can begin to introduce suggestions for how they can proceed to better this practice. The first thing to emphasize is that proper, effective note-taking is a cognitive skill and not the same as dictation. We should encourage students to think of their class-notes much like a journal; written for themselves, personalized with whatever flair they feel inclined to add that will help them engage fully with the material being taught, and requiring practice and commitment to improve the results. Secondly, it should be explained to students that the cognitive process behind effective note-taking involves encoding; that is, the interactive response to new material that allows someone to reword what they are being told in their own way in order to absorb, and later apply, that new knowledge. This act of encoding improves conceptual understanding in the long run because students are forced to summarize and re-think on the spot, making them adaptable to the material and more comfortable with shaping it in their own unique way when it comes to formal means of assessment.

There are many, varying methods for note-taking and it is also important to emphasize that there is not only one “correct” way to do this; everybody thinks and learns in their own unique way. Paraphrasing, symbols, abbreviations, made-up codes for words or theories, text language, writing in a mother tongue that might be different from the language being used by the instructor, and using the page however makes sense to that individual (split in half, turned upside down, etc) are all allowed. There are no official rules for how notes should look, and students should understand this as soon as possible so they feel empowered to make the process their own.

Research has suggested that handwriting is more beneficial over typing because the act of putting pen to paper is more involved than using a keyboard – something many of our students do without thinking thanks to the rise of technology use today especially in younger generations. That said, as long as the student is fully focused on the task at hand (i.e. not switching windows between the internet, social media, and their class-notes) it is possible for some of them to perhaps benefit more from the process of typing, which can be quicker and more efficient if they struggle to hand-write (also common these days). The three most important stages that should be included whatever the chosen medium and method are: Writing down the information, Questioning that information or contextualizing its logic and source, and Reflecting or Summarizing in one’s own words. If these three components are consistently being achieved during note-taking over the course of a lesson or private study session, then the student is likely to retain that information long-term and be able to use it in varying settings going forward.

Reminding students to go back to their notes to re-read and reflect is the final component to making sure they are getting the most out of this process. It isn’t enough to write something down once and then never revisit it. They must get into the habit of returning to and reviewing notes in order to grow in their awareness of what still needs to be worked on to make their understanding and application of the knowledge as full as possible. Writing down questions they have, especially when learning and internal processing is happening remotely, is a crucial component of this practice, as questions feed more investigations, more discussion, and ultimately more exciting and fresher ideas. If we can get our students to a place where they feel confident and imaginative in their own, initial responses to course materials, then the results of wider discussion and assessment become much more fruitful and we send them onward with a sense of independence when it comes to tackling new materials.

***Sending positive energy and thoughts to all of you during this tough time – may everyone you know, including yourself, be happy and well and safe.