Building Note-Taking Skills in the Millennial Student: Scaffolding Frameworks of Knowledge in College Curricula

15 Jan 2018 4:43 PM | Anonymous
Harwood, E.A., & Marsano, M. (Rivier University)

Teaching in the age of millennial students is a challenge that should be embraced by all faculty, but what does this entail? Present day students have grown-up alongside technology as a basis for communication and understanding. Termed “digital natives” by Marc Prensky (2001), millennial students spend a great deal of time communicating through technology and are used to having information at their fingertips. Sending an average of 100 texts a day (Lenhart, 2012), the millennial student expects a near immediate response to comments, and can easily find the answer to a question by asking Google. Because millennials have a completely different experience with information than previous generations, especially the ease with which it can be accessed, students may wonder why we don’t instantly respond to email or provide our lecture notes before class (van der Meer, 2012).  Taking notes may seem archaic and pointless if material is always available. Nevertheless, teaching students the skills necessary to navigate through a surplus of information and having them  recognize the importance of quality over quantity are now essential components of college curricula.

How many times have your students asked you, “Is this going to be on the test?” Although this may seem an annoying question, students may be searching for clues about the essential concepts of the class. Main points that are crystal clear to us may not be as clear to our students (van der Meer, 2012). As experts in our field, we have already created our own organizational frameworks for the concepts we teach. We have formed deep, complex connections that have helped us master the material and make it seem easy for us to understand, while it may remain difficult for our students (Ambrose, Bridges, DiPietro, Lorett, & Norman, 2010). How can we scaffold our “expert” frameworks for our students to build their own connections among course concepts and past experiences? In this essay, we describe several teaching techniques for creating these frameworks, from the way we encourage effective note-taking to the way we speak and incorporate multimedia.

Why do students struggle with note-taking? Effective note-taking requires extensive cognitive resources, especially working memory capacity (Stefanou, Hoffman, & Vielee, 2008). Listening to the professor while simultaneously writing notes is difficult for many students (van der Meer, 2012). Differences in working memory resources may put some students at a distinct disadvantage depending on the types of notes they take (Bui, Myerson & Hale, 2013). Students with documented and undocumented learning disabilities may also face impediments. If the cognitive load is too great, students may not be able to contextualize or personalize the notes (Stefanou et al., 2008). Some may furiously write down everything you say, while others may copy down only what’s on the PowerPoint slides. Others may just sit back and wait until you put the slides online.

Nevertheless, writing an idea down can help with long-term retention (Bui et al., 2013). Writing about a concept necessitates active recall and allows the formulation of clearer thoughts and more connections (Bui et al., 2013).  Is it better to attempt to transcribe a lecture or take more condensed, structured notes? While transcription of lectures by computer may help initially with the recording of more notes and immediate recall of facts, taking organized notes shows more durable retention in a 24-hour delay condition (Bui et al., 2013). Although, when students are allowed to study their transcribed lectures, recall is superior, especially for those with lower working memory capabilities (with a 24-hour delay involving transcription of an 11-minute lecture) (Bui et al., 2013). The attention necessary to transcribe a full lecture was not tested, however this research (Bui et al., 2013) once again reminds us that students differ in their capabilities, and what works for one may not work for another.

Brief, targeted interventions can improve note-taking. Nakayama, Mutsuura and Yamamoto (2016) provided students with two short instructions, once at the beginning and again at the mid-point of a course, on note-taking techniques, which included examples of good notes. This instruction increased student metacognition with regards to note-taking and improved the quality of notes over the course of the semester. Deliberately reviewing and restructuring notes can significantly improve grades as well (Cohen, Kim, Tan & Winkelmes, 2013). For example, outlining, summarizing, and drawing connections between different concepts requires active engagement and leads to better test performances than review alone (Cohen et al., 2013).

Another technique for note-taking that utilizes scaffolding is directed notes (Harwood, 2016).  Similar to a review guide for an exam, directed notes act as a review guide for that day’s class. Given at the beginning of the class period, directed notes consist of a list of questions and activities about that day’s topics with plenty of space for students to write in their answers. The following are examples from a few different courses:

1.      Summarize how neurons communicate.                            Action Potential
       How is it like firing a gun?                              Absolute Refractory Period
       Use the terms to the side in your summary                                 Threshold
                                                                                         All or None Response

2.      Now that we’ve covered the functions of the different brain structures, create your own concept map using your notes

3.      What advice would you give our aging population given what you know about adult development?

4.      Describe how each of the following individuals expanded our understanding of attachment.


Name                                                              Contributions

John Bowlby

Harry Harlow

Konrad Lorenz                                                Imprinting
                                                                        Critical Period

Mary Ainsworth                                              Strange Situation Task


5.      Lambert (1992) proposed 4 therapeutic factors that lead to client improvement. These are


The Big Four                                                 Variance                     Examples

1. Client/Extra Therapeutic Factors

2. Therapeutic Alliance

3. Placebo, Hope, Expectancy

4. Therapeutic Techniques


6.      Write down your immediate reactions to this individual’s story of heroin addiction.


As you can see, directed notes point students towards important concepts, and assist students in creating their own examples and applying the material. When provided guidelines, but not explicit notes, the student is encouraged to form meaningful connections on the main ideas identified by the professor. Some important guidelines to keep in mind when creating directed notes for your course are to include different types of questions and response formats, leave plenty of space for students to write, and ensure that directed notes are assimilated into the course in some way, whether it be group work or as a test review. Psychology is so pertinent to everyday life that it is ripe with ways to make the material personally meaningful (“If you had to take an anti-depressant, which one would you take and why?”). Take advantage of this and further students’ critical thinking and interest in the field.

