Academic journal article History Review

Note-Taking: Purpose, Problems and Proposals: Drawing on Classroom Experience, Viv Sanders Offers Advice and Seeks Answers

Academic journal article History Review

Note-Taking: Purpose, Problems and Proposals: Drawing on Classroom Experience, Viv Sanders Offers Advice and Seeks Answers

Article excerpt

As talking about note-taking in a vacuum can be difficult, I refer here to an exercise I set my Year 12 students every June: taking notes upon Martin McCauley's 148-page The Origins of the Cold War, 1941-49 (Longman Pearson, 2003). They are given several weeks to do it, with the option of doing some work in the summer vacation. In the first week of the autumn term, I read and try to make helpful comments on their notes. This note-taking exercise causes some students great problems, despite my efforts to explain and justify the task as fully as possible, both orally and in a written booklet. I would like to be able to make this note-taking exercise go more smoothly.

Purpose of Note-Taking

I always hope that explaining to students why I am asking them to do a particular task makes the task more acceptable. I explain why I am setting them the note-taking task on McCauley.

(a) General purpose of note-taking

* Making notes on a book helps us to focus on the content and to remember it. The more we make notes, the easier it becomes.

* Notes should be easier for us to re-read than the book itself, as they will be shorter and in our own familiar style.

* Once formal education is finished, we often have to use documents or other books, so note-taking is a useful transferable skill.

* We usually need to acquire specific information from a book, and our notes will select and summarise what is important to us.

(b) Specific purpose of the task on McCauley

* Edexcel Module 6 tests knowledge of the origins of the Cold War, quite a difficult topic to get into. Reading this book reinforces what is taught in class, facilitates discussion and provides a really important foundation for the next few months' work.

* When faced with so many modules in Year 12, students find it difficult to find time to read around history topics. This exercise ensures that some reading is done and may encourage more.

* Module 6 requires students to understand extracts from historians and contemporaries, so reading McCauley is good practice.

* Module 6 requires the ability to recognise the perspective from which any extract is written. One of the historians frequently used for a source extract is McCauley, so students should be familiar with his style and interpretation. As well as offering a classic post-revisionist interpretation, he explains other historians' interpretations.

* Other source extracts in the examination are from contemporaries, and McCauley's book has an excellent collection of contemporary sources, some of which have been used in the exam.

* McCauley is quite a difficult read. In the exam, extracts have to be read, understood and used at a high-speed, so it is good to practise reading a historian who writes at a 'higher' level than we find in many textbooks.

* When I write my students' UCAS references, I want to be able to say that they are well-organised, read around the subject, select relevant information and have a good understanding of the topic we are studying. Completed notes on McCauley give me a lot of positive points that I can use in the reference.


Students will already have been set some notes-taking homework during Year 12, on small sections of books or on individuals covered in the course. They will also have been taking notes in lessons throughout the year. Therefore they have already been given some basic, preliminary advice on note-taking:

* Write legibly--you do not want to refer back to notes that you cannot read.

* Do not try to write everything out--summarise, always using your own words, never anyone else's, unless you want a pithy phrase or an illuminating quotation from a historian or a contemporary.

* Use abbreviations, but make sure that you do a key, so that when you reread your notes you know what they mean. …

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