The Difficulties of Teaching Notetaking

During my interview for Obsidian Office Hours, Anthony asked me whether or not I would ever consider using Obsidian.md for teaching notetaking to my students; my answer was, in short, no. At the time, I explained that I don’t have the kind of power to implement that sort of educational choice; I can’t, for example, install programs on the school laptops.

But there’s another reason I didn’t get into, and I want to expand on now.

As a teacher, I get so angry whenever I hear “why didn’t I learn insert cool thing here in school!” — whether it’s “how to do my taxes” or “about a cool historical figure” — because usually the answer is some variant either you did, you just didn’t realize it at the time or because we can’t possibly teach everything… or, of course, because your curriculum was written according to the dominant narrative, which doesn’t want to address [controversial topic or minority narrative.]

But with notetaking, I think the issue is something different entirely.

It’s a losing battle to teach kids who don’t need to take notes how to take notes.

AVID is a non-profit dedicated to closing the achievement gap by creating programs designed to reinforce academic skills like organization, study skills, communication, and self-advocacy. Notetaking, spaced repetition, and collaborative learning are all emphasized.

It’s a great program, research-backed and particularly useful for students with the potential to become first generation college students, who have the raw ambition and potential to succeed in college but who lack the institutional knowledge and advantage of family members who can teach the necessary skills. Teaching notetaking is easier for parents who had to take notes as part of their own educational experience.

My only problem with the AVID program isn’t with the program itself — it’s with people who insist that AVID strategies are the One True Way… and ignore the fact that the AVID program is application-based and, at least in my experience, typically only selects students who are neither too advanced nor prone to struggling too much. There’s a certain selection bias that is often ignored by administrators who insist on teachers integrating AVID strategies into every aspect of their teaching.

AVID works pretty well at teaching notetaking skills — to the kids they handpick.

But even then, I’ve run across students who were pressured to join the program by their parents, and they absolutely hated it. They outright rebelled, refusing to do any work whatsoever, ultimately winding up kicked out of the program despite being otherwise wonderful students.

In a similar vein, my school has an elective called strategies for success, which is basically “AVID-lite.” Unfortunately, it wound up as sort of a dumping ground for all the students who didn’t have another elective — like band, or chorus, or team sports. On paper, it’s a great class that teaches notetaking and all kinds of organizational skills. There’s all kinds of great stuff about how to learn, and how to collaboratively learn, etc., and in my experience, the vast majority of the kids hate it and refuse to pay any attention in it and actively mock its (genuinely wonderful) teachers.

For many of my best students, “strategies for success” is the only class they get poor grades in, which makes them deeply resentful because they see it as a stupid, pointless class — if the point of the class is to improve their academic skills and their grades reflect that they have the necessary academic skills to succeed, how does it make sense that their only bad grade is in strategies for success? Why does it matter that they don’t use a planner to write down their homework in if they turn all their homework in? The planner is supposed to a tool to help them, not an anchor around their neck wasting their time and dragging down their grade because they didn’t have time to record a class’ daily objective, and they’re smart enough to recognize that.

In many ways, I’m sympathetic to their complaints.

When I was a student, I never bothered with an organizational system for my binder more complex than “chronological order” and I absolutely detested the much-vaunted Cornell Notes, which have been popular for at least the last 20 years. I even (mis)use them in my classroom — mostly because it makes my administration happy, even though the way they wind up getting used is just as a glorified, hand-written question-and-answer worksheet. I had a couple of teachers insist on teaching notetaking, requiring that I use Cornell Notes in school, and I hated it. Most of my classes didn’t require memorization, they required comprehension or the development of a particular skill, and notetaking never helped me with that.

Cornell Notes are intended for lectures and the idea is that, on a normal piece of lined paper, you take notes in the main section and then after the lecture is over, you go back to your notes and add questions. The idea is that you then cover up the answers by folding the paper, then use the notes page as a flashcard to test your memory. Once you’ve got all the notes in your head, you’re supposed to reflect on their significance, and then go back over your notes once a week to help study for exams.

My problem was always that, during lecture, I wanted to be paying attention to the lecture. For most of what I was learning, notetaking actively interfered, by distracting me from what the teacher was saying.

Most of my students are in pretty much the same boat, because education has been moving farther and farther away from memorization-based learning. The standardized tests I give are modeled off of the AP History exams’ Document Based Questions, which prioritize analysis and communication skills over rote memorization. I usually want my students engaged (preferably with hands-on learning, building chinampas and replicating Golden-Age Chinese cities in Minecraft), not scribbling.

I read a lot of education research and a lot of scholars seem to think that teachers still use the “traditional model” of education, i.e lecture-based with rote memorization. But I still remember talking to my middle school social studies teacher, back in the ’90s, about how education had moved away from that.

So, to reiterate:

Why should I be teaching notetaking when there are no memorization tests in my class?

