My daughter, who goes to a public high school, has been exclaiming about her heavy homework load this year – particularly in AP American History where she is expected to take copious notes from her textbook reading. I’ve been watching with interest, to see if this method helps her retain any of the information. It also got me thinking about my boys off at college. They never took notes in high school, because they didn’t go to high school. It never really occurred to me that they should learn such a thing. In my mind, note-taking was something you did during a lecture to help remember what the teacher said, and this was before the age of Powerpoint and online course notes. I did show them how to take notes for research papers, and how to keep track of works cited. But we didn’t do “lectures” in our homeschool, so they never learned to record information in this way. Did this handicap my kids when they went off to sit in lecture halls at college?
What my kids think of taking notes
When polled, my oldest son said: “I don’t think the lack of note-taking lessons hurt me at all. I just sorta DO it, it’s not exactly rocket science. I feel like everyone ends up developing a unique style anyway, so there’s not a huge amount of benefit in learning a particular method.”
My younger son reported that he does have a hard time taking notes, but mainly because his handwriting is so slow. If he brings his laptop to class though, he can type amazingly fast – being ambidextrous may be a disadvantage with pen or pencil, but it’s pretty handy with a keyboard! Most of the time, he prefers not to take notes at all because it distracts him from listening to the professor. He listens with intense focus and somehow remembers everything he hears. It depends on what type of course he’s taking as well. Most of his classes now are about math, computer science, physics and music theory. For these topics, it’s more important for him to understand what is happening then to absorb a lot of random facts and figures. Later, while studying or doing homework, he pulls it all together in his notebooks to solve problems.
What about those information dense courses such as history, biology and foreign language? My daughter’s not sure yet if her history teacher’s note-taking requirement will help her remember, but she is a devoted believer in flash cards. For her, making little flash cards for vocabulary words, grammar rules and biology facts really helped her learn the material in past coursework.
What the pros think of taking notes
In an interesting paper called “Note Taking and Learning: A Summary of Research” presented by the WAC (Writing Across the Curriculum) Journal, the authors state that the function of note-taking is twofold: “Note-takers take notes to fulfill two major functions: to record information and/or to aid in reflection.” It’s not surprising that note-taking is really a very complicated skill that requires the student to decide what is important and how to describe it in a few keywords. The very act of note-taking is supposed to help students remember – especially if they transform the original information source and put it in their own words. Summarizing has been shown to be more effective than simply highlighting words in a text.
This paper also summarizes the studies done to evaluate the effectiveness of different methods of note-taking. It seems that recording information in a matrix or keyword tree type diagram is more effective than the outline structure, which in turn is more effective than the linear method used by most students. This means that using the whole page to spatially organize information into categories is more effective than just line after line of abbreviated notes. For examples of what this looks like, please do look up images of this type of note-taking online.
How does this work for homeschooling kids?
I can certainly understand how matrix style note-taking could really help the university student, which is the focus of the WAC Journal paper. And even though homeschooling students don’t typically sit through lectures, I can see how some form of note-taking would help “aid in reflection” as kids process information learned through reading, watching or learning from experience. It also occurred to me that some of our common homeschooling methods already fill that role.
Charlotte Mason style narration for example, asks kids to summarize material learned in their own words, first through oral narration and then written as they get older. There are many other narration methods for kids with different learning styles to transform raw information and put it in a form that is personally meaningful.
Lapbooks, notebooking, foldables, and other forms of paper projects all seem to serve a similar role in helping a student create something unique out of pure information. Another style that might appeal to your kids is visual note-taking or sketchnotes. A little online searching will yield some amazing examples.
As in so many other things, I think the best way for a student to “take notes” and process information will depend on his or her learning style. Show your kids examples of what other people have tried, and see if anything jumps out at them. They might want to try different techniques for that biology textbook or those world history DVDs, all with the objective of retaining and understanding what they learn. Next week I’ll post some examples of cartoon timeline cards my boys made for studying history – humor being their favorite way to spin any subject.