A Pedagogical Approach to Note-Taking Instruction

Most teachers and students would agree that note-taking is an essential skill for academic success. Note-taking is so important that there is quite a bit of research on it in both L1 and L2 domains. While note-taking is considered to be a complicated process that requires the coordination of cognitive and physical abilities, it is even more complicated for taking notes in an L2, which adds in extra layers of difficulties. A number of coursebooks and teachers have been working to address this challenge. Yet, as Siegel argues below, few offer a systematic and scaffolded approach to learning note-taking. Often, the only instruction is “take notes”. The study below, by Joseph Siegel, offers one such approach and gives us insights into its effectiveness.

Siegel, J. (2015). A pedagogic cycle for EFL note-taking. ELT Journal, 70(3), 275-286. Retrieved from http://eltj.oxfordjournals.org/content/70/3/275.

Note-taking is seen as a complex process of coordinated mental (comprehending, selecting pertinent information) and physical (writing) activities under time pressure and while working within the limits of working memory. The process of note-taking “may be underdeveloped in terms of classroom pedagogy,” with many teachers focusing on the product (i.e. the notes) rather than how they were produced (p. 276). Siegel argues that many teachers and published materials that give the “Take notes” instructions assume students have already learned to do so, or that students can naturally acquire such skills. Class time, therefore, is dedicated often to practicing note-taking rather than learning it.

To address this issue, Siegel created and then tested a pedagogic cycle of scaffolded note-taking instruction with a group of 87 Japanese university EFL students.

The Pedagogic Cycle 

The pedagogic cycle was separated into three parts that centered around achievable note-taking tasks. Each task was seen as an important component of the overall note-taking skill set. The following instructional approach was outlined in the article and elaborated on by the author through email:

  1. First, there was a focus on learning how to decide which information should be noted and which should be ignored. This was done by marking up a transcript.
    1. Students would underline words they would include in their notes.
    2. They would then categorize these words by marking them with circles (main idea) and triangles (subpoints).
    3. Lower-proficiency students transferred these to an outline to see how they worked as “notes”.
    4. Pair discussions were done to focus on what was chosen to be included in notes and why.
    5. A teacher-made version was also shown and discussed. It was made clear that there were no right or wrong answers.
  2. Next, a skeleton outline of a lecture was given and learners were required to complete it based on listening to intonational and pragmatic (e.g. repetition, emphasis) cues.
    1. This also included some discourse markers (“That is…”, “In other words…”), synonym repetition, and rhetorical questions.
  3. Finally, students made their own notes by focusing on discourse markers and other cues.
    1. They also focused on pauses and inhalations as markers of when to take notes.
    2. They also focused on how to ignore digressions not pertinent to the lecture [note: this is often indicated by a more rapid speech than the regular rate of a lecture].
(Siegel, 2015, p. 279)

Each task was done multiple times over several weeks. Furthermore, throughout this entire cycle, the lecture note outlines, which contained headings (main, subheadings, examples) and “anchor points,” gradually became more information-sparse as the weeks went by, forcing learners to rely more on their own abilities. In this way, the approach was seen not only as task-based and proceduralized but scaffolded.

The Research and Findings

The pedagogic cycle was tested through the author’s own semi-authentic lectures based on topics covered in the course. By recording the lectures himself, it assured consistency in the instructional stage. That is, it allowed voice, speed, and format to be not only consistent for research purposes but conducive to note-taking instruction. The pre-instruction and post-instruction lectures were given on topics students would have little background knowledge on. Instruction lasted for six weeks.

Pre- and post-notes were analyzed based on number of instructional units (IUs; the smallest units of information that can be considered true or false) written compared to number of IUs included in the lecture. In addition, note-taking style was visually assessed. Results showed that post-instruction IUs were significantly higher (moving from recording 11.6 IUs to 20.5 IUs) and the use of outline format rose dramatically (from 8% of the participants to 69%).

While there may be other factors involved, such as overall improvement in listening, this study suggests that note-taking instruction is an important and worthwhile endeavor that can be taught in a scaffolded and task-based way.

I think this systematic, task-based instructional approach to note-taking is a great idea. I like this approach because it breaks the skill down into achievable chunks, and that these chunks are accumulative. The most basic skills, which often require the most cognitive work next to pure listening and decoding, is deciding what information to include. It’s great practice to start off this cycle by having students work on not only selecting important ideas but categorizing them into the overall levels of information. In other words, sorting them into main ideas, supporting ideas, and examples – helping students form “connections between superordinate and subordinate or supporting information” (p. 278).

A look at the included notes in the article show that students used a great deal more symbols in the post-instruction notes than the pre-instruction notes. Siegel states that this is one of the note-taking skills many coursebooks teach. However, he did not include it in the cycle. I think being able to use symbols to rapidly record information is important and would probably fall into part of the third phrase, as these symbols are often tied to important discourse markers or lexical signals.

Overall, I think this is a great approach to teaching the important skill of note-taking, one that can be easily adapted, modified, and extended. If you are lacking in sources for authentic or semi-authentic lectures, TED Talks, 5 Minute Lectures, and The Great Courses are great resources to draw upon. If you are interested in reading more about academic listening, Criterion-Related Validity of the TOEFL iBT Listening Section has a good analysis of many of the skills involved.

Check out another article I wrote on note-taking here: Research Bites: Jot This Down – Note Taking, Learning, and TESOL.

Thanks to Dr. Joe Siegel for writing the original article and answering my questions by email!

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Anthony Schmidt
English language Instructor at University of Tennessee, Knoxville
Anthony Schmidt is editor of ELT Research Bites. He also has his own blog at anthonyteacher.com. Offline, he is a full-time English language instructor in a university IEP program. He is interested in all aspects of applied linguistics, in particular English for Academic Purposes.

4 thoughts on “A Pedagogical Approach to Note-Taking Instruction”

  1. Very useful write up, thanks for posting. I’m pretty new to EAP, tried to do some note-taking skills work last week… not exactly a roaring success so appreciate the details available here.

    1. Thanks for commenting!

      “Listening” is hard to teach, but if you work from a listening *skills* perspective, it becomes easier. This includes note-taking, but also basic bottom up decoding skills, gist, main idea, paying attention to signposting/keywords, etc. I have done a lot of work with note-taking in particular and was very happy that someone devised a more systematic way to work with it.

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