Embedding English: Developing Learners’ Note Making Skills in the FE Sector

What’s happening in the FE sector with note making?

As part of the greater focus on embedding literacy, I can see some interesting work developing in the FE sector around learners’ note making skills. I am a teacher, trainer and observer and I have noticed that many learners in colleges do not use effective note making skills in classroom settings:

  1. Learners don’t take notes at all, or even bring paper and pens to class
  2. Learners expect the teacher to provide the notes
  3. Learners just use their phones to take photos of board work or flip charts etc, with no storage system
  4. Learners try to take everything down in their notebooks or files, indiscriminately and without any order or structure, so random words or lists of points are noted

In some classes, I have seen all of these practices in evidence and it made me wonder about how learners would be able to recall relevant facts and ideas when they prepare for assignments and assessments or revise for exams. Even if they had access to written summaries provided by the teacher, they wouldn’t include the richness of classroom discussions, departures or explanations, or involve any personal processing of the information into a memorable format. This deficit of working study skills certainly seems concerning when we think about progression to further study or work, as both contexts require regular note making of different kinds.

What is involved in note making?

Embedding literacy in useful ways is to do with enabling learners to operate effectively and appropriately in different settings involving language and I think note making skills are a part of this. As teachers, I think we can contribute to learners’ reflection on their own skills and development of them. Some of the main sub skills that underpin note making are:

  • Identifying suitable sources of information for research
  • Looking out for key points and identifying them amongst the wider flow of written or spoken language
  • Differentiating topic sentences from supporting examples
  • Re-phrasing points in your own words or reproducing them exactly depending on context (e.g. quotes are often needed word for word)
  • Using accurate spelling
  • Capturing them in a written form appropriate to the topic and context
  • Organising and structuring notes so that they will support future recall
  • Referencing sources of information appropriately

How can we develop learners’ skills in note making?

I have had many conversations with teachers trying to build their learners’ skills and so here are some of the areas they are exploring:

  1. Which note making skills do our learners have at entry?

Teachers can discuss this at the start of the course and also do some diagnostic activities, including individual note taking with a stage for self-assessment or peer review of notes. Reviewing files or wandering around the class and looking at notebooks can give a good indication of current working practices.

  1. Which note making skills would be helpful to develop during this course?

Teachers have told me that they have looked through their curriculum content and assessment tasks and identified priority skills for development. These can be divided into classroom skills for use during group work, paired activities, presentation stages etc and self-study skills for assignment work or research projects. For each programme the balance of these will be slightly different; some courses require extended research projects with more written skills involved; other courses rely more heavily on solid note making skills in verbal contexts such as the classroom, practical sessions or placements.

Several people mentioned to me the need to also consider learner progression and the skills that they will need on the next stage of their journey, i.e. If they are going onto university, the skill of listening to extended speech and identifying key points could be very useful, the active processing of information being part of the transfer into memory.

  1. How can the teacher encourage the development of note making skills?


Teachers can play a useful role in modelling different note making techniques and approaches within their own classroom delivery and drawing learners’ attention to these. There is something here about being more explicit about note making and exposing learners to a range of graphic organisers and methods, so that they extend their repertoire.

 Collaborative note making and technology

Teachers  can also involve learners in collaborative note making, with technology now creating some exciting ways to do this. These approaches offer the opportunity for peer learning and developing a shared understanding of what makes a useful set of notes for a given task. They also help learners identify their own preferred styles of note making as an individual.

 Popplet is one tool that can be used for creating quick and easy mind maps, for example, and I use this with learners sometimes, exploring it as an option that can fit certain tasks and certain preferences. I do not insist on mind mapping, just as I don’t dictate how learners take notes – I think my role is to widen their repertoire of note making techniques and refine their ability to select one that suits the task in hand and their own preferences.

Evaluation and Reflection

I create space in lessons to discuss note making and to evaluate the usefulness of the notes taken through self-assessment activities and peer reviews using criteria. These slots can be short but they help focus attention onto this key process within study.

It can also be helpful to consider the role and fit of note making into lessons. Is there a benefit in identifying a stop and note-make slot at certain points in certain lessons? Could that benefit lower level learners who may struggle with listening, talking and capturing a sound record of notes all at the same time? Sometimes I watch lessons and can see learners struggling to do all three things simultaneously and I think the quality suffers somewhere in that process. In some lessons, a five-minute note making slot can make a big difference to the clarity of what is captured and taken away.

I would be very interested to hear from people in the FE sector who are exploring note making skills with their learners in different ways.

This entry was posted in Advanced Practitioners, Embedding English, ILT/ICT, Teaching and learning and tagged , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

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