on note taking…

I’m wondering, this month, how everybody else out there in Library Land handles the seemingly simple, but actually quite perplexing, task of taking notes in the service of research. I’m not asking about anything fancy like how you skillfully coach students in the art of extracting useful and relevant information as they close read from a source. We not even there yet. I’m talking about the BASIC, BASIC, BASICS of note taking.

  • Do your students take notes on paper or in some digital format?
  • Do they take notes in a specific research management platform like NoodleTools or in a word processing tool like Google Docs?
  • Do they use 3X5 or 4X6 index cards?
  • As they are scribing their notes, do they cluster the facts/content by the source in which the content is found, or do students cluster facts/content by the research question that the fact/content addresses?
  • Do you, in your library program, force students to take notes in a particular way or is it up to each student? Or teacher?

Our Context

Note taking has been knocking around in the cavern that is my head of late because since we started school in the first week of August my partner in the library, @NikkiLibrarian, and I have have been madly taking our middle schoolers through the basics of research. Our current middle school is 7 periods a day. Each period is 45-minutes. As a rather large school, we have 5 classes of 6th graders, 7 classes of 7th graders, and 7 classes of 8th graders. Within this framework, we’ve seen every 6th grader 6 times, every 7th grader 5 times, and every 8th grader 4 times. Let me tell you, that is a LOT of lessons!

In each grade’s lesson arc we took a project assigned by their teachers and worked with them on defining the information tasks; locating and using content in books, databases, and websites;  learning how to navigate in NoodleTools (new to us this year); and taking notes.

We are a 3rd grade through 12th grade library. Our information and research curriculum is still growing and taking form, but our emphasis in the middle school years seems to be moving toward helping students get very comfortable and confident with the MECHANICS of research:

  • Searching the library catalog.
  • Using call numbers to find a book on the shelf.
  • Using tables-of-contents and indexes to locate information within a source.
  • Searching in databases.
  • Locating the bibliographic data needed to cite an item within a book, in a database, on a website, or from an online image.
  • Taking notes.

Note: We do engage our middle schoolers in discussions about source quality and the differences between databases and websites, but over the years I’ve come to be convinced that middle school students just lack the necessary life experience and critical thinking skills required to truly practice good source evaluation. Rather than force a task for which they are not yet developmentally ready, we’ve chosen to help them get really good at the mechanics of citation so we can, largely, take that instructional piece off the table in our high school classes. This, effectively, allows us to invest our time and energy in high school classes in driving deeper learning about source selection and evaluation.

Our Quandry with the Note Taking Piece

This brings me back to note taking. We are a 1:1 iPad school and, I think, this is what is perplexing me about teaching note taking in with our middle schoolers. Our students’ iPads don’t currently allow them to work with two windows open at the same time. For me, this is a PROBLEM. Here’s why…

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Reading an eBook is an abstraction.
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Taking notes on a device is an abstraction.

As I see it, when I can see both abstractions side-by-side, the device “holds” both abstractions for me so I can concentrate on reading the content and extracting that which is useful.

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Side-by-side windows help keep the two abstractions clear to me so I can concentrate on my content and note taking.

When I can only see one abstraction at a time, my brain becomes responsible for “holding” each abstraction AND reading the content AND extracting the parts that are useful.

I need to read this on my device. I need to remember what I read. I need to close the source app. I need to open my notes app. I need to scribe what I read in note form. I need to identify the source from which the note has come. I need to close my notes app and re-open my ebook and go back to reading where I left off..

When this is my process, I find that I run out of “brain power” and I cannot take notes well. I have students (even middle school students) who can, indeed, take notes well this way on an iPad, but I, personally, find the task and work flow very challenging. I think that good iPad note takers are a minority of students.

My (Not So Universal) Solution

I have become an advocate for the use of paper notes, but given our school culture I do not “dictate” note taking formats. I have middle school teachers who have a strong (and admirable) desire to give students choice and agency when it comes to the way that they take notes and I am okay with that. I just like to have the discussion with teachers ahead of time so that they are aware of the advantages and disadvantages inherent to each. The only requirement that I impose is that however the notes are taken, a note must always be connected in an explicit and unambiguous way to a specific source in some form.

