Teaching Opinion

A Noteworthy Note-Taking System

By David Ginsburg — May 19, 2012 2 min read
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“Look it up in your notes,” I told students when they asked me for information that either I had already given them or they had found on their own. “You’re the teacher. You’re supposed to answer our questions,” students responded.

“The answers to those questions should be in your notes.” I replied. But many students didn’t take notes. And most students who did take notes were too irresponsible or disorganized to benefit from them. Some kids took notes one day, but didn’t bring them to class the following day. Others, meanwhile, brought their notes to class but couldn’t find information when they needed it. Sometimes this was because they used the same notebook for more than one class. Other times it was because they didn’t use a notebook, and instead crammed their papers into folders. Then there were those kids who filed school work in their pockets--it wasn’t the dog that ate their papers; it was the washing machine.

High school students not taking or using notes--how infuriating! But after confronting students about this for months, I realized it wasn’t their fault. They weren’t unmotivated or incapable. They just hadn’t learned how to take, organize, and use notes.

I thus introduced students to Concept Cards, a one card, one concept note-taking system where students write the name of a concept on the blank side of a 4 x 6 index card and related information on the lined side. They then punch a hole in the upper corner of each card (or, better yet, punch holes ahead of time) so that they can keep their cards together with a 2" loose leaf ring.

My students responded to Concept Cards even better than I expected. The information on each card was the same as it would have been had students used notebooks, but the presentation and organization were different. Concept Cards provided students a compact, hard to lose (some students clipped their Concept Card rings onto three-ring binder rings), unlikely to be laundered, and distinct set of notes for my class. Some students found Concept Cards so helpful that they made separate sets of cards for other classes.

I’ll share in a future post some tips for maximizing the benefits students get from Concept Cards. For now, consider including index cards and loose leaf rings in your supplies budget for next year. Or consider digital alternatives such as Easy Notecards (which is free), depending on your students’ access to technology. There are lots of note-taking apps too--any recommendations?

One final point: I am not advocating here for more lecturing. But students need to store, retrieve, and use information efficiently no matter how they acquire it. And that’s what Concept Cards helped my students do. I know this from what I saw and from what students told me:

“I couldn’t do the work but then I started looking on my cards and getting the answer from my cards.”
“I put myself to the test by studying my cards, and raised my grade.”

Image by GECC, with permission

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