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As an 8th grade science teacher, I have struggled with getting my students to take notes.

In my experience, even working within an NGSS framework, there are times when teachers need to present information to students in a traditional format. But this doesn’t mean that students need to take notes in a traditional way. As teachers, how do we shift our idea of what “notetaking” is and communicate that to students?

To help my students become more engaged in notetaking, I’ve relied on a variety of strategies acquired and insights through different professional development opportunities over the course of my career. First and foremost, I think students need more notetaking experience than just copying information into a notebook from the board or slide set. In order for notetaking to be valuable, I believe students need to spend time processing the information so that the knowledge has a better chance of moving from their short-term to long-term memory.

In my opinion, if students aren’t actively working with their notes, there doesn’t seem to be a good reason to ask them to take the notes at all. Add to that the different paces at which middle school students work, and the task loses its power. Thus, I started to look at different ways for middle school students to move from passive to active notetaking.

This article will look at three different approaches to engaging with notetaking that I have tried in my classroom: in groups, through processing activities, and with sketchnotes.

Engaging with notetaking in groups

One of my favorite notetaking strategies is a combination jigsaw and carousel activity that I adapted from a strategy the AVID program calls “stronger/clearer.” When students jigsaw, they are assigned a different part of the larger assignment to be responsible for. This can be done individually or with students in groups. I then ask students to share what they have learned about their assigned piece with the entire class. One way I do this in my classroom is by having the groups display their work on posters around the room. The rest of the class then “carousels” around the room, looking at each poster to gather the information into a common place, like a notebook.

Figure 1. An example of student work from the stronger/clearer notetaking activity.

I used this strategy in my classroom when my students learned about certain families and sections of the periodic table. I arranged my students into 10 groups with two to three students in each. I assigned each group with a family within the periodic table, and gave them a large piece of paper (I especially love the easel paper that sticks to the wall/cabinets). The 10 groups focused on:

  • organization of the periodic table
  • alkalai metals
  • alkaline earth metals
  • halogens
  • noble gases
  • transition metals
  • inner transition metals
  • metals
  • metalloids
  • nonmetals

For 8th grade NGSS physical science standards, it is most important for students to identify and know the properties of these families of the periodic table.

In this activity, students answered essential questions about their assignment — for example, What are the common characteristics of the alkali metals group? and What makes an element a member of that group? Students worked together to record their answers on the large piece of paper by going through an array of sources. The first source was a website (or set of websites), and I gave students guiding questions to help them take relevant notes. The students put these notes onto their posters using a chosen color.

Students then switched to using a video source to gather notes. As students watched the video, if they encountered information that was already on the poster, they underlined the information in a new color. If they learned new information from the video, they added it to their poster in the new color.

Next, students used a textbook section, and chose a third color to collect information, keeping in mind that they needed to underline repeated information, and record new information. Lastly, students moved to a final source of their choosing (approved by me), selected a fourth color, and repeated the notetaking process.

By the end of this process, it became apparent that important information, regardless of source, was underlined multiple times. Information that only appeared in one color might still be important, but perhaps was meant for a different audience than the other sources. This ended up generating a great conversation about reliable information and sources. Students completed their poster by looking at all the information and writing a final summary to answer the initial essential question. After all groups completed their work, I gave every student a foldable with a listing of the families of the periodic table, and instructed them to carousel around the room and record the information from all the posters into their notebooks.

I have found that giving students a single topic to focus on that so they can take reliable notes onto a group poster is a great way to engage them in notetaking. The conversations that students have while putting the posters together make them class experts on their particular periodic table assignment. To ensure active participation in the process, I walk around to monitor student groups. I also grade each step along the way by randomly asking group members questions about their information to check for individual participation. In my experience, assessments conducted using this process have shown that students retain more information about the characteristics of the families than if they take notes in the traditional way.

Engaging with notetaking through processing

Another way that I have students engage with notes is by having them take notes in small “chunks,” and then doing activities to process those notes before moving onto the next chunk. When I’ve had them use this approach, they typically record their notes on the right-hand page of their science notebook, while they complete their processing activities on the left-hand page. This system keeps the notes and processing activities together, literally, and makes it easier when students go back to review their notes.

For example, in my 8th grade class, I might have students take notes on Bohr diagrams on the right-hand page of the notebook, so the notes should be be short enough to fill the one page. In our class, Bohr model notes include why we use a Bohr model of an atom, how to draw one, and how many electrons are included in each orbital. We only include the first four orbitals in 8th grade; the larger orbitals are covered in high school in my district.

Then, on the left-hand side of the notebook, I might assign a related processing activity, such as writing a poem about how and why we use Bohr diagrams, that allows students to transform the information from their notes into a new format.

