The image shows a piece of paper divided into three sections. One is a narrow “cue column” section on the left hand side of the paper. This section details examples of possible questions, drawings, timelines or other additional work that can add understanding to a topic. The majority of the paper is used by a core “notes” section. This section is filled with an example of a mind-map. The final section is a narrow row across the bottom. The section is filled with a summary of the information in the column and in the main notes section.
Note taking is a perennial topic of conversation in education. In school, teachers struggle with teaching it, students struggle to master it and everyone struggles to find the time to make it useful. Beyond school, students at university level are bombarded with commands to take notes with laptops, without laptops, throughout the lecture, only after the lecture or every time in between. At work, few of us manage to take notes that serve as more than a surface record of some of what went on. I’ve found myself explaining a few things about note-taking a lot lately, so I’ve tried to drop most of it here for future reference.
One of the perennial “best” methods, often used to support college-readiness programmes in the US (such as AVID) is the Cornell note-taking method (or, for those of us that write the title out a million times a semester, C-note(s)).
Cornell notes are divided into three sections: the note-taking column (where, unsurprisingly, the notes are taken), the cue column (which a student fills in after the notes to expand on/reinforce/review what they have taken notes on) and the summary section (where the student summarises what is on the page (not what the topic involves!)). The formal Cornell process is record/question/recite/reflect/review and is meant to take students through the first exposure to a new idea (record), questioning (examining what you know and creating additional questions to further your learning), reciting (checking what you know), reflecting on what you know and reviewing what you know. This process echoes current work popular around some perennial learning strategies such as dual coding, spaced retrieval and elaboration. (The reciting and reviewing elements also tie directly into the work around frequent assessment of learning).
In the classroom, the strict version of C-notes might not always be appropriate. Luckily, the flexible nature of the C-note format means that notes can be taken based on student preference or specific instructions. Prefer a mind-map (like I did in the picture above)? fine! Want to write bullet-pointed notes? those will also fit! The “cue” column can also be used to do dual coding, questions and really any sort of revisit that a student or teacher can imagine. This flexibility, while not necessarily part of strict C-note practice, makes it more useful across multiple disciplines and settings than it might be otherwise. In fact, many have started dropping the formal Cornell notes designation recently, going to a “focused note-taking” format that asks students to go through five distinct steps:
This evolution recognises the strengths of the Cornell method while freeing up everyone involved to develop notes that work for their context and goals. Students may struggle with these more abstract steps in the first instance (as may their teachers), so I think there is an argument to continue starting with traditional C-notes but recognising that there is untapped potential once better habits around note-taking are established. Want somewhere to explore this and more? My Learning Essentials has a note-making resource that takes you through a huge variety of techniques.
I’ve been spending a lot of time, lately (well I should say a lot *more* time, really) reading books on habits and learning and thinking about how what I’m reading and learning applies to teaching and progress in general. After presenting on learning styles, and getting the first draft of a paper on feedback in, I have really started missing the day to day reality of teaching, and the opportunity teachers have to watch (and aid) the sort of small victories that gradually grow into big changes.
Those small steps to big changes come up in “The Power of Habit” by Charles Duhigg. This book seems especially relevant right now because it deals with habits in three different areas: individual, corporate, and societal and lets its readers understand how habits exist on micro and macro levels. This is not a self-help book (although it does address (and follow up in the appendix) some methods that readers might use on their own habits or goals), instead Duhigg spends significant time explaining, from current research and historical perspective, how habits work–giving those who read it the understanding that enables change, instead of instructions on what to do–instructions that can’t cover for every eventuality and therefore might fall down at crucial moments.
That, in fact, is one of the key take aways from the book. Habits are not changed by knowing a magic formula (although understanding the “habit loop” will help) or by sheer will power (although, again, knowing how will power can be affected by effort will help); habits are changed through an understanding of how they work and a series of small successes over the obstacles that can derail the best efforts. Duhigg works to make sure his readers understand the process of habit forming–something that I have found myself recently focusing on when talking about teaching and learning.
As exam season approaches, I’ve been giving a few talks on learning styles (and study skills) around the Uni (and to random people at the yard–I have a difficult time not teaching…), and one aspect I keep coming back to is that giving students an understanding of a process is often as important as helping them to understand content. Once students (or anyone!) understand how they learn best, they can not only seek out opportunities to learn but also are better prepared to compensate for anything that makes their learning more difficult. Differentiated instruction is not just about preparing lessons that allow all students to learn, it is also about allowing students to take control of their own learning. Continue reading →