Monday, May 2, 2011

The best thing to ever come from Ithaca?

I've been thinking a lot lately about how students take notes. I've observed that some students take no notes at all in my classes — almost certainly a bad idea. Overwhelmingly, most students take duplicative or passive notes: If I write something on the board, students write it in their notes (but nothing else). What students don't seem to do with notes is use them to organize their thoughts and critically interrogate what they're being taught.

To remedy this, I've been trying to draw students' attention to the Cornell note taking system. Some of you may know this system, but here's a picture of what it looks like:

Here's the method as described in Wikipedia:
The student divides the paper into two columns: the note-taking column (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 (5 cm), at the bottom of the page.
Notes from a lecture or teaching are written in the note-taking column; notes usually consist of the main ideas of the text or lecture, and long ideas are paraphrased. Long sentences are avoided; symbols or abbreviations are used instead. To assist with future reviews, relevant questions (which should be recorded as soon as possible so that the lecture and questions will be fresh in the student's mind) or key words are written in the key word column.
After the notes have been taken, the student writes a brief summary in the bottom five to seven lines of the page. This helps to increase understanding of the topic. When studying for either a test or quiz, the student has a concise but detailed and relevant record of previous classes.
When reviewing the material, the student can cover up the note-taking (right) column to answer the questions/keywords in the key word or cue (left) column. The student is encouraged to reflect on the material and review the notes regularly.
I was taught this system as an undergrad, and though I didn't use it in all my courses, it's particularly useful in philosophy courses. It helps to 'chunk' the material in your mind, for one. More than that, it's very helpful in moving between micro and macro. I recall it being particularly useful in taking notes on a complex text like Descartes' Meditations, where you have to keep track both of the overall line of thought while being comfortable with more specific arguments or claims. Cornell notes are an excellent study aid. I also remember making photocopies of my notes and then marking them with a red pen to find questions, tensions, etc. that could serve as the basis for term papers.

In any case, I'd be curious if others have used this or recommended it to their students — or if you're aware of other formats or approaches to note taking that are helpful particularly in philosophy courses.


  1. Well, first of all, I am clearly the best thing to come from Ithaca (Cornell Ph.D). But seriously...

    I think that this is so excellent. It is great to talk to students about how to take notes, and this seems like a really great method.

    I am also glad that you brought up this topic because I think that a lot of teachers were note takers and believe strongly in note taking and also perceive note taking as an indication of presence, interest and interaction.

    I am not one of those teachers.

    It's not that I am not a good note taker. In fact, I can do it quite well. At Cornell (coincidence?) I was hired by Take Note, a business that was sanctioned by the college for TA's for courses to take notes that they would then sell by subscription to students in that course. This in and of itself would be an interesting discussion...In any case, this attests to the fact that I am a good note taker.

    But I simply despise taking notes. Our department has a colloquium series in which two to three local, regional, national and international scholars present each month. In these I do not take notes.

    I am a partial administrator. In meetings I do not take notes.

    When I was an early graduate student, I took notes, to terrible effect. Once I was auditing courses after coursework, I ceased doing it, to great effect.

    Why? Well, first, when I take notes I find myself sleepy and inattentive. Second, and certainly not unrelated, I simply cannot attend properly to what the teacher or speaker is saying.

    For the way that my mind works, either I am writing, in which case I am alone and in my own world and thoughts (which apparently make me very sleepy, uh oh) or I am listening. I can't do both.

    The point is: don't assume that people who don't take notes aren't paying attention. They may be the ones paying the most attention.

    And perhaps this will bring me to posting soon about why I thought that the Take Note system at Cornell was a good thing...

  2. Becko: Sure, we shouldn't assume the non-note takers aren't paying attention. And indeed, I've noticed some of my highest performing students don't take notes. I imagine that in many cases this is because we are outlining material in class that they understood well enough already from the assigned readings.

    But that also illustrates a general point I like to make about teaching: We're weird. We instructors were good, gifted students who could (in many cases) get away with 'bad habits' that less skilled or capable students can't get away with. That's what I always cringe when I hear remarks like, "I teach logic this way, which is how I was taught, and I mastered it just fine!" But of course the methods that work with the best students often don't work well with other students.

