Salvation for a nation of bad note-takers

Jay Mathews
Columnist October 14, 2012

I have never learned how to take lecture notes. I had notebooks in high school, of course. I scribbled in them when the teacher spoke because I was a nerd and that was my claim to fame, my unfashionable love of learning.

But I didn’t know what I was doing. No one has ever showed me how best to break down a lecture or book. This is common. Most high school and college students write what seems important but are rarely satisfied with the result.

Jay Mathews is an education columnist and blogger for the Washington Post, his employer for 40 years. View Archive

It never occurred to me what I had missed until I encountered a college readiness program called Advancement Via Individual Determination (AVID), which is getting raves from teachers. One of its most radical and effective tactics is teaching students the neglected skill of taking notes.

Visiting an AVID class, I realized how much time and energy I had wasted not learning to do this right. Teachers new to AVID have a similar reaction, because our education system and our schools have not made note-taking a priority.

Fairfax County social studies teacher Eric Welch first tasted the power of thoughtful summarizing at a 2005 AVID summer training on teaching what are called Cornell notes. “I saw that this fed into so many different aspects of learning,” Welch said. Seven years later, he is the AVID coordinator for J.E.B. Stuart High School, which has become one of the highest-achieving schools in the country, with a majority of students from low-income families.

AVID began in 1980 with an English teacher, Mary Catherine Swanson, who was upset that her suburban San Diego school was doing so little to help low-performing students bused in from poor neighborhoods. Her mix of multi-subject tutoring and instruction in note-taking, time-management and critical thinking began with 32 students. AVID now has 700,000 students in 46 states, the District and 16 territories and foreign countries. There are AVID programs in Alexandria and in Montgomery, Prince George’s, Fairfax, Loudoun, Anne Arundel and Charles counties.

The note-taking system AVID teaches was developed by Cornell University education professor Walter Pauk in 1949. The student divides a sheet of note paper into two columns, the one on the right twice as wide as the one on the left. The student adds a horizontal line about two inches from the bottom of the page.

The student take notes in the right hand column, using a number of symbols and abbreviations. Questions and key words go in the left hand column. Afterwards, the student reviews the notes, revises and adds questions and a brief summary at the bottom of the page.

The process deepens learning and augments review, but it takes practice and perseverance, qualities not common among the middle school and younger high school students who comprise introductory AVID classes. AVID students have just one class a day with their AVID teacher. The rigor of the rest of the day depends on how much their other teachers — not all of them AVID-trained — reinforce AVID values.

Some teachers hand out work sheets with all the relevant information. Students tell their AVID teachers there is no point in taking notes in those classes. The AVID teachers try to persuade their colleagues to change their ways, or suggest that their students take Cornell notes on the work sheets.

In his government classes, Welch said, he has had success encouraging note-taking by giving weekly quizzes at which students are allowed to use their Cornell notes. “When they come back from college, they say they learned how much note-taking helps,” he said.

It is too late for me to become a good note-taker, but I am happy there is hope the next generation will be better than I was in organizing what I learned in class, and seeing how it all fits together.

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