Taking notes

My daughter started third grade today in her online curriculum. After sitting with her during her social studies lesson, it became clear to me that she’s going to forget what she’s learning unless she starts taking notes as she goes. But I don’t have the first clue as to how to “teach” her note-taking. ~Mom of homeschooled 3rd grader

It can be tempting to assume that in the digital age, students don’t need to take notes. After all, they can look up anything they forget, right?  What we overlook, though, is that students who learn how to take notes will often retain the material for much longer than students who take in their lessons more passively.

In fact, taking notes has multiple benefits including keeping students focused during a lesson, helping them connect the ideas being presented, and giving them a visual study aid that can help them prepare for quizzes and tests. Depending on the grade level of your student, we’d like to offer some note-taking techniques that will benefit them throughout their school career.

Taking Notes in Elementary School

The best way to introduce early elementary students to note-taking is with graphic organizers.  One graphic KWL Graphorganizer that works well for note-taking is the KWL type. That acronym stands for:

K – What I KNOW

W – What I WANT to know


For any lesson, lecture, or study where the topic is known ahead of time, a student can create a KWL organizer in a notebook or on a sheet of paper. Even before the lesson begins, they can fill in the two initial columns of information – – things they already know about the topic and things they’d like to know about it. Then, during the lecture, they can check off those things as they are discussed and add new information to the “L” column.  

As with most skills in the elementary years, students will benefit from seeing note-taking modeled. Take the time to sit down and watch an online lesson or lecture with your child. Have your note-taking materials in front of you, and let your child see you pause frequently to jot down the most important information that the speaker is trying to get across. Involve him or her in the process by asking questions like, “What do you think was the main idea of that section?”

For more help with note-taking at the elementary level, Time4Writing’s Wild Animal Tales: Informative Writing course instructs students how to take notes during the prewriting stage of an informative essay.

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Taking Notes in Middle School

As they move into middle school, the note-taking skills that students need to master will progress. They will need to develop the ability to summarize and make connections among ideas.Ven Diagram

The skills for summarizing in note-taking are similar to those we learn when writing a good concluding paragraph. Summarizing involves the ability to pick out the main idea of the information you’re learning about. If your student is struggling with this concept, take something that he has written notes about, and help him “rank” the information from most important to least important.

Creating visual, or picture notes, is one way to build the skill of connecting ideas. Using a venn diagram can help students visualize how information overlaps. Abraham Lincoln and John F. Kennedy, for example, lived in very different times and might seem to have little in common. But if you were to create a venn diagram about their lives, the middle area might include information such as that they were both assassinated, both were elected to congress in a year ending in “46,” and both were elected president in a year ending in “60.”

Taking Notes in High School

In preparation for college, high school students will need to learn to take notes that can serve as an effective study guide for quizzes and tests.  Here are some tips that can help high schoolers in this regard:

  • Read any assigned reading before a lecture or lesson. Having background information on the subject at hand will make it easier to pull out the most important items and save them in notes.
  • Pay attention to how information is given, as well as what information is given. If a teacher or online lesson emphasizes or repeats a point, this is probably something you want to note.
  • Add visual cues to your notes when possible. That’s right. You finally have permission to doodle! Charts, diagrams, and drawings will all help jog your memory as you study your notes.

Speaking of visual cues, one of the best formats for high school note-taking is a mind map. This is a way of Graphic Organizerconnecting ideas by outlining your notes with geometric shapes and connecting those shapes according to how those notes relate to one another. Although usually thought of as a way to organize one’s research for high school essay writing, mind maps can also be a wonderful tool for note-taking.

Usually, the core idea, or central point, of a lesson or lecture would be in the center of the map; and the related, or supporting, ideas would be connected to it from the outside. Of course, supporting ideas might be related to each other as well, and the map can reveal that, too. Research has shown that mind mapping not only helps students retain information for longer, but improves their ability to think critically about a subject.  

The critical skill of note-taking can’t be left to chance. Students from elementary to high school should be taught how to take notes and the many different ways to take notes, since each student’s note-taking techniques should fit their own unique learning style and way of best retaining information. Knowing how to key in on the most important information from a lecture or lesson, how to pay attention to cues that emphasize certain information, and how to learn to make connections among the information presented are skills that will make students at all grade levels successful note-takers.