It may seem outside of the scope of a university faculty to be concerned with the note taking habits of their students, but we here at BlueCorps think that the environments and types of encouragement from faculty can go a long way towards better note taking by students.
Rather than claiming a one-stop technological solution to this issue as we have with many of our menu items, the issue of student note taking has to be taken holistically. The first step is an assessment of what kinds of notes you think a student would need to take in your class. Is your class primarily dominated by discussions or reactions to readings? Do you tend to be an extemporaneous lecturer or work with a formal script? How do you feel about students using electronics in your classroom? Depending on your pedagogical goals and methods in the course, there are a number of things you can do to encourage better note taking.
Before we go into those strategies, it’s worth pointing out that there are a lot of benefits to students taking better notes in your classes. Note taking in general increases memory retention and can actually help students focus more intently on the material. A study by the University of Michigan’s Center for Research on Learning and Teaching concluded that students who take notes do better on tests than those that don’t. If you are interested in finding out which teaching techniques can improve student note taking, I would encourage you to read the CRLT’s paper, which is only seven pages but chock full of ideas of how to shape your lectures to accommodate better note taking and retention.
1. Provide your students with your powerpoint presentations prior to class.
Despite the move towards a paperless culture, students still routinely fill their printing quotas by printing out class materials in order to mark them up, highlight important sections, or to visually make connections between different parts of the readings. The same principle can be applied to your powerpoint presentations. If you provide your slides before class, students can print them off with the presenter notes attached. This gives them a sheet of paper with your slides on one side, and blank lines on the other, giving them the perfect way to link their notes to your slides. If you don’t feel comfortable with giving your slides early, you may want to consider providing these to students, as this sort of visual connection between notes and your slides can often prove invaluable for students who consider themselves visual learners.
2. Make them practice some SelfControl in order to get some Freedom.
One of the biggest drawbacks to allowing electronics in the classroom is that students can often get distracted by other options that they have on their laptops or mobile devices. This can be especially frustrating for an instructor, as you can lose students to the siren call that is Facebook. Many decide that it isn’t worth losing some students for the gain of having electronic devices in the classroom. There is a solution that can allow students the option of using their devices for note taking while simultaneously keeping them from straying to distraction.
For many people with Attention Deficit Disorder, having an internet connection can mean trouble for being productive due to the wide variety of distractions. Thankfully, there has been a movement to create applications that intentionally limit the amount of exposure one can face online. These programs temporarily disable your internet connection (and for some, your ability to open applications) for a set period of time, and do so in a way that it is not possible to stop once started. For Mac there is SelfControl and for PC there is Freedom. Both programs allow you to create a “white list” of sites that are okay to visit during the timer.
With these applications, you could require that your students run them during your class as a condition of having devices in the classroom. That way, they have access to typing their notes if they so desire, while you are secure in knowing that you are not fighting against sites like Reddit or Facebook for their attentions.
3. Encourage Social Note Taking
Chances are, the vast majority of your students use social media on a daily basis. That unprecedented connectivity and access to collaborative tools can be used in your classroom to improve the notes students make. There are a variety of solutions that you can implement. The first would be to encourage students to share their notes using digital notebook applications. One such way they can do that is by using a social sharing program such as Evernote. The advantage of Evernote is how easy it is to organize, collaborate, and format notes. Students could create group folders for holding their individual notes, and can add tags to their notes.
Another way you could encourage good note taking between students is to turn the note taking into a collaborative assignment. One way you could do this is with Google Drive. For example, you could break up your class into small groups, each of which must create a document on a different topic the class has covered. The resulting documents can then be shared with your students, and used in lieu of a formal exam review. Another example comes from LSA’s Screen Arts department’s Fascist Cinema class, where students are charged with creating a wiki page incorporating as much information about fascism as they can from their readings. The subsequent wiki was an invaluable study tool.
4. Talk to your students about note taking and consider incentivizing them
Faculty quite often bring in library staff to talk to students about proper paper writing skills, but very little time is spent talking about how note taking can improve class performance. If you teach a course that is geared towards freshmen and sophomores, we would encourage you to consider spending a little bit of your class time talking about the benefits and importance of note taking. Much like the talks the library gives about papers and research, talking to your students about note taking can have an effect on their entire academic career.
To be honest, a handful of students will never take notes. And those that do take notes may find the discussion not worthy of their time. However, we feel that there is a group in the middle who either don’t take notes or that don’t take beneficial notes that can be incentivized into taking better notes and by extension improving themselves as students.