Strategic Note-Taking in Secondary Content Classrooms

Author: Tonia Miller,  Education Specialist, ESL Instructional Coach

Perhaps when many of us were in high school, or even college, we learned to take notes out of sheer necessity. We were lucky if the teacher paused for a moment to write a word or two on the chalk board. However, this is not the case for students in today’s classrooms. Luckily for them, 21st century learners have grown up in more student-centered environments, where oftentimes technology is used as an interactive tool for discovery learning. Given this, many students in secondary schools do not perceive note-taking skills as fundamental to their success in content area classes.


Why Should I Take Notes?

Contrary to student perception, research shows that note-taking skills are still necessary both to survive and excel in today’s classroom. Note-taking serves two very important functions for learners: 1) external storage of information, and 2) cognitive encoding of information (Boyle, 2011). While it is obvious to most students that note-taking is a way to keep record of important information they might forget, few students realize the power the act of writing notes has to jump-start the cognitive processing of information in their brains. While note-taking, students begin to learn and memorize content. Additionally, students will retain and recall more when notes are self-generated. Ultimately, the combination of both functions makes note-taking a critical component of successful learning. For the purposes of this article, we will focus on one researched-based strategy intended to be used during lectures: strategic note-taking (SN).


Strategic Note-Taking

The intention of strategic note-taking is to help students filter and organize incoming information during lectures so that it is converted into notes that can be comprehended and reviewed at a later time. The strategy also focuses on inciting students to mentally process and record information while listening. Strategic note-taking paper accompanies the strategy to prompt students to make notes through five main metacognitive cues: link prior knowledge, cluster main ideas, summarize like ideas, recognize key vocabulary, and review main lecture points (Boyle, 2011).

To help students remember all of the skills necessary for SN, the first letter mnemonic device CUES is used. See an abbreviated version of the SN paper and for a description of what students are doing at each step of CUES below:





Some of the findings of a study of SN show that, in contrast to students using traditional note-taking, students using strategic note-taking recorded more total lecture points as well as twice as many words, had greater long-term recall, and performed better on tests (Boyle, 2012, Boyle, 2010).


How Do I Implement Strategic Note-Taking?

Students will need to be explicitly taught SN, just as they would any other new content-related skill.  Providing the student with a description of the strategy, in addition to why they are being asked to develop this skill, is a good place to start. See the following list for some teacher tips for implementation of strategic note-taking:

  • Prior to the lecture, make your own set of strategic notes as “model notes”.
  • Use your “model notes” during the lecture to stay on topic.
  • Stress important lecture content by repeating or restating.
  • Slow down the pace of the lesson.
  • Use purposeful pause procedures (e.g., a long pause should indicate students need to record what was just said).
  • Categorize or provide a title for an upcoming list of items.
  • Monitor students’ usage of the strategy.
  • Teach students to abbreviate.
  • Teach students to identify main points & summarize big ideas.
  • Provide emphasis cues (e.g., “It is important to remember that . . .).
  • Provide organization cues (e.g., “the four main types of a cloud are . . .).
  • Use nonverbal cues such as gestures to provide emphasis.
  • Write important notes & vocabulary on the board.
  • Provide students time at the end of class to review notes.
  • Allow students to compare their notes to the “model notes”.
  • Encourage students to share notes with a partner and fill in any missing information.
  • Evaluate students’ notes (self-assessment, peer assessment and teacher assessment).
  • Gradually increase the pace of lecture as students become more competent.

(Boyle, 2012, Boyle, 2011, & Boyle, 2010)


How do I Assess Students’ Note-Taking Skills?

Ongoing assessment of students’ note-taking skills is an important part of both skill development and learner accountability. Just as with academic skills, it is important to find individual student gaps in note-taking skills. The figure below depicts a form that has been used as a formative assessment of students’ note-taking skills as compared to teachers’  “model notes.”





The key to ongoing assessment of note-taking is to show students that it is a cyclical, reflective process intended to help develop metacognitive study skills so that they may effectively monitor their own learning.


How Do I Justify the Time Required to Teach Note-Taking?

Note-taking falls under the larger umbrella of study skills necessary for students to be successful learners, and techniques, like strategic note-taking, can be incorporated into content-area curriculum. Although teachers may feel pressed to primarily lecture in order to cover all necessary content, it is important to include other activities (i.e., hands-on activities, peer conversations and various other student demonstrations of understanding) to reinforce concepts from lectures. However, note-taking is a valuable skill that becomes essential for students as they take on greater responsibility for their own learning. Consequently, the time invested by teachers initially in teaching students note-taking skills pays off by propelling students towards the ultimate goal:  to be both college and career-ready citizens.

References (APA)

Boyle, J. R. (2012). Note-Taking and Secondary Students with Learning Disabilities: Challenges and Solutions. Learning Disabilities Research & Practice, 27(2), 90-101.

BOYLE, J. R. (2011). THINKING STRATEGICALLY TO RECORD NOTES IN CONTENT CLASSES. American Secondary Education, 40(1), 51-66.

Boyle, J. R. (2010). Strategic Note-Taking for Middle-School Students with Learning Disabilities in Science Classes. Learning Disability Quarterly, 33(2), 93-109.

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