Note Taking Skills for 21st Century Students

Lesson Plans and Instruction Ideas for Teachers

Note taking skills aren’t just automatic. We tell students “take notes” but they have no idea what that means. What makes “good notes.” What do they write down? How should notes look?

notetaking skills for 21st century students

Ever since I went through the Writing Across the Curriculum Course at my school I realized the tremendous gap between “writing” as we’ve taught it traditionally and 21st century writing skills. That frustration threw me into research about how to teach writing in my classroom (all of that research was then put into my new book Reinventing Writing — just because I couldn’t find the book I needed when I was struggling with teaching writing in the digital age.)

(Photo Credit: Wesley Fryer who has been teaching about visual notetaking for some time now.This graphic is from a 2013 workshop he did in Canada and drawn by two of the workshop participants, Tanya Avrith and Audrey McLaren. Thanks Wes for sharing these.)

Now I have a new frustration that has me grappling with noteaking. I don’t just take my students into full blown digital notetaking as I discuss in Reinventing Writing. If they don’t have basic notetaking skills down in an analog way adding a new technology AND teaching how to take notes at the same time is too much.

So, now, I’m taking the approach of helping students master analog notetaking. This is for several reasons the first is just to teach the analog notetaking skills they need but secondly, I’m full out an IN-FLIP classroom. When I’m teaching concepts on the computer or anything point and click, I always do it with videos embedded in our LMS – Haiku Learning.

A note about In-Flip: The kids love it. The other day I took a poll and said — everyone go to the left side of the room who prefers that I teach this stuff from the board like I used to. Go to the right side of the room if you prefer the videos. The left side of the room had no one but the dust bunny and a cricket there. For more, listen to the discussion I had with Jon Bergmann at ISTE about it)

I want to know what they are getting out of the videos and if they are pulling out the essential questions I’m giving them. Until I know that they understand how to pull out the important points, I’m checking their notes every single day. (And don’t for one second think that my class is all videos – we have LOTS of face to face interaction – just not for certain things.)

So, here are some of the essential notetaking skills I’ve taught them so far.

Cornell Notetaking System

My favorite Cornell notetaking video is by Jennifer DesRochers. Students watch this one and set up their Cornell system on paper. I then have several lessons where students JUST using the Cornell system. I check to make sure they have summaries at the bottom of the notes, headings at the top, and that they are pulling essential points out.

This method is THE SINGLE MOST important reason (besides studying myself blind) that I graduated first in my class from Georgia Tech. I couldn’t have processed the high volume of notes without it and it is a critical method.

If you don’t believe me, look at student notes. Many of them have no dates, no topic, no teacher class information at the top. We can do better.

Visual Notetaking

At this point it is likely that your students are just using words in their notes. We want them DRAWING. Why? So they can use all parts of their brain. Using symbols and notes and such can help connect ideas in powerful ways. So, at this point, I take my students on a visual notetaking journey. We leave Cornell except for the heading with the date, class, topic, and teacher’s name.

Also, if you want to dig deeper, Wes Fryer’s blog post about Visual Notetaking is a Must Read.

Step 1: Visual Notetaking Bellringer

I have a bellringer that I use with this and will share snippets so you can adapt it. (I don’t want to put the full one here because the digital notes I used under fair use and you’ll need to find and paste your own into your bellringer.)

The following are 3 sets of visual notes. As you look at these notes with your partners and look at these examples, fill in your answers to the questions on the back of this page.

So, students are looking at 3 examples of visual notetaking. For full impact, find 3 examples of visual notes taken related to your subject (perhaps even the topic at hand.) These should be in color if possible. Have students discuss in their small groups and then discuss as a group.

Questions to Ask As Students Look at Visual Notetaking Examples

  1. All three examples use a strategy called “visual notetaking” – looking at these examples (and what is shared in them) how would you define visual notetaking?
  2. What are some advantages of using visuals in your personal notetaking system?
  3. How could you use visual notetaking as part of the Cornell system you’ve already learned?
  4. What are some drawbacks of visual notetaking?

Then, after we’ve discussed visual notetaking from observing samples, we’ll dive deeper.

Step 2: Introduction to Visual Notetaking

This first video I have students watch and take notes any way they want. I like this video because it is showing visual notetaking as it is talking about it. Again, stress to students you don’t have to be an incredible artist to make this work and not to get hung up on details.

Step 3: How Can Visual Notetaking Be Used in Class?

In this second video, I have students watch the video and take visual notes for the whole thing. They can stop the video but for only up to 1 minute. I don’t want them sidetracked or delayed. I also want them to see how visual notes can be used in a classroom setting. I liked Rachel Smith’s approach in this video.

I follow up later with why we use visual notes and a little bit about the left brain being a center for logic and procedures and the right being a place for creativity and social intelligence. I also talk about how we all use all of our brain even though we have strengths but when we learn and use more of our brain it makes it easy to remember.

Then, I have students using the Cornell system WITH visual notetaking.

