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Helping Students with Guided Notes

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In my first teaching semester, I noticed something that many educators had noticed before me: my students were struggling to take effective notes. I asked my students how they had been taught to take notes and if those strategies worked for them. To my surprise at the time, most of my students had never received any kind of instruction when it came to note-taking. A few of them vaguely mentioned "some system," which turned out to be the Cornell note-taking system, and some of them said that they were just told to put a date at the top of the page, but that was it. Even if they did receive some note-taking help, it clearly wasn't anything they were implementing.

After researching note-taking methods, I stumbled across guided notes and started using them that semester. Students learned critical note-taking lessons (you actually don't need to write down everything!), and I learned how note-taking was another method I could use to engage my students in learning.

Since then, I've used guided notes in all of my courses for many different purposes, and every time, I learn something new about my course (what I need to cover more/less), my students (what they know/engage with/learn), and my teaching (what's connecting/not).


What are guided notes?

Guided notes refer to structured handouts that will help students to engage with the course materials. Guided notes can take many forms including instructor notes with places where students fill in keywords, terms, or concepts that students complete as they review the course materials. They can also refer to pages that provide supplemental resources, practice problems, critical thinking questions, and/or reflection spaces.

When do I use them?

One of the reasons I use guided notes in my courses is because they are versatile: they easily align to learning outcomes and support student learning needs. When thinking about how I'd like to use them, I think about where my students could benefit from support (note-taking, organization, participation, reflection, critical thinking) and how guided notes may (or may not!) give that support.

For instance, when I'm teaching introductory-level courses, I often use guided notes that follow the structure of the lesson and that students complete in real-time during class. This helps students learn how to prioritize their note-taking and gives them a starting place in terms of structure. In more advanced courses, I use guided notes that often pose questions alongside the content of the lesson. Sometimes, we'll complete those questions together in class, but other times, I ask them to return to them later once they've had a chance to digest the material.

How do I use them?

I use them to help students structure their notes, cue students on important terms and concepts, provide additional resources, offer spaces for reflection and metacognition, give students alternative methods for participation, and provide homework support.

During the course orientation session, I talk to students about the guides, why I use them, how they work, and what they will be used for. If there are grades or check-in points attached to the guides, I also walk students through what they look like.

I also try to "chunk" the guides according to my course structure (weeks, topics, units) for a variety of reasons. First, I don't want to overwhelm students by handing them a course-length packet of notes on the first day. Second, it allows me to make changes to future guides based on students' needs, course progress.

How do I create them?

When creating guided notes, I think about how students will most likely interact with them.

Some of my students will prefer to keep their notes digitally and type (or tap!) them while we're in class. For that reason, I typically use an editable PDF that students can work on directly. To create an editable PDF, you can use Adobe Acrobat or a web-based editor like PDF Escape. This solution also works with students who prefer to print the guides and write their notes.

If I'm using a class or collaborative note-taking approach, then I post the guides on a platform like Google Docs or MS Word Online, whichever the students are most familiar with.

Additional Resources

Interested in learning more or seeing some examples? Check out the following resources:


Want to learn more about guided notes? Want to share best practices in a community of other educators? Join us in the OLT Community!

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