- The Washington Times - Sunday, September 18, 2005

Students shouldn’t write the equivalent of the great American novel every time a teacher opens his or her mouth.

Note-taking should be a far more disciplined affair, marked by intense listening and occasional writing. Some teachers speak in an orderly fashion, which makes taking notes a breeze, but every instructor is different, meaning students should follow some basic guidelines to get the most out of each session.

Kathy Schwartz, director of the academic support center at American University, says most students never get a lesson in proper note-taking.

“They usually copy things off the board in elementary school,” Ms. Schwartz says.

Students, she says, should consider note-taking as a three-step process — before class, during class and outside of class.

“Do the assigned reading,” she says. “If you’re really stuck and you can’t finish all the reading, it’s better to survey or get an overview of the reading before going in so you have some familiarity with the concept and language that may be talked about. Skim the headings, look at the graphics and hopefully there’s a summary.”

Ms. Schwartz subscribes to the Cornell system of note-taking. This advises students to use paper with a wide margin where they can write down key words and themes.

“Listen for main points, often verbal cues that a professor is switching topics, like ‘Let’s start with the first …’” she says. “Then go to the margin and anything about that topic indent with a little bullet or dash.”

That way, students’ notes will be cohesive and they will be “actively listening,” she says.

Students can make sure their notes aren’t a procession of gibberish by inspecting them shortly after class to make sure they are legible.

“Our memories start to fade within two hours of learning new information,” she says. “If students go to another class [after taking notes] it’s going to get interfered with. If they didn’t fill in those blanks or clean up their handwriting, they probably won’t be able to [later].”

The Cornell process advises students to use loose-leaf paper and leave room on the left for a “recall” column where key words or phrases should go. Later, students can cover up the right-hand portion of the pages and quiz themselves on the items remaining on the left.

The system also asks students to use abbreviations when possible, skip lines to illustrate the end of a thought or lesson and to record notes in paragraph form.

Dan Kent, a social studies teacher at Broad Run High School in Ashburn, Va., says academically aggressive students take a more proactive stance toward note-taking.

“You find, for the most part, upper-level college-bound kids take it a little more seriously,” Mr. Kent says.

That doesn’t mean the rest of the students aren’t similarly attentive. In fact, there may be no such thing as proper note-taking, Mr. Kent says.

“It’s such an art, but it’s also such a personal thing,” he says. “I emphasize to the kids to find something that fits their philosophy … it doesn’t matter how you do it.”

He often sees students scribbling furiously during lectures, but he cautions them to jot down a few key words per sentence rather than every if, and or but.

“You want to have a study guide to work from,” he says of a student’s notes. “If you’re reading a massive amount of material, you can’t learn.”

He likens the process to packing a hole with cotton. “The more you pack in, the harder it is to get out,” he says.

Better yet, take strict notes whenever a topic isn’t easily understood.

“Jot down a person’s name you don’t recognize,” he says. “For history class, use that to trigger ideas. Jot down three words that identify that person. Now, it’s an efficient study guide.”

Natalie Robert, director of the Huntington Learning Center in Lanham says reading comprehension is just as important as proper note-taking for students of any age.

“Students who read actively and visualize the plot as it unfolds remember more information,” Ms. Robert says.

That might make recalling the intricacies of a Stephen King potboiler a snap, but it takes some creativity when addressing word problems and dry statistics.

It’s all about context, Ms. Robert says.

“They can attempt to recreate a battle taking place,” in a social studies lesson, she suggests.

Those students who have trouble focusing, either on such a plan or in the classroom in general, may have learning disorders that should be addressed by the school.

“They can learn to compensate for their inability to focus,” she says, adding some schools help these students by assigning them assistants who help take notes for them.

Special needs students, or any student for that matter, could tape lectures to make sure nothing gets by. Students can listen to the tape at their leisure later on, or leave it running while doing household chores or when it’s nearing bedtime.

“The more of our senses we use to acquire information, the more we learn,” she says.

Whitney E. Wells, an academic coordinator for the University of Virginia’s student support services, says just because a student has reached college doesn’t mean he or she knows how to take notes.

“A lot of the students didn’t take notes in high school. They have to develop that skill,” Ms. Wells says.

Sometimes, the best way to take notes is to keep the material as brief as possible, and the Internet age is helping with that.

Those well-versed in note-taking often use shortcuts found on the Web for help. They might write the symbol for “equals” or “w/e” for “whatever.”

“Abbreviations like LOL [laugh out loud] are leaking into the note-taking … they’re creating their own little phrases,” Ms. Wells says.

Students sometimes use their notebooks for personal affairs — a doodle here, a favorite band’s name in blocky type there. Surely they wouldn’t like their instructors to see every sketch or musical shout-out.

Mr. Kent discounts the notion, especially if a student is floundering in class and could use a tweak to his or her note-taking skills.

“I’ve never had a student in a one-on-one conference who was reluctant for me to look at their notes. They know it’s not a violation of privacy.”

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