What is the quality of your students’ lecture notes? If you were to read the research on this topic, you might think the answer was unbelievable. Yet, study after study confirms the unbelievable: most students, especially first-years, do not possess the skills necessary to take quality notes. Students routinely miss more than 50% of the critical information in lecture, sometimes reported as a 70% loss of crucial content. We can chalk this up to a variety of potential factors, such as the newness of the lecture format, the complexity of the content (and resulting cognitive fatigue), the student’s inability to identify main points, or the lecturer’s inattentiveness to signaling important information amid a mass of presented material (often as text on lecture slides, or “death by PowerPoint”).
Lecture note-taking should be recognized as a multi-faceted challenge for many first-year students. Unsurprisingly, note-taking skills are rarely taught explicitly and it is worth outlining a “best-practices” for your students dependent upon your teaching methods, materials, and lecture structure. Another important intervention for poor note-taking is the wise and timely use of handouts.
A handout is just another tool in your pedagogical toolkit. Ideally, it complements the other items in your teaching arsenal, namely your oral presentation, lecture slides (or board work), readings, and classroom discussions. Taken together, these different modalities help students to build robust conceptual models and form a deeper understanding of the material.
Below, I offer several of the slides I presented for a workshop organized by my university’s Summer Teaching Institute for Associates program. I will also provide some commentary and context to the slides themselves. My “Handout of Handouts” can be found here –> [The Handout of Handouts].
Using Mentimeter, I first asked the workshop participants about their current attitudes towards using handouts. Interestingly, among our small cohort, most regularly provided their class lecture slides to students (the yellow bar below), which as we will see has its benefits and drawbacks.
Based on the literature I summarized above, I was curious to see what our participants believed about their first-year students’ note taking abilities. While everyone believed students could benefit from additional training, few were able to predict the dire assessment of the research, namely that students would routinely miss more than 50% of the critical information.
After review the reseach findings we assessed the possible interventions for students, leading to the potential value in helping students take notes through the strategic use of handouts. Overall, I addressed nine different types of handout, loosely categorized under the headings of advanced organizers, worksheets, and graphic organizers (the first and last being “jargon-appropriate” if you want to do more research).
The first grouping of handouts can be placed under the category of “advanced organizers,” which as their name imples allows information to be presorted to allow easier integration and less taxation of the students’ cognitive load. This includes the circulation of lecture slides and detailed class outlines. While numerous research papers show these kinds of handouts are preferred by students, anyone who has implemented this practice may come across the problmes of decreased attendance. More importantly, it is likely that students will not learn effective note-taking habits and skills since they work is already done for them. Thus, it is encumbent upon the instructor to develop effective teaching strategies when using these types of handouts. For example, it’s generally a good practice to not have the oral lecture be redundant to the slides (text or image), meaning that students should need to take notes on what is said in class (and also tested on it). Or, the handouts could be limited in their content, only providing vocabulary terms or names and dates of historical figures. These still serve the purpose in helping the students organize information, but also require their focused attention. Additionally, by incorporating blank spaces in the handouts, it requires students to remain attentive thorughout the lecture, filling in answers as they are discussed.
The next grouping of handouts I categrozed under the generic name of worksheets, perhaps the prototypical type of handout in many STEM classes. This includes the use of “adjunct questions” sheets, or test-like items preceding or following certain content. These can be used to cover the entire lecture, but are more regularly used for certain classroom activites, like reading a passge or watching a short video. It is important to note that questions will cue students to certain information, which will lead to retention, but it will also limit their focus on more global (or incidental) issues and potentially limit the types of questions they bring to the material. When providing problem sets (or passages to read and respnd to), this encourages the application of knowldge, and when used in conjunction with group activities, these will refelct more active learning environments. I also included the popular classroom assessment techniques (CATs) of the “minute paper” and “muddiest point paper” as different types of effective worksheet handouts, especially for students’ reflection on their learning progress.
The last grouping covered “graphic organizers,” which visually represent relationships between concepts. Concentrated research on graphic organizes only began in the late 1960’s (when they were originally called advanced organizers) and developed with the schema theory of knowledge which posits that newly acquired information is accepted and assimilated into existing cognitive structures. This means a focus is placed on relational knowledge. This is important because notes are often organized linearly as lists or outlines (a format encouraged by digital note-taking), while a graphic organization of information is far better for retention and recall. Most student will only reread or recopy their notes when studying for an exam, but instead of employing redundant strategies students should re-organize their notes, looking for associations between ideas. By providing graphic organizers, blank or partially filled out, this would help students in this process. We ended the workshop by looking at a variety of examples and discussing their potential uses in our courses.
*This is part of a series of posts reflecting on my experiences offering workshops on university pedagogy. Please contact me directly if you want full versions of my slides pmr01[at]ucsb[dot]edu.
 This is worth more discussion than I can provide here. It is not uncommon to find students only taking notes of lecture slides, and nothing else. Instructors need to decide if this is sufficient, or if they need to train students to take notes on what is also verbally presented, or the insightful comments of other students, among other considerations (class activities, videos, readings, and so forth). In addition, note-taking is not transcription. Students need to appreciate the cognitive value in taking notes, a particular method of information processing and meaning-making. A handout on effective note taking for students is included at the end of this paper.