Note taking: a basic skill on the road to inquiry


I’d quit trying to tell my students to “paraphrase” or “say in their own words” what they found out on the internet or elsewhere. At worst it doesn’t work. At best it works superficially. Having to paraphrase a sentence or piece of text that’s staring nice and beautiful in front of you is unnatural. Instead, teach your students how to take notes. When the students are using the internet for their research (where copy and paste is at its best) make it your first priority to start with a note taking assignment. What is the most important word of phrase in the paragraph (e.g., for a biography of a famous poet date and place of birth, famous collections, phrases pointing to important events, family, etc)? Evaluate what they give you back. The next day or even the week after when the resource is out of reach ask them to use their notes to write about the researched poet. In reading, we use short memory to process the syntax of a sentence and derive appropriate meaning from the specific arrangement of words. It is even possible that we have a specialized short term system to process syntactic structure specifically [1]. Either way, the details of the syntactic structure are gone. Even a short while after we read a sentence, we  recall the content not the structure.   Back to your students. With nothing but their notes in front of them, they will have to ‘say it in their own words’. And they will say what they have understood. In trying to put it together they will know what they missed, what they didn’t quite get or they will simply  consolidate what they learned. Note taking assignments are a win-win.

When is a good time to introduce note-taking? Early. At my daughter’s school, note-taking training starts at second grade and it seems to work welll. So much so, that in a recent trip to the Air and Space museum in Washington [2], she got all equipped with backpack, notebook and pens to take notes and was truly devastated when she realized that on that super-crowded day note taking was not an option. You must see her sad face posing next to Amelia Earhart (the object of her research). My daughter is also inspired and role models beautifully after Jack, the note taker in Mary Pope Osborne’s magnificent Magic Tree House adventures (elementary school level) [3].

References and resources



  1. Caplan and Walters. 1999. Verbal working memory and sentence comprehension. Behavioral and Brain Sciences,  22:77-94.Cambridge University Press
  2. Smithsonian National Air and Space Travel Museum
  3. Mary Pope Osborne’s “Magic Tree House” site.
  4. Photo retrieved from  this site.

One minute video on the famous Cornell note-taking method for college students: