Recently, I’ve been called in to work full-time; something I wasn’t expecting, couldn’t refuse and which has totally derailed my study plans. All the same, I love teaching in this particular school with such a strong Humanities team and highly-motivated 7th graders.
Currently, in a unit about Religions, my students take notes as they watch 6 short (20-minute) documentaries. The resource I was presented with for this was a Google Doc that I was to make a copy of for each student and direct them to type in their answers as they view. At the outset, I knew I wasn’t going to have them use their laptops for note-taking, not least because of:
- the time it takes them to get the laptops open and navigate to the correct site;
- the fact many run out of power when asked to use them even for a few minutes;
- the potential distraction of ‘googling’ new phrases and terminology rather than focusing on the main message of the videos.
I also had in mind that taking notes by hand can be more effective, though if you saw some of my students’ handwriting and organisation you’d be hard-pressed to believe this could be true!
We began with a graphic organiser I’d produced on Google Slides, printed and distributed to each student. This was a simple format with a box for each section of the video.
Even as I was making it, I wondered if each box was the optimal size for the quantity of notes they’d be taking. This turned out to be a valid concern, as I noted how students had used some boxes minimally whereas others had continued on the back side of the sheet as the box hadn’t been big enough for the details they wanted to record. With such minimal guidance on which information was most important, many had tried to take down as much information as possible, rather than listening critically to decide what was most important.
At this point, I had 2 choices – I could give them stems or a cloze (partial graphic organisers) to help them focus on the most important points, or we could discuss how to select the most essential information. Initially, I went for the (onerous) first option swayed by our high EAL population, but when I realised that: this unit may well be dropped next year; my efforts were for a specific DVD series that other teachers would likely not have access to; and I am a recovering workaholic who needs to be mindful of balance – I changed to the second. As a result, in class we talked about noting key words (to be defined later if the pace of speech was too fast), and sharing our notes (in shared first language teams where needed) after each viewing, which we did in class time.
Student feedback on the sharing activity was very positive, and they requested this be a feature of all our viewings from then on. Reviewing their efforts, I could see they certainly had a better quantity of notes and – for the most part – they were now getting the essential information, albeit with a bit of interspersed additional trivia (no harm there).
In keeping with my philosophy of student choice – and the fact that the exit tickets had indicated some were not comfortable with the boxy organiser – I decided to introduce a different format. For our next DVD, I created a very minimal mindmap.
Many students excelled with this producing well-organised mindmaps with clear sections and different colours, whereas some produced mindmaps like my own – something like an flailing octopus and completely useless as an aide-memoire.
The next format introduced was Cornell Notes. I’ve always thought these are a bit like free form notes anyway, but they have become my favourite over time so I was interested to see how the students would manage them. I explained that the left-hand column could be used for topic headings, prompts or questions (for reviewing later on). The bottom section was intended for summaries, but as they were studying different religions, they might also use it for connections between religions or burning questions to come back to after the viewing.
Again, the feedback on this format was positive although some had already decided one of the other formats was best for them – great! They were starting to make intentional decisions about how they learned – what more could a metacognition-loving teacher ask for!
As we continue through the DVD series, students will now choose their own format for note-taking. Of course, note-taking is only the first step in this learning process, so at the end of each lesson, students have been creating quiz questions on the material which we use as beginning activities in the next lesson. Furthermore, students already use Quizlet for science so they can transfer the information they’ve collected onto that platform for retrieval practice and eventually higher-order assessment tasks to check on deeper learning.
As with all research, there is the need to be critical about the generalisability of findings. While teachers would love to be working in a definitive framework, this post from the Learning Scientists reminds us to be aware that we are often working with ‘best case’ conclusions rather than guarantees of success.
Agarwal, P. K. (2018). Retrieval Practice & Bloom’s Taxonomy: Do Students Need Fact Knowledge Before Higher Order Learning?. Journal of Educational Psychology. Advance online publication. http://dx.doi.org/10.1037/edu0000282.
Coane, J. & Minear, M. (2018) Who Really Benefits from Retrieval Practice? The Learning Scientists. http://www.learningscientists.org/blog/2018/11/6-1.
Kuepper-Tetzel, C. (2018) Partial Graphic Organizers to Support Student Note-Taking and Learning. The Learning Scientists. www.learningscientists.org/blog/2018/10/18-1.
Mueller, P. A., & Oppenheimer, D. M. (2014). The Pen Is Mightier Than the Keyboard: Advantages of Longhand Over Laptop Note Taking. Psychological Science, 25(6), 1159–1168. https://doi.org/10.1177/0956797614524581.
“Retrieval Practice: A Powerful Strategy to Improve Learning.” (n.d.) Retrieval Practice: A Powerful Strategy to Improve Learning. www.retrievalpractice.org.