Why should our students make notes?
My students seem to regard note-taking as a chore, and frequently make fragmented notes which are of little use. They rely too often on memory, which might be overly-ambitious in most cases. Some students outsource their note-taking to a device, a method which brings it own issues. For me, notes are a system for remembering both the material and how to use it; for storing details on exceptions and minutiae which we might otherwise miss; for staying organized and keeping track of what’s expected of us; and for producing language in written form, which balances the (perfectly justified) speaking-oriented tendencies of many classrooms.
Imagine the scene. You’ve done your research and preparation, delivered a great class, and provided a whiteboard filled with terrific information. The students aren’t writing down very much of this, and you wonder if their memories are truly as good as they believe.
They then file out of the classroom, their learning concluded for now.
Then, as the bell rings, something remarkable happens: the students stand and, almost without exception, pull out their phones to take a photo of the board.
Has this happened to you? I must admit, it took me by surprise. Was I so completely out of touch, I wondered, that I was unaware of the latest note-taking methods? Was the best and fastest way to learn now through technology? I felt left behind. A dinosaur. Until I discovered the truth.
Speaking with my students a little later, I found that somewhere between sixty and eighty percent of my students took that photo, filed it away on their phone, and then never looked at it again. It was as if pressing the button to take the photo had somehow replaced the learning process. Such a tactic, if I may venture an informed opinion, is almost always a failure. The student has forgotten to go through the required steps to acquire and practice this material, believing instead that once photographed, the information has been learned.
How to Encourage Good Note-taking
I invite my students to consider the act of writing. We look at its origins, the reasons why ancient societies took such trouble to devise and spread systems of literacy. Record-keeping was at the center of this, but over and above the practical considerations, writing was conceived of as a method for speaking into the mind of someone else. Or, in the case of note-taking, speaking to your future self. What, I ask my students, will your future self make of these notes? I encourage them to consider how thankful they will be upon inheriting coherent and fulsome notes; it is an investment which provides a reliably useful return on what is a very modest initial investment.
Here are some methods for encouraging old-school note-taking (yes, that ancient and half-forgotten activity requiring a notebook and a pen!) which should result in valuable notes to which your students repeatedly refer. We begin with some practical tips, and then move on to a philosophical discussion of aspects relating to this important issue.
Try These 4 Practical Ideas for Successful Note-taking
What Goes in the Book?
Here are TeflGuy’s golden rules for using a notebook.
- If it goes on the board, write it down.
- If you’ve never seen it before, write it down.
- If you believe that your future self will benefit from the recording of this information, write it down.
- Make a new page for each day, with the date and the name of the class; include sub-headings on the different topics covered (vocab, idioms, structure, etc).
- Bring your notebook and a pen to every class. No exceptions.
- Handouts and other material should be filed in a folder, with color-coded sections for different topics. Date everything, so that you know the proper time to review it.
- Consider a separate vocab book, but make it a vocab practice book, not just another long list of words. Include sentence practice for every new word.
- Think of the notebook as an instruction manual for the language you’re learning. You successfully used new language in today’s class – well done! Now, tell your future self how to do it. It’s like making a cake; if you used 50g less flour, and your cake turned out even better than before, you’d make a note on the recipe for next time.
- The teacher could check notebooks, especially for those new to this method. Stay away from shaming those whose writing is poor or indecipherable; many of us have impairments in this regard, and writing requires sustained focus, a skill which is on the wane.
Go Step by Step
Let’s simplify the language learning process by organizing it into five steps.
Encounter – Define – Practice – Review – Use
It’s my belief that each of these steps must be taken in order for the final step – free, fluent, spontaneous use of the language – to become possible. Without a definition, the word won’t enter our lexicon. Without practicing it, we won’t become confident enough to try using it. Without review, we’re likely to forget it, and so on.
Now, if a student takes a photo of the whiteboard, which of these steps are they taking? The first, certainly, perhaps also the second. But definitely not the others. Seeing or experiencing a word is not the same as learning and using it. Paying lip-service to the learning process, as my students unfortunately were, does everyone a disservice; put more bluntly, it’s a lazy way to learn. Most importantly, the learning we rely on for improving language skills simply won’t happen.
Notes Are Production
Some teachers place accuracy at the center of their classes. Others favor pronunciation or breadth of vocabulary. I’ve always thought it most useful to consider production as the key to successful language learning. Put it like this: you might know 20,000 words, but if you can’t say any of them, what’s the point? You may have memorized grammar rules like a savant, but if you can’t use those rules to express yourself clearly, you’ve wasted your time. In China, we argued constantly about the word ‘knowledge’, which my students saw as the whole point of learning. They were shocked when I announced that I didn’t give two hoots about ‘knowledge’. I was much more interested in skills and production; I didn’t so much care about what they knew, but I really wanted to expand what they could say.
Note-taking is a method of production. To omit this is to chop off a major limb of the learning tree. Besides, many of our students do precious little writing in their own time; note-taking makes them a captive audience who are obliged into written production. Every word of this is helpful to their learning.
Turn Off, Tune In, Write Down
Here’s where I’m going to sound like a visitor from the 19th Century.
Imagine for a moment those cathedral builders of times past. They would labor for years on a single piece of stone, crafting it until it was perfect. The gratification must have been immense; a chunk of their career had been well spent in the service of their art and faith. With the advent of mechanization, such experiences became somewhat less rich; not years, but minutes were required, and after such brief labor, with so much help from a machine, can there still be that satisfied smile, that reassuring knowledge of a job done well?
I’m not saying we should return to the days of scribes sitting in rows, copying illuminated texts onto vellum with quills, but I have the sense that classroom technology may have gone too far. Typing the word isn’t the same as writing it, and neither of these are the same as saying it. In the context of the current ‘Copy and Paste’ era, I submit – and I could well be wrong – that information which is written with a pen in a book is learned more thoroughly than that committed to a means of electronic storage. I’ll say it this way: that which is automated may not be as considered.
Good notes are a symbol of concentration and diligence, and I believe the skills required to make them are worthy of emphasis.
I hope your students agree, and find their notes useful methods for speaking to their future selves.
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