One of my favorite processing activities is called a “one-pager.” This activity has students summarize a topic, following a set of requirements, to create a single page of information about the unit being taught. The one-pager allows students to be creative while showing what they have learned about a topic. Students can then use this summary to help study for the unit test. The things that I usually require to be included in the one-pager are:

  1. a title,
  2. a main idea paragraph (sometimes from a question prompt or left up to the students),
  3. five vocabulary words (with or without the definitions),
  4. three pictures,
  5. a symbolic border,
  6. two Webb’s Depth of Knowledge (DOK)1 Level 2 or Level 3 questions with the answers, and
  7. two quotes (could be from their notes or other sources).

Figure 2. Example of a student one-pager for rock types.

When having students complete the DOK Level 2 or 3 questions, I remind them that a good way to think about the different levels of questions are Google (Level 1), “doodle” (Level 2), and “noodle” (Level 3). So, if the question is one that can be answered simply by doing to a web search, then it is a Level 1 question. These are quick questions requiring factual knowledge, that the students answer from memory. If the question needs more complex thinking or requires including pictures or comparisons, then it is a Level 2 question. Last, and most challenging, Level 3 questions require students to use their brain (or “noodle”) to answer — and to justify their answers by creating something.

Color, creativity, and readability are also all required for a successful one-pager. I usually have students do this on paper, so they can physically insert them into their notebooks; however, I have also allowed students to digitally produce the one-pagers if they choose. I assess one-pagers using a checklist with points assigned for each required element. Ultimately, I love the variability of what gets turned in and how it allows my students to summarize and process their notes in a way that makes sense for them. Students enjoy creating the summaries and typically perform better on open-note assessments, because the information is easy to find and was created by them, instead of me.

Engaging notetaking with sketchnotes

Figure 3. An example of sketchnotes created by a middle school student.

This year my district has started using sketchnotes in our secondary science classrooms. While we have been using the method developed by Jennifer Weibert, there are many other versions of these types of notes, like “doodle notes.” Sketchnotes do not have to be created in an actual notebook, but this is how we have been using sketchnotes in my district.

Again, the main purpose of teaching students to use sketchnotes or doodle notes is to give them a way to process the notes actively, so the information is accessible after the note taking. These notes allow students to combine colors, pictures, and text together in a way that lets them interact with their notes while they are taking them.

Another teacher, Aimee R. Babbin previously discussed this topic in the September 2020 issue of Chemistry Solutions. In her article, Using Sketch Notes in the Chemistry Lab, she discussed how this type of notetaking can be used to help students “read and analyze a procedure before coming to lab.” What I especially loved about Aimee’s article was the section on assessing sketchnotes. There are many different ways to assess a student’s sketchnotes — ranging from mere completion, to requirement checklists, to specific outcomes (which was the focus of Aimee’s article). No matter which way you choose to assess a student’s sketchnotes, you should always have a rubric so students know what you are looking for.

My students have been trying out sketchnoting this year, and I have found that I have received far less complaints on days that we simply “take notes.” Students love using the colored pens that I provide for them to use in creating their notes, and they ask for help with different hand-drawn fonts so that they can have a variety of writing in their notes. While teaching my students how to take notes in this way has required more time than I usually allow for introductory material (almost two weeks!), I have found that the time spent has been more useful to my students’ study skills than approaches I’ve used in the past. I find that when I first have students take notes in this way, it is best to provide templates. This is especially true for middle school students, who often complete tasks at different rates. Providing a template helps students with the organizing part of notetaking, and allows them to focus primarily on the content. Templates can be found with a quick web search.

This type of notetaking has been a valuable and effective way for my students to put their experimental data into their notebooks in a more engaging way. By using sketchnoting and notebooks for data collection and analysis, students get a chance to personalize what they are discovering in their experiments. My students have been far more complete in including all the required lab report elements when using a sketchnote template than they have in the past. Past lab reports were very traditional, created on separate sheets of paper, and turned into a “hand-in” basket. By providing students with instructions regarding what needs to go onto each specific page of the notebook, students understand better how to include a materials list, procedure, analysis, and conclusion. By having the lab report directly in their notebook, students are less likely to lose their lab work. And any time you can get middle school students to do their work during an experiment, it’s a win for everyone!

I allow my students to use their notes on our classroom tests, and taking notes with sketchnoting or doodle noting has given my students more motivation to refer to and process the information in their notes after we have spent class time with them. The notes are personalized, and students become really proud of their notebooks when we are done with each unit. This is the first time that I have had students seem actually possessive about their notebooks!

Wrapping up notetaking engagement

Regardless of what way you have students take notes in the classroom, by making the notes fun and personal, you will have less push-back when it’s notetaking time. By including ways for students to interact with their notes while they are taking them, they will get more out of the process, and hopefully move the information from short-term into long-term memory. The key is to have students engage with their learning and their notetaking skills, rather than just be passive. Hopefully you’ll find that notetaking will change some groans in your classroom to cheers!


1. Norman Webb created his Depth of Knowledge (DOK) levels at the University of Wisconsin, and presented a description of the levels at the Florida Education Research Association’s 2005 annual meeting.

Jennifer J. Neakrase
AACT Middle School Ambassador