How I’m applying Visual Notetaking in my Own Life

I’m now doing visual goalsetting — I take my goals and turn it into a one page graphic drawing that helps me picture who I am and who I want to be. I’m also visually noting the books I read on one page and putting that page in Evernote. That makes it more readable.

When my students move to electronic notetaking and find that some tools (particularly on the ipad) have some of the visual notetaking tools built right in – they’re going to be excited.

Other Concepts We Will Cover in Our Notetaking Journey

When students get into electronic notetaking I’ll teach them the PREPS system I share in Reinventing Writing.

Analog Notetaking Mastery Before Going Digital

So, while I will have this year’s students at the level of notetaking prowess and using the full blown PREPS system that I share in Reinventing Writing before Christmas, I’m just finding that I need to shore up the basics. If students know WHY they take notes (the reinforcement of writing down the words helps put a nudge to the brain that this is important – and for recall later) and HOW to take notes – they’ll be better able to become engineers of their own personal learning system.

In the end, I want each students to have their own system of personal notetaking that is a combination of the best. I want them to be fluent on paper and electronically.

But this is definitely a progression of skills and best taught in small bites integrated with the content that I’m teaching. So, we learn a new technique about every week and a half.

What do you think should be included?

So, while this is on my mind (and now on some of yours) will you take time to share the essential things you think should be taught in an analog way (on paper) before taking students into a full blown digital notebook?

Please note: I reserve the right to delete comments that are offensive or off-topic.

23 thoughts on “Note Taking Skills for 21st Century Students

  1. Hi Vicki,

    I loved the article and the videos! I wouldn’t have made it through university without visual note taking myself. Unfortunately, I didn’t have a teacher who taught me the basics in school, so I basically had to invent my own system and refine it over the years.
    Will you be discussing different mind mapping tools in one of your next articles?

    • I can Andy, sure! That is a great suggestion! I am working on the research for these other items. I scatter them so we can learn something and then apply- learn and then apply. Great suggestion- I’ll keep sharing! I am so glad you taught yourself! I learned Cornell from a book! Funny how we expect kids to learn but don’t teach them ways to be better learners!

  2. I found the videos and information regarding visual note-taking fascinating! It was very logical and purposeful. I teach 4th grade and we teach Cornell Notes to our students (we are an AVID Elementary), but I definitely see the value of teaching the basics of visual note-taking as well. I also plan to check out the book “Reinventing Writing” because I’m very interested in the research on the best ways to teach writing in the classroom…this has always been an area where I struggled and never found adequate resources and support in my district.

    • Thank you Tori for your response! I am so excited that you are already teaching Cornell! What a great system! I think visual notetaking elements make every system better! I was reading a blog post by Stephen Downes this weekend about how digital notes aren’t doing well but that is because kids are just using them to transcribe. I think mastering analog notetaking skills are important before going digital. Let me know how it goes!!! Also let me know your thoughts if you pick up my book Reinventing Writing- I’d love to hear your take on the notetaking chapter in particular. Vicki at coolcatteacher dot com is my email! Thanks for sharing!

  3. Hi,
    I enjoyed the videos and article. After 25 years of teaching, I have allowed much of this picture drawing in my classroom. Though only a handful of students use this approach, I believe it is necessary to encourage children to learn according to their diverse needs. There is not one way in which we all learn but many ways and visual note taking is an easy way for visual learners to remember and learn class curriculum.

    • Yes! Helping kids develop their own personal notetaking style is so important and drawing can be part of that!!! Awesome to hear you have been doing this for a while Barbara- it is encouraging so other teachers reading this post will know this approach isn’t a “fad” but is time tested and helps many kids! Kudos to you Barbara and Happy Sunday!!

  4. I am happy to see that note taking is still a big deal in schools. I was an AVID tutor before I became a teacher and loved to see how the students used the notes as a resource that would help them work through the information they needed to know and understand to write essays, work out math problems and study for tests. Watching all your interesting video clips takes me back to my young working days. I myself used this type of note taking in college and now use mind mapping and charting methods to help me develop lesson plans along with my district pacing guides. Thank you for displaying the importance of note taking skills and the variety of styles that can be used in the classroom today.
    Jennifer Saldana

    • I love this Jennifer! You said something I’d like to echo “work through their notes” learning can be work but notes can be a platform for that and should help us process and make new connections! I use all these tools too! Thank you for pointing out the use of these tools in everyday life! Great thoughts!!!

  5. Great article, Vicki. I couldn’t help but suggest digital flashcard tools as well. The act of mentally breaking down complex topics into bite-sized Q/A pieces helps students encode the memories more deeply. At Brainscape, our users often use our web & mobile “smart flashcards” system as a note-taking tool. It’s as if students are creating their own potential test questions as they initially learn the material.

    Combined with spaced repetition, web & mobile flashcard platforms can be among the most effective note-taking AND study tools for students, while giving teachers an easy way to monitor students’ note-taking and study activity.

    • Oh Andrew! I loooooovvvvvee Brainscape! Just this last week we made groups for 10th and 8th graders!!! We are getting 9th graders in tomorrow! And yes Flashcards (especially the way you do them) can help students further learn it!!! Thanks for reminding everyone about the things you do after the notetaking and how important they are!!! Happy Sunday and thanks for responding!

