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01.10.20Board=Paper: How Sadie McCleary Builds Her Students’ Note-taking Skills

One of those hidden life-skills…

Taking notes is a critical but easily overlooked skill that allows students to organize and review materials over the long run: across a unit or a semester or a lifetime.

In the short run (that is, in the moment during class when they are actually taking notes) it can cause them to focus and prioritize their attention.

So next time you observe a class, take a minute to observe what students write in their notes. At the elementary level do they know that ‘written on the board’ means it’s important and should be written down? At the middle school level, do they systematically record the important ideas from class and differentiate them from less salient points? At the high school level do they leave the class with a record of the proceedings that will allow them to study the ideas later?

Perhaps some do. But surely many students will produce a haphazard series of scrawls scattered across the page. Others will miss the signal: if it’s on the board it matters. Their notes will not be useful to them later. And they reflect a fractured state of attention during the lesson–they were not thinking what’s most important here? and how will I use this information? At the other end of the spectrum some students will try to write everything down and have little attention left to reflect on the ideas from class. Left uncorrected they will carry a hidden disadvantage to every classroom they inhabit.

With that in mind it’s worth watching this clip of a series of moments from Sadie McCleary’s chemistry lesson at Western Guilford High School in Greensboro, North Carolina, in which she guides her students through the process of getting the proceedings down on paper.

As the clip opens, Sadie instructs her students to get a page set up for note taking. What she says shows how she is modeling a method of note-taking as much as she’s seeking to help students get down the detail of today’s lesson: “You are writing at the top ‘Unit 2: Matter.’ Today’s lesson is Lesson 14: Combined Gas Law.” The system–with references to units and sequences of lessons–is implicit in the set-up.

At 22:45 she says, “We’re going to write that into our notebook.” Notice the ‘we’ language here and throughout–it reminds students that what she is doing at the board they are doing at their desk: We are all doing this. You can also see her reach for her own version of a notebook and place it under the LCD projector. She’s completing  a ‘worked example’: a high-quality model completed live in front of students in which she comments on the process as she completes it. She can model and describe at the same time. It’s not trivial that she keeps her own version of a student notebook. At the end she’ll have a record of what they have in their notebooks. And having a consistent place to take notes is part of the system. She’s modeling that too.

Sadie’s pace is stately. “So we’ll write P1V1 over T1,” she says, and then leaves a few seconds for students to get that down. “It used to drive me crazy when a teacher said: write this down but then was already talking about something else when I was trying to do that,” recalled my teammate John Costello as we screened this video at our offices. “But she goes slowly. There’s time to do what she asks.” In part that’s because she is making actual notes live rather than say projecting a version she created in advance. This causes her to be doubly attentive to pace–she understands the time that they need for tasks because she’s doing them herself. That said, only teachers with really strong already established class cultures can write while still scanning for follow-though and behavior. So while it’s ideal to write along with students, having pre-written notes that you narrate is acceptable if your culture is still developing. It will give you less to manage in your own working memory and let you observe more accurately. Just be sure to go slow. And work towards the sort of live modeling Sadie uses.

Notice also how carefully Sadie scans to make sure students feel accountable to follow-through. If students know it’s important to you and that you will see whether they do it or not, they are much more likely to do it, I note in Be Seen Looking. You can see her looking at 23:08 and 23:14. She also carefully adjusts the projector at one point (23:40): message: this has to be just right so you can get it all down perfectly. 

Notice that she’s modeling a two-part process in which students include both ‘content’ and ‘commentary’ in their notes. She shows them how to write down things they are learning and how to mark them up with their own thoughts and reminders. At 24:00 you can see Sadie model for her students how and where to include marginalia and commentary such as labeling one part of the equation “initial” and adding side notes about how to use the formula. “It must be the same gas” and “No added or removed particles.”

Watching this video as a team, my colleague Darryl Williams noted how important planning was. Having a clear sense of what students should write (and possibly even having written out an exemplar version of their notes beforehand to guide you) will help make the notes organized and thoughtful. If you’re figuring out how to structure the notes or what to write in real time the result is likely to be confusion that distracts you from what and how you model for students.  [There’s a fair amount of research emerging about how to present material in notes, etc. so it’s most effective for students and maximizes their working memory. Including diagrams, for example, but doing so carefully with short explanatory notes and very limited extraneous information. If this topic is of interest to you this post and/or Oliver Caviglioli’s Dual Coding are good starting points.]

A side note about the video based on a conversation that came up in our team’s screening of the video when one team member asked how to prepare students to take notes on laptops in college. One of the most important parts of this video to me is that Sadie is modeling hand-written notes. Recent data has made it pretty clear that hand-writing your notes is superior to typing your notes. You remember more, think more deeply, and are less likely to be distracted by the other things that pop-up when your laptop is open. This is more of a personal opinion than a technique derived from watching the masters, but the more students work by hand the better so I’d have a mini lecture ready to remind them of how important hand writing notes would be going forward. When my own son left for college I gave him two pieces of advice: 1) Never miss class and 2) Hand write your notes and put your laptop away during class; retype the notes after class to review.

Hopefully his notes are better than the ones I take and closer to what Sadie’s students are learning to do.

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