Cracking the Code on How to Study: Teaching Students How to Take Notes Is One of the Most Important Things a Teacher Can Do Because It Will Save Students Time and Lead to Real and Sustained Learning

By Fournier, Caitlin; Hess, Kayla | Phi Delta Kappan, December 2012 | Go to article overview

Cracking the Code on How to Study: Teaching Students How to Take Notes Is One of the Most Important Things a Teacher Can Do Because It Will Save Students Time and Lead to Real and Sustained Learning


Fournier, Caitlin, Hess, Kayla, Phi Delta Kappan


Where were you, Ms. French, when we started to learn? Ms. French, our 11th-grade chemistry teacher, taught us the secret code for unlocking the art of note taking. After over a decade in school, we finally had a teacher give us a lesson on how to actually take notes from a science textbook. She explained that there's a different method of studying for each class and subject and that we should figure out what method works best for each class. For a science textbook, the most important thing is to read for facts and look at all diagrams. But a science textbook is nothing like an English book, she said, therefore we shouldn't read it the same way, which led to a surprising revelation: We really didn't know how to study. We had spent years in school "studying," but without the code, we had been wasting a lot of time.

Our notes weren't helping us when we went back to study because either we were missing information or had not written them in the best format--color, which helps differentiate ideas and keeps the notes from blending all together. Also, we learned not to copy word for word. Transcribing a textbook doesn't help. In fact, it hurts because it doesn't lead to comprehension. Notes in someone else's words never stick the way notes in your own words do. In one 50-minute class, Ms. French showed us that we took notes in the completely wrong way and had been doing so ever since middle school. We follow Ms. French's advice every time we take notes for a science class and are adapting it for our other classes.

Note taking isn't instinctive, not in the least. But it is vital that we learn to do it so well and deeply that it becomes instinctive. This means students must be taught how to take notes, how to study, and how to be prepared. Otherwise, we can't succeed. Learning to take notes is time well-spent, but has somehow been overlooked in efforts to cover more curriculum. Note taking is actually more efficient for everyone--students, teachers, and frustrated families trying to help. We could never figure out why we didn't do well when we knew we had studied hard. Now that we know the code, we still study hard, but have better outcomes and time left over to do other things we like to do. Ms. French, you rock!

We looked back at our years of schooling to realize that no teacher had taught us how to study for a specific subject. In elementary school, studying was very limited. Our parents held our hands and guided us so we didn't really learn any skills. They just told us what to do. By middle school, teachers and parents assumed we had the skills to deal with preparing for tests by ourselves. We went from having a bike with training wheels to a motorcycle on the highway, with nothing in between. This was overwhelming to say the least.

We ended up stumbling through middle school trying to figure out how to study, which we never really figured out. In high school, studying became essential, teachers didn't treat us like babies anymore and expected us to be able to function, but we still didn't have a clue.

Scary realization

The realization that we didn't know how to study was very scary. Ask any student--that first high school test was horrifying when it became apparent that we hadn't studied well enough. But was it really the right kind of studying? My first high school test was for U.S. history, says Kayla. I was shocked at how unprepared I was. Afterwards, when I got a C on my test, all I could say to my mom was, "But, but, I swear I studied." It wasn't enough, and I spent all year trying to figure out how to actually do well in the class. …

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