How do your students take notes?


My co-teacher and I have been concerned about our students’ note taking skills this year. Perhaps not surprisingly for eleven year old children who complete much of their work using computers, they are fond of cutting and pasting whenever possible. We have discussed extensively with them the need for them to develop note-taking as a skill. How plagiarism is illegal and how they will be severely penalised if they plagiarise in high school and beyond. Yet still we come across them thinking it is okay to copy a chuck of text and then change a few key words. As if by magic that makes it their own! As we increase the amount of choice our students have, this is becoming more of a problem to spot. Gone are the days when all students wrote a report on the same Antarctic animal, making it easy to spot similar sentences.

So we are on the hunt for note-taking skills and strategies for primary students. This year we have used the following:

  • Insisting they note take using only bullet points by hand into a notebook.
  • Using Microsoft One-note. So that they have a page for bullet point notes, another for their draft copy, another for published work and finally a page of bibliography links.
  • Using Microsoft word and asking them to hand in a sheet of notes, as well as their final documents.

Note-taking by hand worked well, especially if we insisted on bullet points, forcing them to be concise. Using One-note also worked well but some primary students found  it difficult to master and forgot to use it. Using Microsoft word did not work for us. Many students failed to supply notes as well as their final copy and we were forever having to remind them to do this.

Yet we do not want to insist that they must take notes by hand. As we move increasingly into a digital age there must be new and better ways to learn this vital skill? Ways that maybe you know of or are using?

So my question today is, how can we teach primary students how to take effective notes without copying directly from their research sources?

Leave a Reply


  1. Carl

    Have you tried using Diigo? I have used this successfully by setting up a group which students belong to so you can see what they tag, what they highlight, and what notes they take. The students use different colour highlighters to correspond with different paragraphs they have planned to write about or questions they have asked. They use the note tool to paraphrase information that they located.

  2. Hi Henrietta

    I like to use a note-making grid for students of this age, especially when new to note-making (note – NOT note-taking). A printed version is good to start with, but it works in digital form as well. It might only be one or two sides and has rows and columns. Rows might be for different questions or topics, and columns might indicate different sources of information (that can then be compared) OR different things that you want to compare. eg planets, or cities, forms of transport, authors, or whatever. Bullet points are put into the cells of the table and students (I find) automatically revert to putting simple clear information in their own words. It’s amazing.

    This works well in a collaborative format too. Students or pairs of students can work on one of the ‘things’ and everyone’s work is automatically collated into the one document for sharing and comparing and drawing conclusions from.

    By immediately putting information into the grid and comparing the responses across different things (or from different resources) they are already starting to sort and organise their findings. All they have to do is look across the rows. This is better than having them write on bits of paper, or type/copy/paste on one thing and then have to take a further step to organise it later. It also forces them to be brief.

    Sorry, this is probably a bit garbled – hopefully you can make sense of it!

  3. AJ Kajewski

    BEFORE note-taking I remember having to perform copious amounts of highlighting and summarising from text books.
    Students can use current PDF readers (Adobe 10 or above) to perform both these skills.
    When I demonstrate this on the IWB I talk through the process and thinking in the activity.
    It would be me guess that the bits a student wants to highlight are also likely to be the bits they are traditionally tempted to cut and paste. By highlighting over a document it is a strong visual prompt as to HOW MUCH they are using.

    By being able to type thoughts and comments right there IN the document (over the top) there is no switching and flicking between pieces of information.

    However I also love the idea of Diigo – just an age issue with 11yr olds.

  4. Thank you AJ, I love the idea that highlighting can reflect back to a student just how much information they are considering using and you are right in that it is usually those passages which they want to copy. I will look into using a PDF reader to assist them.
    I am unsure why using Diigo with 11 year old students is a problem, since the group we are saving things into is a private one? And Diigo itself has nothing we could find saying that students had to be a certain age. Am I missing something here?

  5. Thank you for this idea Carol, I really like the concept of note making not note taking and the use of a grid. I am off to try and come up with one that will work for our next research project. We already use google docs in the classroom so I see no reason why this could not be done within that, so that they also collaborate in real time together.

  6. Thank you Carl, yes we do use Diigo and have a class group going. So they are used to using the highlighter and sticky note function but I had not thought of just using sticky notes. I love the idea that different colours could work for different paragraphs.

  7. Viviene Tuckerman

    Very true AJ, I remember having research notes to study for a report or essay. I would normally read through once and highlight larger areas, which seemed particularly relevant.
    I would then go back with a pen and heavily underline smaller parts in those which I had highlighted and finally add stars in the margin for what I had honed right down to what I considered the essence.
    I would then use these bits as quotes, and analyse them, combined with my own ideas. Highlighting a pdf is a great idea.

  8. I think there are two parts to this – the teaching of note “making” ( I like that term better too) and rewriting the notes to complete the assignment in a way that shows understanding not just regurgitation of original sentences with a few words changed.

    A few years ago I attended PD in a program called Reading to Learn by Sydney Uni professor David Rose. The cornerstone of that program is note making and rewriting. We need to model extensively with children how to identify not just key words and phrases but what they actually mean in the context of the text. Once highlighted,analysed ( is it the what, who, where, when, why, how of the text ) and annotated, we then jointly reconstructed the text from the notes ( without the original text ). This made the students ( and yes they were Grade 5/6 students ) think about the meaning of the notes and construct sentences that showed their understanding without copying the structure or whole sections of text. We then returned to the original text and checked that our texts conveyed the same information, rewriting if we left something important out.

    It took a lot of modeling and shared writing but after a few months my students were effectively highlighting relevant words and phrases ( not coloring in or skipping entire paragraphs) , annotating and producing reports that sounded like them, not Wikipedia.

    I now do the highlighting using Diigo ( Education version is fine for any age ), iBooks/Goodreader/Notability on IPads but still most often on paper.

    My other expectation is that if their reports are published online on their blogs or Edmodo, they have to hyperlink to their sources to prove they haven’t copied and pasted. If on paper, precise links and book referencing are required to cross check. Again this is all modeled by me regularly as I often use my own writing as texts in class to reinforce the skills expected.

    It’s a long term process but it gets results.

  9. Thank you once again for your interesting and well thought out reply Mark. Some more great ideas. It seems to me that once again continuous modelling, checking and reflecting is once again key to helping our students learn.

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  17. Cathy Atkinson

    Great discussion Henrietta. I have tweeted a link to it – I hope that is ok with you. This is a discussion we have almost daily at my school and your discussion here offers suggestions that just may work! Thank you. Your blog is inspirational – I am just resurrecting mine out of the ether and have so much to relearn.

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