  6. Mrs. Davis,

    I needed to see this Blog today. I am not very good at taking really good notes, that I can go back later and say, “Oh yeah I know this means that…”. Hopefully this will help me through out the last of my college career. Thanks so much again for posting this.

    -Carissa

  7. Really great instructive post Vicki – I hope teachers share it with their students at this key time. I noticed you mentioned mind mapping as well as note-taking within your post so I think ExamTime would be the ideal site to introduce students to for this process.

    With ExamTime, students can create a mind map with an overview of a topic which can be converted into a note with the click of a button to save time and build on their ideas. Here’s an example in this blog post: https://www.examtime.com/blog/create-a-mind-map-connect-ideas/

    What do you think of this feature?

    • Wow Andrea! I have never heard of exam time but we are getting ready to test some study apps in 9th grade today so we will look at it! Very cool looking! Thanks for letting me know!

      • Woah Vicki I’m delighted you’re going to be trying out ExamTime with your 9th graders today! We officially launched recently and added even more cool features to help your students track their learning progress – you can see our journey outlining our learning features here: https://www.examtime.com/blog/official-launch-of-examtime/

        I emailed you last week about the launch but I know you’re probably crazy busy with back to school season lately.

        Can you let me know your feedback when you try out ExamTime with your class today?

        • Thanks Andrea- sure! As for the email this week — I get sooooooo many so you were smart relating your work to something I am doing in class right now! I wish I had time to test everything but it is just impossible with such a full workload— I have people in my PLN like Richard Byrne and Larry Ferlazzo who keep me posted on every single thing out there! Thanks for responding and we will take a look!!!

          • No problem Vicki, sorry for overloading you with emails in that case. Yes, I think it was a good opportunity as you are working in a similar area at the moment. We have been featured on FreeTech4Teachers and Larry has mentioned us a few times before now as we have been trying to spread the word about our free elearning tools as much as possible. I have loads more info but I don’t want to bombard you – let me know if you have questions, you should have my email 🙂

          • Hi again Vicki and happy Tuesday! How was your study app testing yesterday? Would love to know all of the different apps you were trying out. Did you manage to test ExamTime for a few minutes with your class? Really looking forward to hearing your feedback on it 🙂

  8. Hello Vicki,
    I am a second year teacher, who is currently working on a masters in curriculum and instruction. I came accross your blog and was very interested to search the posts. The first post I read was of course, Note Taking Skills for the 21st Century Student. This immediatley caught my eye because I myslef am learning how to be a teacher in the 21st century and adjusting to all the new ways that our students learn. I think that it is so important for us as teachers to make sure that we too are learning with our students and better understanding new ways to teach them.
    Last year I taught seventh grade, multiple subjects, at a small private school. I loved it and found myself learning more and more about teaching then I ever could have imagined. It was my first year in my own classroom, so of course this was to be expected. One thing I realized is that my students did not know how to take notes and struggled with writing. This was of no surprise to me, once I got to know them better, because they were all reading two grades or more below grade level and were also English Language Learners. I too found myself teaching them how to take notes and began with an outline format. I color coded things and they really liked this aspect. This was great for them because then they were asking for more of it and became very comfortable with it. This resulted in them using visuals and abbreviations in their own note taking. I loved seeing this.
    I wish I would have remembered the Cornell Notes. I remember learning about them in school as well as in my teacher preparation program but did not remember to teach them to my students. I now am inspired to teach this way of note taking to them and would like to be able to teach them skills for note taking, that are more appropriate for the 21st century, by the end of the year.
    Thank you so much for this post and your blog. I will be following you from now on and am now off to read Drama in the Classroom Activities 2.

    • Thank you Alisha for sharing this common experience! So many students are told to “take notes” but never taught how! I love the color coding and need to add this to my list– thanks for jogging my memory as I had a system!! Thanks Alisha! Glad the post was helpful!

  9. Hi Vicki,
    Great post! I am a complete believer in manual note-taking and have been teaching students the basics for years. I especially appreciated your point that, before students can branch out into using effective digital note-taking tools, they really need to know the fundamentals. As a high school librarian, I teach note-taking in the context of individual research. As this post mainly addresses live lectures, how do you teach students to take notes when doing individual research? I would love to see a post about this. I have students use a graphic organizer that they must print out (or re-create themselves) and write on by hand. They use at least one page per source, and divide each page into common subtopics. I would be really interested to see how other people teach note-taking for research.
    Thanks again!
    Alicia

    • Alicia – honestly, I go digital and teach them Diigo or Evernote. I teach analog to get the basics but once you have got them – research is better compiled mostly digitally, I think- particularly with Diigo which helps you see patterns. The digital notecards section of Reinventing Writing does this. That said- if we do research analog I like the age old notetaking method if index cards. I use it for my books (along with Diigo) and it works!
      Thanks for sharing and Happy Wednesday!!

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