I often hear from teachers who are down a rabbit hole, comparing seven different note-taking formats. “What’s the best way for my students to take notes!?” they wonder. Is it Cornell notes? Outlining? Box and Bullet?
This is actually the wrong question.
The specific format a student uses to take notes is not at all important… if we don’t teach them how to review those notes.
Reviewing Beats Just Writing
Teaching students how to review notes is far more important than teaching them a particular note-taking system. That’s because our human brains will not remember anything just because we wrote it down once, no matter how fancy the note-taking system. And we won’t remember anything if we just look through the notes three months later before a test.
In fact, it’s not so much about how to review as it is when to review.
When To Review Notes
The way we build memory is by periodically reviewing information. The newer the information, the shorter the time must be in between reviews. As the information becomes more familiar, the time between reviews becomes longer. The idea is to, step-by-step, move that information from short-term to long-term memory.
When the information is brand new, it needs to be reviewed quite quickly. And I mean quite quickly! Like, within a few hours. Then, if you can successfully recall that information, you space the next review out a bit longer. Next, it’s a one-day gap between reviews, then one week, and so on. If you cannot recall the information, you reduce the spacing of the next repetition. You go back a step to make sure it gets into your memory.
This is called spaced repetition. If you google that term, you’ll find a million articles, videos, and apps about this kind of system.
If you want kids to remember information, you have to teach them to review the right information at the right time. Brand new information that isn’t reviewed quickly is likely to be lost and you’ll have to start over.
On Note Taking
So, memorization is mostly about reviewing on a schedule, not taking notes according to a system.
There is one important thing about that initial note-taking that you should teach students. It’s not the layout of the notecard. It’s not the number of columns. It’s not what color pen you use.
The key to memorizing is to, well, make the information memorable!
Sounds obvious, right? Yet, as a teacher, I so rarely took enough time to make my material memorable. We can do this by creating a mnemonic for particular information. You might tell a weird story, make a rhyme, sing a jingle, or draw a funny picture. The more memorable the mnemonic, the easier it will be to remember that information.
Mnemonics are powerful and popular!
- Everyone knows that “I before E except after C” thing simply because it rhymes!
- You might have a jingle for remembering how many days are in each month.
- Folks memorize the colors of the rainbow with “ROY G BIV”.
- I’ll never forget my 5th-grade teacher’s song about how to divide fractions.
- The word “ethnocentrism” is burned into my brain because my 8th-grade history teacher told us he wasn’t allowed to teach such an advanced word! He challenged us to remember “ethnocentrism” and then brag to our 10th-grade history teacher (who, of course, was his pal). It worked!
Make Memorable Notes
Quite simply, if we make our material more memorable, more students will remember more material. So be interesting! Be unexpected. Connect information in unusual ways. Surprise your students!
And, when kids take notes, teach them to make their own mnemonics. We remember mnemonics better when we create them. As I wrote here, good mnemonics are personal. If Marsha’s notes are full of Star Wars-related stories but Sam’s are packed with rhymes about baseball players, both students will be more likely to remember the material. Good, memorable notes have personal connections in them.
I’ve remembered the basics of The Boxer Rebellion since 9th grade. Why do I remember this particular event when most of the information from that class is long gone? Because, in our notes, my friend Scott and I drew big British boxing gloves smashing Chinese rebels. We accidentally made a mnemonic!
My Recommended Note-Taking System
So, if I were to recommend a note-taking system for students, I’d tell them, “Just make your notes weird!” Add drawings. Make rhymes. Form connections that are special to you. And perhaps only you can understand your notes. That’s fine because it will make the material more memorable.
Let’s call it The Byrd Brain Note Taking System™.
So, no, there’s no special note-taking system that will make kids remember information. But you can work with the human brain by:
- introducing information in a memorable way by creating a mnemonic
- systematically reviewing information in order to push it into long-term memory
- empowering kids to take memorable notes
And, as we review information, many mnemonics will fade away in importance because the information has moved into our long-term memory and we “just know it.” I don’t need to use mnemonics to recall my multiplication facts anymore. That information is deep in my long-term memory. But the mnemonics sure helped me get that information in there!
And I wrote quite a bit more about mnemonics here.
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