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How To Best Take Notes In History Class — The Experts Give Advice

by Joanne Oh

Among the hardest skills for high school students to master is note-taking, yet it is essential for learning material, particularly in textbook-heavy Social Studies classes. The biggest issues often involve knowing how to format notes and what to include in them.

One of the most famous styles of note-taking is the Cornell Method, created by Dr. Walter Pauk who taught at Cornell University. A paper is split into three sections with a vertical line creating a small left side and large right side and a horizontal line creating a section at the bottom. The right column is for notes, consisting of short sentences or phrases that trigger facts. They’re written in bullets and shorthand (in other words abbreviations). The left column is for cues created after note-taking: questions and memory joggers that help recall ideas from the notes. The bottom section summarizes the main ideas of the notes in one or two sentences. These sentences are written at the same time as the cues are written, and they’re useful for skimming over notes later. The idea of this method is to create study guides with each class, rather than waiting until before the test. This way the student can study progressively.

A simplified version of this method splits notes with the vertical red line on the left side of notebook paper. As the reading or lecture progresses, write topics or big ideas on the left margin. In textbooks, headings and subheadings often indicate these, and in lectures, slide titles serve as indicators. Social Studies teacher Lynn Clark says, the “[ideas] that would be emphasized, in other words, the ones that are pulled out and continually pulled out, are the ones that you really need to look at.” After noting these ideas, draw an arrow to the right and record related details in the main portion of the paper.

While taking notes, ask questions about the focus of the topic, answer the questions concisely, and provide evidence that supports the answers. This gives purpose to the vast amount of information and sorts it into manageable chunks.

Flow charts can be useful for laying out ideas visually and seeing how they’re connected to each other—classes like AP World History put a lot of focus on over-arching connections. Flow charts work best when there is only one main idea, and they are not meant for detail. Towards the end of a unit, they may be used to get the “big picture” of a topic.

Notes only work if the person taking them is actively reading the text. Essentially, active reading processes and understands the material rather than trying to memorize it. Ask questions about the main ideas and purposes, and answer them as the reading progresses—ask teachers about questions that are still unanswered or only partially answered by the end of the reading. While reading, write down thoughts rather than highlighting to force the mind to process the text.

This does not mean highlighters are banned from notes. Their purpose lies in organizing notes. Clark tells students to sort notes “by topic and theme.” “For example, [in] Modern World History, we have five main themes,” she says. “So if you went through and used one highlighter that did all the themes for women, and another highlighter that would just denote all the themes for the creation of empires, and another one for environment, and another one for each one. Then when you look through, particularly for key concepts, you can compare really quickly.”

In American history, she suggest students “go by [presidential] administration.” She suggests general topics of “foreign policy, domestic policy, and then social, political, economic, and military.” When highlighting, Social Studies teacher Paul Hoffman cautions to “never highlight unimportant words.”

When taking notes from the textbook, Hoffman also recommends “[providing] extra whitespace below your notes or in the margin, so that when you go over topics in class, you can add value to your ideas that are covered in class via lecture or videos.”

Given the stricter time constraints of lectures (compared to independent time spent reading the textbook—which must definitely be read to understand what is going on in class), lecture notes can be more difficult to take. Hoffman suggests asking teachers to make their lecture presentations available online for later access. He says through email, “Make the commitment to go through the lecture twice—once in class and again at home to further solidify your understanding.”

If a teacher does make PowerPoints available, notes can be taken directly on the slides. Write necessary information in the notes window that appears below the slide in PowerPoint. Delete any slides that are not needed. Put the slides in note view so both the slides and notes can be viewed, and print them out. One of the best ways to learn is to teach others, so prepare for tests by pretending to lecture—this can be done silently or out loud (in private or in front of others). Cover up the notes while lecturing, and check them afterwards to see if all the main points were covered.

If there is a crunch for time in reading, there are a couple of strategies to help speed up the process—they should not replace actual reading of the textbook, but they make large amounts of reading manageable in a short amount of time. Skimming only catches the occasional idea, but a more focused technique called pseudo-skimming, an idea of Cal Newport, Assistant Professor of Computer Science at Georgetown University, sorts out important information from the filler. Textbooks have a surprising amount of filler, and generally, the longer the text, the more filler there is. Start reading the paragraph and figure out what it is about. If it does not seem like there is important information, skip it and start the next paragraph. Some common types of filler are long background stories, extra pieces of historical research, exceptions, and additional detail beyond a few solid pieces of evidence.

Another technique of Professor Newport’s is the Morse Code Method, designed to get through a reading quickly and efficiently. In this method, a passage should be read in one go (this is designed for articles and should not be done for an entire chapter of a textbook). He suggests drawing in dots or dashes, but this can be replaced with different colored small sticky notes or tape flags if the text cannot be written on. While reading, if there is a sentence that seems like a big idea, draw a dot or place a colored sticky in the margin. As examples or explanations for the idea come up, draw a dash or place a different color sticky in the margin. After reading the entire text, go over the sentences that have been marked and paraphrase them. Review the notes when finished and write down what is being asked overall and how it is being answered.

Having a strategy to tackle notes can make studying a lot more manageable and alleviate some stress. Effective note-taking skills carry into life beyond high school, particularly in college where the workload drastically increases. It is helpful to implement these skills now and make a habit of them.