Taking notes that excite your students: How they should take notes

Generations of students have traditionally taken notes linearly.

There needs to be a change in that.

Linear Notes: Their Origins

I remember falling asleep in high school history class because the teacher always made me write copious notes. For that teacher, “engaged student” meant taking notes.

I fell asleep (which cognitively suggests I was not engaged) simply because I was lazy or unfocused.

Despite our modern understanding of learning and the human brain, many teachers continue to encourage students to take notes linearly.

In linear note-taking, information is written sequentially. The vast majority of people write notes in this way as a norm, but it is outdated and can also be detrimental to learning. It is usually from one side of the page to the other, sometimes with bullet points.

The way we take notes isn’t linear, so why is it?

The world as we know it was transformed 600 years ago by an invention.

We’re still suffering the consequences…

In the 15th century, the printing press revolutionised knowledge dissemination. Prior to this, knowledge was mostly transmitted orally, and handwriting manuscripts were a tedious and time-consuming process. With the printing press, however, knowledge became more widely accessible than ever before since books could be produced quickly and efficiently.

With the proliferation of books, linear note-taking became more popular. The linear organization of books reinforced the idea that knowledge can be organized and categorized in discrete steps.

There is, however, a problem with this linear view of knowledge.

In reality, knowledge is often more complex and multidimensional than a linear organization suggests. The relationships between different concepts are rarely straightforward and often require a more complex understanding of how they relate to one another. It is especially true in today’s rapidly evolving educational landscape where knowledge is constantly evolving and changing.

As a result of linear note-taking, students tend to copy what is said or written rather than engage with the material itself, leading to disengagement and demotivation. Retention and understanding can be negatively affected as a result.

Learners’ Roles

A learner’s role isn’t to memorize linear information in a linear format. Instead, learners should be encouraged to engage with the material in a way that leads to a deeper understanding of the concepts.

In order to cultivate higher-order thinking, educators can get their students to interact with the material in a more intricate way. Mind maps and concept maps are useful tools for doing this as they permit learners to link concepts, reflecting the true scope of knowledge. Employing these methods can lead to enhanced understanding and engagement, further optimizing learning outcomes.

It is important to avoid non-linear methods with lower-order thinking. When lower-order thinkers use non-linear methods, such as concept maps or cognitively optimised “chunk maps”, the technique is often incorrectly used. How learners think and process information is more important than the technique they use. Some note-taking methods facilitate this process more naturally and powerfully, allowing learners to think at higher orders.

Developing good note-taking skills in students

Teachers can help learners take notes efficiently by…

Defining and clarifying new terminology

Compare the similarities and differences between ideas with your students

Encourage students to map out relationships between new terminology they have learned at the end of a learning event

As you teach, use non-linear notes and role-model higher-order structures rather than focusing on details

As teachers themselves, we may not be familiar with higher-order learning and thinking, so we find it difficult to teach non-linearly. As a result, it is beneficial for the teacher to first develop their higher-order learning skills in order to translate this into their teaching. This method is much more time-efficient for both the teacher and the students.

Note: withholding information and resources from students is not helpful. You don’t want them to feel as if they need to write everything down urgently because they will miss it. This is an illusion of learning. Rather than acting as human photocopiers, students should feel they can process and think about new information at higher levels.

In conclusion

The current educational landscape requires a better form of note-taking than traditional linear methods. Promoting and showcasing non-linear, higher-order thinking in the classroom is key for greater learner engagement, improved outcomes, increased metacognition, and reduced work for the teacher as students become better equipped to think critically and make connections.


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