Engaging with the Content: Take Note!

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For a recent assignment in my corequisite class, I distributed an assignment sheet, posted it online, and made in-class and online announcements to remind students of the due date, also listed in the syllabus. I sent an email as well, along with a reminder to our GroupMe chat. When I introduced the assignment in class, I wrote the assignment targets and due dates on the white board in our classroom. At the end of that session, a student stopped me from erasing the board: “Could you wait a minute?” He pulled out his phone and snapped a picture.

That moment—coupled with a number of assignments not submitted on time this semester—prompted me to pay more attention to HOW my students were taking notes, or more accurately, NOT taking notes. Following best practices for accessibility, I post outlines for most class sessions online prior to class, and this semester, I have made short videos with accompanying handouts for students to watch prior to class and review after class. In the videos, I add annotations to notes and remind students to make a note of certain points. Yet consistently, students in my corequisite composition courses do not take notes: I can see that they have not opened the online notes that accompany videos. I printed one set of notes and offered bonus credit for completing annotations as students watched the online videos. No one took me up on that offer.

Most come to class without pens or pencils; they sometimes open my posted outlines on laptops or phones, but with few exceptions, they neither type nor handwrite notes during class.  As I mentioned in my last post, much of the key information for my courses is available in multiple locations and multiple modalities. Corequisite students, however, are not engaging with that material.

An example of note takingAn example of note taking


In stark contrast are students in my upper division courses, who have taken all the materials offered and adapted it to their own needs, clearly engaged. When I asked them about their note-taking habits, here’s a sample of what they described:

  • Several students talked about the value of listening—one student, for example, said she takes minimal notes in class, using just a bulleted list of key words and concepts. She struggles with writing speed and spelling, and by noting just keywords and concepts, she can keep pace with listening and fill in the details afterwards. 
  • Another student noted that she likes taking notes by hand; it forces her to think about what is important and what she needs to write.
  • A couple of students in my advanced grammar course create a copy of posted notes in Google Docs, and both add comments and examples during class. They can discuss the notes as they prepare for class, and they compare their understanding of the material afterwards. The shared notes become the basis of their review materials and their questions for me.
  • Several students make copies of my handouts and use note-taking apps on tablets to annotate them during class. I have watched these students take pictures of illustrations or sentence analyses from class to insert into their digital notes.An example of a sentence diagramAn example of a sentence diagram
  • One of the students who takes notes by hand said she almost always re-writes them later, re-organizing and making sure things make sense while the ideas are still relatively fresh.
  • Another student who takes notes by hand pointed out that she uses multiple colors to annotate and organize various headers and examples, and she often adds her own comments, ideas, and examples in a different color. She described the satisfaction of “3D spatial awareness” as she locates information in the pages of her notebook. 

An example of a sentence diagramAn example of a sentence diagram


The strategies differ, but each one suggests intentional engagement with the content—multimodal, personalized, and very often writing-based. These same students have emailed me, responded to my emails, and shown up in my office to talk about their learning.  

Like many schools, we offer a student success course for first-year students, a course in which study strategies and note-taking skills are explicitly addressed. Yet 13 weeks into our first semester, most of these corequisite students have not engaged with the content through note-taking or taken advantage of numerous opportunities to do so. When the students meet with me in conference, I generally prod them to make notes, to bullet suggestions and then prioritize what they want to do next. But the advice is not sinking in.

Our writing fellows have volunteered to put together some note-taking and online success hacks for the corequisite classes next spring, and if the corequisite students are willing, the fellows will do some one-on-one mentoring. Still, I wonder what else might work for this group. How are you encouraging your corequisite students to take notes?

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About the Author
Miriam Moore is Assistant Professor of English at the University of North Georgia. She teaches undergraduate linguistics and grammar courses, developmental English courses (integrated reading and writing), ESL composition and pedagogy, and the first-year composition sequence. She is the co-author with Susan Anker of Real Essays, Real Writing, Real Reading and Writing, and Writing Essentials Online. She has over 20 years experience in community college teaching as well. Her interests include applied linguistics, writing about writing approaches to composition, professionalism for two-year college English faculty, and threshold concepts for composition, reading, and grammar.