2 Important Things to Teach Your Students – Searching Your Content and Taking “Notes”

One of my favorite phrases that I have written on a board in my office is: “You can’t expect it if you don’t teach it, and model it”.  Along those lines, I think there are two things that we really don’t do enough of but yet expect students to already know them.  They are how to search for information in your content area and how to take notes.

Regarding the first one, how to search for information in your content area, this is extremely important as we live in the informational age.  We have greater access to information from a larger number of resources and in a wider variety of formats than ever before.  I can ask my watch, my smart speaker, my phone, my computer, my kitchen display for any piece of factual information that I could want.  I am no longer relegated to the old two main sources of information that we had in schools, the teacher and the library.  We can get information whenever we want but many do not know how to get the correct information efficiently and effectively.  That is something we might expect our students to know since so many treat them as “digital natives”, a term I really dislike, but yet we can’t expect it if we never spent the time to teach it and to measure their ability to do it.  

Alan November has a great talk about the first five days of school and what teachers could be doing, especially now in the 21st century, and he talks about how he would take time during those first five days to teach students how to search for information in their content area correctly.  (There are other things he talks about and it is a really good video to watch, I included the specific point I was talking about below.)

There are so many great resources out there but yet our students need to know how to wade through the garbage to find the best sources.  We can’t rely on just using a small group of sites with our students as sites will come and go, plus there are many new sites that pop up each day that have great sources of information and convey that information in many engaging ways.  I am someone who would rather watch a video about a subject than read about it, but I also know how to determine if that media format is best for the learning that I want to accomplish.

The second big thing I think we can do a better job of doing is helping students to understand what effective note-taking is in our modern age of learning.  I have issues when we expect students to write everything down and expect that to translate to long-term learning.  Writing everything down that a teacher says will not allow for time for the student to make sense of it and if we do not use the information, we don’t truly use it.  We also have to remember that our students have access to digital tools today that can greatly improve their note-taking in classes.  While there are some studies out there that would implicate that digital note-taking tools lead to distractions and lower levels of learning, those studies fail to measure long-term learning and instead focus on a lecture based model used in poor pedagogical classrooms at a University.  Those studies also never indicated if the students were taught how to best take notes digitally.  We also can’t ignore the fact that if a student is very disengaged from the learning, they will be distracted no matter if they have a digital device in front of them or not.  I am sure there are way too many lectures happening in Universities, and other institutions of learning, that do not try to engage the learners in deep learning but focusing on spitting out large quantities of content in hopes that some will be absorbed by some form of osmosis.

There are many new tools available to our students and new methods in order to take notes in today’s classrooms.  The key is to help the students match their intended learning to the best tool/method for them.  Not all students should take notes the same way and helping them to find the options that best fit them, can help them become better owners of their learning. There are many resources out there that help to identify ways we can take notes digitally in order to get to better learning.

These two things just highlight how education has to change over time as our students, and the world that they live in, have changed.  We need to teach these things to our students and ensure they have learned it if we are to expect it. Students do not enter our classrooms as fully effective learners but it is our job to help them move forward on the path to being the best learners they can be. Our goal should always to be preparing students to be great learners not just temporary holders of content.

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