Here are some iterations of paper note taking formats we have been using this year.

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Our “starter” format developed by Sumoha Jani, our 6th grade Project Inquiry class teacher.
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Our “a little beyond starter” format used by 6th graders later in the year, 7th, and 8th graders. The form started with lines in the boxes, but some students note by webbing or drawing so this works gives them more flexibility.
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One source to a page because sometimes you need more room.
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Sometimes you just need the citation box so you can paste it into your composition notebook on the page(s) where your notes will live.
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Sometimes you have to cite a lot of images for a project and we’re finding that sometimes gathering information on paper before entering it into NoodleTools is faster for some students than switching between apps in real time .

People will Use Technology the Way THEY Find Useful, Not How YOU Expect Them To…

Because of my iPad abstractions theory (BTW, the whole abstractions thing is totally just based on my personal observations so they aren’t researched-based in any other way, shape, or form.) I purposely chose not to introduce the NoodleTools notecard capability in our NoodleTools rollout. When you give resourceful, tech-confident people choice and agency, however, they tend to exercise those choice and agency muscles and within a few days, teachers and students were using the NoodleTools notecard feature–many of them with absolute glee!

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Some of my teachers LOVE the ability to have students copy/paste/enter original text and paraphrase in the same space!

Aside: Seriously, people, everything would be SO MUCH EASIER if you all would just do things my way, but okay, I get that it’s not all about me in the end (Honestly, in my head it actually will always be ALL about me, but well…Nobody else goes along so I try to keep my delusions of grandeur in my head where they belong…). Hahaha!

And then on to High School…

When our students move on to high school, we find that high school students and teachers come to develop their own note taking systems. Some continue to group notes/facts/quotes by the source in very much the same way that notes are gathered on the worksheets. Many are finding, however, that it is oftentimes more effective to either cluster notes by topic or to just write all of your notes out as you find them and cluster like ideas together later in the process. We recommend that they skip spaces between notes and write only on the fronts of sheets so that if they choose, notes can be cut into strips and grouped. Our students do a lot of “co-construction” in their classes so this is a method that is modeled for them frequently. Personally, I find it messy and challenging, but I have teachers who’ve had students do it once and found that students continued the practice even when it wasn’t required in subsequent projects.

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Our high schoolers are taught to put “sources consulted” into NoodleTools FIRST, then use parenthetical citation to tie a note to its source.
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Then use MLA parenthetical citation format to link your note to its source of origin.
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A National History Day note taking template developed by a high school social studies teacher to scaffold the note taking process for frosh. I like how the structure is a bridge between what our students did in 8th grade and what they need to do as Frosh. Note taking for older students is much less structured.

Where Do We Go From Here?

I think with note taking, there are always going to be individual differences amongst our students. A middle school student that struggles with executive function and cannot keep track of a notebook or physical pieces of paper, might well be best off learning to take notes with NoodleTools notecards or in a Google Doc. I totally get that. I’m just trying to think through my reasoning for advocating my positions when it comes to note taking.

When we’re working on a project collaboration and I ask, “How are your kids going to take notes?” I frequently have teachers tell me, “I like to have my students choose the method that works for them.” One of the things that I’ve come to realize is that teachers frequently don’t realize that nobody has ever explicitly taught their students multiple methods for taking notes. Everybody assumes that someone else has covered that ground. I guess, though, that’s why we have librarians who keep track of stuff like that over a 15 year curriculum! I’m fond of pointing out that a choice of the one method that you know how to do is, in reality, not a choice at all. I’m fortunate to work with teachers who get that and work with us to try to address this need in as clean a way as it possible given our school culture.

At some point we need to carve out time in the curriculum to work with students on note taking work flows in paper formats, note taking work flows in digital tools like Pages or Google Docs, and note taking work flows in research management platforms like NoodleTools. Only after our students have experimented well with more than one method of note taking, have we really given students any choice at all.

For future consideration:

Okay, now that you know that you prefer to take notes on (choose one):

[  ] Paper     [  ] NoodleTools     [  ] Google Docs

What do you actually write?

That’s a whole other post for a whole other day!

So how are you handling note taking in your research curriculum, folks? I’d love to hear about what you’re doing and what you are thinking!

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