As a teacher of high school seniors I know that many of my students are headed off to experience higher education in the fall. They will quickly receive crash courses in many things: Living independently from their parents, dealing with roommates, managing their own time, and…having to study. College students need to be able to absorb, collect, organize, summarize, and synthesize information on their own, from multiple sources. Some courses may primarily involve lecture, some may primarily involve reading, and others may primarily involve more interactive means, such as interactive videos or hands-on field trips.
How can we prepare these students for the next step? Which note-taking skills must be emphasized?
At Midland High School we try to use Cornell notes, which are part of the school’s AVID (Achievement Via Individual Determination) program policies, whenever possible. This note-taking format involves using the left and bottom margins of the page to add key points, questions, and summaries. In the left margin students can include helpful questions, anecdotes, and illustrative examples to help mentally engage with the notes. In the bottom margin students can summarize the main points of the notes, boiling down the information or highlighting the most important segments that are not commonsense.
To encourage students to put effort into their notes, I grade students’ notes each six weeks for a test grade, including how rigorously they followed Cornell format, and I base my quizzes and tests exclusively on the notes. At the beginning of each semester I go to great lengths to explain to students how I use the exact same PowerPoints I show in class to make my quizzes and tests. I want students to understand the importance of good note-taking. If students do not feel the notes will be an accurate guidebook for the test they are unlikely to develop good note-taking skills.
“If you have good notes you have ammunition,” I tell students. “You have evidence that I messed up and made an unfair test question. But if you don’t have all the notes you can’t argue that my test was unfair.”
That is the first step of note-taking: Take all the notes the old-fashioned way. You have already obligated yourself to spend the allotted time in the classroom, so make it count. To get your money’s worth you need to engage in the material. The more effort you put into the note-taking the more you will remember and the easier studying will be: The physical act of writing, incorporating effort and coordination, helps build mental pathways that assist with remembering the material. Put forth plenty of effort in keeping the notes organized and legible – the more effort you exert the more you remember.
Simply downloading and printing out a packet of notes later on does little to build mental pathways. Since little effort was put forth the material is not nearly as memorable.
After you have taken all the notes, in longhand, you need to review your notes and add key points, questions, and summaries. What stands out about the material? What do you need to look up later? Are there any real-life examples of these concepts in action? Try to link the notes to the real world, which will make the material easier to remember. Do this soon after taking the notes so the class is relatively fresh in your memory. Then, periodically reread your previous notes to refresh your memory. Leaving the notes unread until the night before the midterm or the final is asking for trouble.
Before tests, take your Cornell notes and look at all your longhand notes and the corresponding key points, questions, and summaries. Then, get fresh sheets of paper and go somewhere quiet. Isolate yourself from distractions, including your cell phone, and begin rewriting your notes. Summarize the longhand notes in a shorthand that works for you.
Next, begin condensing the notes. Rewrite your summarized notes, leaving out the material you now know by heart. After a few run-throughs, these new drafts of your notes will become very condensed as more and more bits of information become anchored in your mind. After several drafts all the information that you still do not know will fit on an index card.
The day of the test, carry this index card with you to review these last bits of information. When you get to class for the test you can toss the index card in the trash – you know it all by heard.
Write, summarize, analyze, repeat: These are the steps to studying like a college student. High school students definitely need to practice these skills the spring of their senior year so they are not caught flat-footed during the fall of their freshman year of college.