Why is taking notes so important for our students? – Clare Howell

By Clare Howell

Taking notes is a huge part of the student’s learning experience, and yet many do not fully understand how and why this needs to be done. Research suggests that we forget 40% of what we have learned within 24 hours – even when we’ve written it down.

Why is taking notes so important for our students?

  • Retaining information for tests/ exams
  • Creating revision materials
  • Creating a resource to review later
  • Lessening the student’s reliance on memory and taking away the stress from the student who feels that they have a low level of concentration – this could well have a knock on effect on the students’ confidence/ self- esteem

All of the above are, of course, blindingly obvious. What is, perhaps, less obvious is that effective note- taking also allows the student to take ownership of their work – their notes are theirs alone, interpreting the lesson content (whether this be written or verbal) and allowing them to formulate their own ideas and opinions.

All of which seem to be obvious; however it would appear that not many students understand the importance of taking notes, and, indeed, have not been how to take notes which are concise and useful. Surely, were we to start the process in Year Nine (or earlier) this would embed the process in the psyche of the individual student and when the process really becomes crucial (Year 11/12/13) the student does not then have to be taught the process of note- taking.

If we as a school are expecting our students to take responsibility for their own learning, then we must also allow them to explore different ways in which they can take notes. For example, my Year 11 Media Studies class was recently astonished when I explained to them that “taking notes” is not simply “copying everything off the board”. In actual fact, simply copying from the board into the student’s book presents two main problems:

  • The student does not reflect upon what they are writing – they are simply carrying out physical task – also this task has usually to be completed within a time frame, students will rush the task as they don’t want to get left behind.
  • When the notes are needed, for example, for an examination or test, the student learns them by rote and simply regurgitates them. That is, of course, provided they are actually capable of learning by rote. If they are not, then the risk is that they do not fully understand what the subject content consisted of in the first place, then the student is likely to feel frustrated and disaffected, or anxious and under confident about that particular test/ examination/ assessment.

“That’s all very well Sir/ Miss… but how do I do it?”

Telling a student that they need to “take notes” is all well and good, but they are inevitably going to want to know how! On the next page are some ideas.

Cornell notes (or the “recall column” technique)

The Virginia Tech Cook Counseling Center has a fantastic recommendation of creating a “recall column” on the right hand side of each page of the exercise book.

The students use the main body of the page to take their notes (off the board, for example) and then “pull out” the main points and write them on the right hand side. (They also suggest leaving a space at the bottom of the page to summarise the whole page – this could potentially be a useful homework task.)

This recall column can be used for inserting keywords, phrases or key formula, or for adding additional notes to the ones written in the main column of the exercise book. It also can be used for recording thoughts and ideas on the topic.

Alternatively, printing the Powerpoint for your lesson off as a set of slides with lines on for the student to take notes could work in the same way – this depends entirely upon how keen your department is on keeping your photocopying costs nice and low!

The Power of the Post-It

Giving students a very small amount of space in which to take notes can improve their ability to condense a sizeable amount of lesson content into easily manageable notes. Give them a passage of content (adapt it to your subject – I might give mine a biography of an actor or a director, for example) – then challenge them to fit as much useful information from the passage onto the Post It as they can.

You can extend this activity by:

  • Getting them to swap Post Its and try to learn as much information from their partner’s sticky note as they can – the reason the sticky note is good for this is that it can be stuck somewhere, i.e. your learning partner’s forehead (in fact I challenge you to give a whole class Post It notes and AT LEAST ONE student will have their note stuck on their face before you’ve even explained the task) – this will make the process of recall marginally more fun.
  • Alternatively, limit the number of pieces of information they can write on their sticky note – tell them only three or five (not four – previous research that I have carried out suggests we remember things in threes and fives more effectively).

This can then be built into that particular lessons and then subsequent ones by telling students how you want them to note down that particular lesson’s content in their books – limit them in terms of space or in terms of how many points they can make. This will allow them to develop the ability to judge what is important/ useful  information and critique the lesson content for themselves.

Note taking template


This is a simple (editable) template for organizing project notes. Again, the space is limited to discourage students simply copying down reams of notes which then prove not to be useful.

Visual notes (doodling)

Encourage your students to explore cartoons/ pictures/ doodling as a way of recording lesson content. Although you may need to be prepared to set an example…


Develop a system of abbreviations with your students – then they won’t be wasting time (and ink/ wrist power) writing common words/ phrases over again. Students can create a ‘key’ in the front of their book which they can refer to if they are concerned they’ll forget. S for Shakespeare, for example, or U/G for Uses and Gratifications Theory, can save a lot of time!

Mind mapping

This is a useful link to help you teach students how to ‘mind map’.