While professors may be tempted to think that directed notes and guided notes are synonymous, there is a distinction between the two. Guided notes are an alternative to traditional PowerPoint slides with information missing to encourage attendance (Barbetta & Skaruppa, 1995). Results among the college population are mixed on whether guided notes provide advantages above and beyond complete PowerPoint slides on test performance (Neef, McCord & Ferreri, 2006). Guided notes may be effective in demonstrating information, but they may fail to encourage students to make connections beyond what’s on the slides.

Note-taking techniques are one way that scaffolding can be achieved in the classroom, allowing students to organize and detail their thoughts in written form.  In addition   the presentation of information to students provides another opportunity for framing information. For example, one can provide organizational cues during class, such as using explicit language that differentiates main points (“Carl Rogers identified 3 core conditions for a successful therapeutic relationship. The first is unconditional positive regard…”).  Further, one can provide transitional language that encourages students to refocus on a new idea and cues the type of notes to take and their organization (“Now that we understand the structure of a neuron, let’s discuss how neurons communicate” (Titsworth, 2004). We can also encourage students to elaborate beyond what we have explicitly covered since the more information students add to their notes, the higher their scores on applied questions (Stefanou et al.,2008). For example, after explaining a concept or definition, I (Harwood) give students a few moments to write down their own examples (“Give an example of an empathic response to a friend’s problem”) and then have several share with the class. Five-minute writing prompts on a class topic can also foster generative notes and class conversation (“Based on what we’ve covered so far, why do you think heroin is so hard to quit?”).

Using technology as a tool for creating conceptual frameworks in a course can also be effective with millennial students. PowerPoint slides are a possible method for scaffolding information and cuing students on how to organize their notes (Stefanou et al., 2008). With the integration of technology starting in k-12 schools (Ruggiero & Mong, 2015), students prefer, and may even expect PowerPoint slides (Landrum, 2010). While students may want these slides before class (Babb & Ross, 2009; Landrum, 2010) and it may increase class participation for those who typically participate (Babb & Ross, 2009), it does not appear to aid in test performance (Babb & Ross, 2009), final grades (Bowman, 2009), or the addition of new ideas to one’s notes (Stefanou et al., 2008). We find that for many students, providing slides before class can decrease interest and stunt conversation. My (Harwood) compromise is to provide slides after we have finished the chapter for students to fill any gaps in their notes. 

Finding the right balance between incorporating PowerPoint or other presentation media into a lecture while meeting students’ needs is a necessary consideration during lesson planning. Some believe that PowerPoint slides may condense the material too much, acting as “CliffsNotes” for the class, or preventing “big picture” thinking with its linear presentation (Kirova, Massing, Prochner, & Cleghorn, 2016).  It may be more effective to think of multimedia presentation technology as an extension of conveying main points and transitional language, rather than being the sole conveyor of information during a lecture. As much as we tend to lump students into the group of “millennials,” it is important to recognize their individual learning capacities and the need for a variety of teaching techniques.

If you choose to use PowerPoint as a scaffolding technique, there are some common mistakes to avoid. First, don’t use your slides as “cue cards” (Gardner & Aleksejuniene, 2011). They should be made with the students in mind, rather than the instructor. When information is read off a slide, it decreases cognitive understanding by overloading working memory and inhibiting students’ opportunities to create connections. In addition, students tend to lose interest quickly Second, don’t overburden the slides with text (Gardner & Aleksejuniene, 2011; Stefanou et al., 2008). Providing too much information on a slide may result in students copying information rather than recording their own thoughts (Stefanou et al., 2008). In limiting the amount written on the slides, students are given the opportunity to reason through information, which can promote generative learning. Third, integrating images with verbal descriptions is more effective for learning than text alone (Gardner & Aleksejuniene, 2011). Pictures really can say a 1000 words! Seeing the devastating physical effects of methamphetamine use in a series of mug shots is much more powerful than reading about it or hearing a recitation of symptoms from the instructor. And fourth, incorporate video clips and other media that naturally appeal to the millennial student (Garder & Aleksejuniene, 2011). Identifying the symptoms of cocaine abuse from a movie scene is an excellent way to elicit interest from students. Further seize the teachable moment by explicitly discussing how these images and clips relate to course concepts (“What properties of methamphetamine lead to these physical changes” or “What symptoms are the characters showing that indicate stimulant use”). Students may not automatically see these connections on their own.

PowerPoint slides, organizational cues, and transitional language all aid students in creating their own class notes. Note-taking is a skill often overlooked by college educators who assume their students already know how to do it. In a traditional lecture format, only a small amount of content is accurately captured in student notes (Kiewra, 1985). Considered more than just a “recording technique” (van der Meer, 2012, p. 13), taking notes and reviewing them helps students reconstruct what they have learned and makes it more personally meaningful.  This actively engages the student with the material and increases retention (Bohay, Blakely, Tamplin, & Radvanksy, 2011; Cohen et al., 2013; Kobayashi, 2006). Note-taking is a skill that will follow students long after they have left the classroom, giving them an advantage in the workplace by preventing mistakes and saving time.

Regardless of the format an instructor chooses to use, it is important to remember that millennial students will benefit from exemplified note-taking and scaffolded frameworks of knowledge. Considering the technology-centered background of today’s millennial student, we would be wise to incorporate media presentations in the classroom because they garner more attention. However, this must be tempered with the understanding that our main focus must be on generative learning and helping students make meaningful connections. Inspired teaching is more than content delivery. It is student-centered and focuses on cultivating skills that lead to a successful life.


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