Document based questions involve analysis of primary sources. You could sleep through (or outright skip) every day of my class on day one and pass the test on the strength of raw intelligence, and I’ve had students do just that. It’s actually a source of irritation for most of teachers I know, because at one point, using the rubric I was given, you could literally write an essay about why Minecraft is the best video game for the PS3 and still earn half the available points as long as your grammar was on point and you followed proper essay structure. (It’s worth noting that my district fixed this recently, so they are definitely trying to come up with a good system. It’s just… hard.)

Most of the content in my curriculum is intended to provide something to analyze, something to think critically about, and give context to the scenario being evaluated.

Given that, why on earth would I expect my students respond well to me prioritizing teaching notetaking skills? I manage to slip it in sometimes (I’m a big fan of one-pagers), but I literally tape the fill-in-the-blank formula for writing a successful essay to the wall — a chart, by the way, that my own boss made for me and “strongly encouraged” that I utilize. Since a big part of how my bosses view my success as a teacher is how well my students do on those tests, which has enormous impacts when it comes to things like having my judgment trusted when I need to use political capitol to protect a student who needs something, what possible motivation do I have to withhold that assistance?

Setting Students Up For Success Makes It Hard For Them To Learn Coping Skills

Take outlining, for example. I learned all kinds of stuff about how to outline in high school, and I hated it. Like my students who get frustrated at their “strategies for success” class, I thought it was ridiculous that failing to turn in an outline, or a rough draft, would mean I failed the assignment even if I’d turned in a perfect final copy.

It wasn’t until well after I finished graduate school that I finally came across a situation where I needed to create an outline for a piece of longform writing. I outline novels and occasional pieces of short fiction — that’s it. I only rarely outline blog posts or articles or even essays. Even then, my “outline” is typically a couple of short bullet points, no more complex than a notecard of talking points prepared for a speech. Often with nonfiction, I impose an outline-style structure only after I’ve finished writing, in the precise opposite way my teachers intended.

This process works for me for the same reason that I never needed to write out lengthy speeches in school and never had a problem keeping my talking points to a single notecard; I process information in a way that is already structured in a conversational, orderly way, and I rarely lose track of conversational points I’ve heard or want to make.

Obviously, not all students process information the same way I do, but for the vast majority of students, they share my fundamental attitude that an outline is not necessary for the type of work we are giving them.

I thought teaching notetaking and outlines was dumb right up until the point I actually had a project that was complicated enough to need an outline.

It’s hard to replicate that epiphany in the “schoolhouse” setting, because we don’t have a lot of ability to customize to the individual needs of the student, mostly due to concerns about fairness. Parents get pretty mad if you hold their kid to a higher standard then another kid, most of the time, except in specialty settings like Montessori classrooms. Many public schools try to replicate Montessori-style student-centered learning, but without a structural overhaul, it’s basically impossible to do so with fidelity. In practice, we’re able to offer mild modifications and “extension” activities, but the scope of most “differentiation” is limited by that most precious of teacher resources: time.

In the end, it’s hard to teach good systems for managing highly complex tasks because most students aren’t optimizing for highly complex tasks; they’re optimizing for “get it done as efficiently as possible.” The most efficient way to write a 2-page (or, honestly 10-page) paper is not actually to outline, most of the time, for most people.

For most people, the most efficient method to get a quality paper done is to sit down and write it. Short of a project like a dissertation, most people can handle the organization of an essay without a lot of front-loading.  Predictably, then, kids start resenting being forced to outline for no reason. Ditto studying habits or notetaking; most of my “good” students hate taking notes because … why should they bother? They’re going to remember most of what they actually need to know without having to study, not least of which because they’re more likely to be tested on skills than knowledge.

Students are resistant to learning planning & outlining skills

Right up until college, or their first job, and then they get mad that “nobody taught them good notetaking habits” — even though best practices for note taking by person and task, not least of which because having unnecessary overheard and increasing the complexity of note taking is actually contraindicated for most tasks. The hardest part of taking notes isn’t learning a system, it’s knowing when to apply which system and knowing what is important which, in my opinion, isn’t something that can be easily taught — it’s learned over the course of a lifetime and varies wildly by context.

Should I teach my students to bullet journal? About zettelkasten methods? Some would probably benefit from it, and I’ve certainly touched on both during downtime — but would it be beneficial enough to devote meaningful instructional time to?  Probably not.

The problem in my experience isn’t that teachers don’t teach enough notetaking systems… the problem is we don’t have good tools to ramp up the difficulty of an individual student’s education at an appropriate rate.

Eleanor

Eleanor teaches Ancient Civilizations and spends the bits of time left over writing books that bring history -- and magic -- to life. She enjoys rock climbing, bullet journaling, & gardening focused on plants you can actually eat.

You may also like...

Let me know what you think!