    So I guess my larger point is that we instructors should be very reluctant to generalize about teaching from our own learning experiences. We were (and are) cognitive freaks! Many students need notes, I'd say, even if you (or I) didn't or don't, or find note taking counterproductive, and we spend little time thinking about how they take notes or how they could take better notes.

    I'd be interested to know from your experience as a notetaking professional (!) what thoughts you have about what make for good notes.

  3. I couldn't agree more Michael. You identify a trap we all must avoid. Our own educational experiences are not terribly representative.

    I guess the most important thing about taking notes is to avoid transcribing. I think people assume that if they get words down verbatim or near verbatim, they work out later what the words mean. Even if this is successful, what you have is a record of what was said, not what was meant.

    Do you ever notice how when you read your own writing, you can't see it as such - you are simply reminding yourself of the ideas you were having while writing? Taking notes takes advantage of this otherwise problematic relationship we have to what we write. You are taking notes to organize your thoughts and to create something you can use to remind yourself of what you were thinking or understanding at the time.

  4. Like Becko, I've never taken notes, and in fact found note-taking to be counterproductive.

    It's an empirical question who it's actually productive for. Does anyone know what research has been done on the topic?

  5. Of course I was wrong to say Becko "never" took notes but anyway, you get the idea!

  6. When I listen to lectures and presentations, I tend to take a lot of notes. I've often found my notes useful in retrospect, because my memory is not always so hot.

    Not all lectures or presentations are conducive to note taking. When presenters talk fast, sometimes I'll just listen, and not take notes.

    I think note taking is important in my classes (gen ed / intro). It's a skill I encourage, model, and work hard to facilitate. I lecture in short bursts, 10 minutes tops each time usually. I frequently pause, say "I'll give you a minute to write that down, and reflect on what else you took away from what I just said", etc. And then I do. Give them a minute or two. I also offer note taking tips throughout the semester, and tools.

    In short, I think you both (Michael and Becko) make great points, my response to both points is the practice I briefly outline above.

    Michael, I definitely see myself adding this to my students' toolbox. I've heard of this before; this post serves as a helpful reminder to try this next semester!

  7. I think I agree with Becko -- notes were helpful as a reminder of points I understood and my own thoughts (in fact, the topic for one of my two papers in a 400-level seminar came from a question I had jotted down in response to what the professor was saying). But if I was too focused on essentially transcribing the lecture, I missed a lot and wasn't able to actually think about the material.

    One habit I formed early that proved strangely useful was to write down things my professors said that would be amusing out of context. (Should I admit this?) Originally a way to stay awake in a poorly designed 8:00am first-year seminar, it forced me to listen carefully to lectures whether I was taking a lot of (normal) notes or not, and that the quotes sounded odd out of context made it easier to remember what their context was (or motivated me to remember). Even years later, I can read some of those quotes and recall vividly the discussions in which they were said--things I'd have otherwise forgotten soon after completing the courses. They serve as a kind of trigger.

  8. Most students that I have do not take notes, but they do want my notes or powerpoints placed on BB. I have very mixed feelings about doing so, but I tend to 'give in' and post them. In so far as I teaching intro and gen ed courses, I am wondering if note taking increases as the 'level' of the course increases and students are taking them because they are majors/minors?

  9. As an undergraduate student I always took notes—bullet points, diagrams, detailing questions and consequences with diagrams. People often wanted to borrow my notes, but I never looked at them again myself. The writing of notes was part of my thinking process, and especially since I have a relatively poor auditory memory I used them to help "set" the ideas I was hearing. I learned that I needed to put quote marks on exact wording and to distinguish between what I heard and my own responses to what I was hearing.

    Now, post grad school, when I take notes, it's almost always in order to quote accurately. I take notes of specific terms, phrases, or sentences that I will want to share later.

  10. I think note taking is important in my classes (gen ed / intro). It's a skill I encourage, model, and work hard to facilitate. I lecture in short bursts, 10 minutes tops each time usually. I frequently pause, say "I'll give you a minute to write that down, and reflect on what else you took away from what I just said", etc. And then I do. Give them a minute or two. I also offer note taking tips throughout the semester, and tools.


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