The Art of Taking Notes

Strategies to help middle schoolers master this invaluable study skill.

By Nancy Mann Jackson
  • Grades: 6–8

By middle school, knowing how to take notes is a survival strategy. Nothing can replace knowing the tricks and techniques of good note-taking.

Get the Main Idea

“The whole point of note-taking is to pull out key ideas and see how these ideas link,” says Mairead Leong, a former middle school teacher and now principal educator at STIZZiL Online Education. To help students detect main ideas, says Leong, begin by taking articles from Scholastic News or Reader’s Digest (or other easy-to-read magazines) and slicing them into one- or two-paragraph sections. Give each student a paragraph and have him or her identify the main idea, summarizing it in just a few words, not several ideas connected by conjunctions. Once students have a good grasp of main ideas, start giving them entire articles. Have them identify the main idea of each paragraph, then write one sentence or fact that shows how the paragraph’s key thought links to the main point of the story.

Teach Active Listening

Once students can detect main ideas from a chapter or article, they’re ready to start taking lecture notes, Leong says. Give short lectures as practice. Speak slowly and stop periodically to ask a student to recap the main points and linking ideas you have covered so that other students can check their notes. You can make it easier for your students by using PowerPoint to accompany your lectures, with one slide for each main idea, or by creating a listening guide—an outline with main topics filled in and blank spaces below.

Map It Out

For students who process information visually, “mind mapping” can be an excellent way to take notes. Invented by author Tony Buzan, mind maps use a graphical scheme instead of the traditional list form. Ask students to start by writing the main idea of a lesson or chapter in the middle of a page and draw a circle around it. From that circle, subdivisions or subheadings of the topic are represented by labeled lines branching out. Further subheadings or facts belonging to the first subheadings are drawn as lines linked to the subheading lines. Colors, symbols, and images can be used to organize ideas. A completed mind map will have main topic lines radiating in all directions.

Try Technology

Free tools let students create mind maps electronically. Check out programs like FreeMind, MindMeister, and Mind42, which are perfect for brainstorming or note-taking as a class—and can be displayed on an interactive whiteboard. In addition, blogging is the perfect “21st century tool for teachers to use with students in learning, practicing, and building note-taking skills,” says Ellen Paxton, chief learning officer at Professional Learning Board. A class blog allows students to take turns posting and sharing notes with one another.

Use Two Columns

The Cornell method asks students to divide the paper into two columns, an ideal option for learning note-taking because it provides students with a template, says Alexandra Mayzler, author of Tutor in a Book. The note-taking column, which is usually on the right, is twice the size of the questions/key word column on the left. The student should leave five to seven lines, or about two inches, at the bottom of the page to summarize the lecture or reading afterwards. The format also makes it easy to study for a test later, as the student can cover up the right column and recall details about the key points listed on the left side.

Practice, Practice

When students are first learning to take notes effectively, give them lots of opportunities to practice their new note-taking skills. For instance, ask them to read a short paragraph and then summarize it in one sentence. Have students take notes at home while watching a TV show and then share the main ideas with the class. Finally, provide different examples of effective note-taking, so that students can find the best method for their individual learning styles.  

  • Subjects:
    Writing
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