The essential skill of note-taking

August 29, 2016


The school year has started again after summer.

Or at least in my part of the world.

Students get ready for school, enter your classroom, do their work.

And take notes ferociously.

Or do they?

In my experience, students have to take a lot of notes. (Remember, it’s ‘taking notes’, not ‘making notes’. A common mistake made by teachers in The Netherlands)

But have they ever been instructed how to do this?

Instruction on taking notes

In my first lessons I always spend some time on explaining the concept of note-taking. To my surprise, even third graders seem to pick up from this, despite the fact they should be experts by know. They have taken notes for two years already!

What can you do to help them? And what does this have to do with CLIL?

Like I mentioned in another post on scaffolding, this technique can be used to help students who might not be able to take certain steps on their own. You provide some guidelines and scaffolds like example sentences or words to help them along.

This can be applied to note taking as well.

Location of notes

The first thing I tell my students is to choose from three different options as to the location of their notes:

  1. In between their assignments, with a colourful and clearly defined box around it
  2. On the right pages of their notebooks, while the assignments are placed on the left side
  3. In the back of the notebook, working forward. The assignments start the other way around.

I am surprised every year again by the sheer amount of students of have not thought of these options.

Or worse, have never heard of these options of note-taking before.

Colour coding

Whenever I provide notes that I want students to copy, be it a sentence or a longer piece of text, I colour code it.

Quite often I use the colour green, don’t know why.

As soon as green text pops up in my presentations during my instruction, students know they have to copy it into their notebooks.

It’s a simple but effective way of making sure students know what to copy. And what NOT to copy.

You don’t want students to copy everything you write down, right? Maybe occasionally, but not always.

As some students find it hard to determine what takes priority, this helps a great lot.


In order to help your students with note-taking activities, you can use scaffolding to help them focus on the parts that are essential.

To prepare for an instruction you can ask some students some questions you want them to think about (alone or in pairs) after which you ask the question again after your instruction to check if they have understood.

Another way of using this might be to ask students to answer a couple of questions according to your explanation.

In my case, I asked students to copy the questions “what is commutative?” and “what are like terms?” into their notebooks. They had to answer these questions by listening to my instruction.

Using these methods of note-taking, you help students to prioritise what they have to listen to and you help them to stay focused.

Another reason to try this is that students are essentially creating their own summary of your instruction.


As you might have noticed by now, I think some time should be spend on instructing students how to take notes. These techniques are very simple to integrate into your lesson and require only a little preparation time.

Essentially, the only preparation time it takes is you asking yourself: What do I want my students to learn from my instruction?

I would argue every teacher should think of this question before starting any instruction at all.

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