When I opened my email yesterday morning, my attention was immediately drawn to the title of the most recent message from Faculty Focus: “The Lost Art of Note Taking When Writing a Research Paper.” To be honest, I always approach such articles with trepidation. I get a little tired of reading rants about how inferior today’s students are to “us, when we were in school.” And I get really tired of reading (and hearing) about how students need to learn to do the same things we did in the same ways we did them. Fortunately, I was in for a pleasant surprise.

Yes, the brief article did hearken back to the writer’s days as a student, but the author, Matt Birkenhauer, was not advocating a return to the stacks of rubber-band-bound 3×5 index cards many of us can remember toting around whenever we were engaged in a research project. (At least, not very hard.) Instead, he was making the very good point that many college students have not had previous experience in the art of taking notes on their reading.

The practice has been largely lost to the ease of “copy and paste,” digital (or other) highlighting, and bookmarking. But clearly, these practices do not evoke the same mental processes as those evoked by the simple act of note-taking. So, while the author was NOT advocating a wholesale return to the 3×5 index card, he WAS advocating a return to the mental challenges of note-taking and the skill sets developed and honed by the process. Summarizing, quoting, and paraphrasing are not skills our students necessarily bring with them to our classrooms, and, that being the case, we need to choose how to respond to that reality. We can complain about it … or we can get busy and teach.

As a writing teacher, Birkenhauer advocates having students bring copies of articles to class, spend 30-45 minutes taking notes on them, and then spend the remaining time talking about the process. Of course, not everyone is going to be willing or able to devote that kind of time to this undertaking, but I would argue that teaching students to take notes on their reading need not take class time. Instead, I would recommend the following (or some adaptation of it; you’ll be able to come up with a lot of those):

  1. Spend 5-10 minutes introducing students to the terms summarize, quote, and paraphrase. Explain the difference. Post the definitions on your web page; give them a handout; put them in Blackboard; whatever.
  2. Ask the students to TAKE NOTES on their current reading assignment. Explain that taking notes on the reading will extend the amount of time required for doing the assignment, but will also increase their understanding and retention of the material.
  3. The first time or two that you do this, explain that you want them to indicate in their notes whether the material they’ve written down has been summarized, quoted, or paraphrased.
  4. Use the students’ notes on the reading assignment as their “ticket in” to class or hold them accountable in some other way.
  5. Select 2-3 examples of really good notes and make those available to the students as models.

Once students have mastered the skill, you will want to help them transfer it to the writing of researched papers, possibly by stating an interim deadline by which you want to see the notes they’ve taken on their sources so far.

Yes, teaching students to take notes does mean at least some additional effort on our part, but it is effort well spent. And in my book, teaching students beats complaining about them any day!