Helping Students Learn Good Study, Organizational, and Note Taking Skills in Your Content Area


Shortly after I earned my Bachelor’s Degree in English in 1990 and teaching jobs were hard to find, I worked as a substitute teacher at Foxborough High School, where I had done my student teaching  the previous spring. One day, I was approached by the head of the Special Education Department, Roberta, who encouraged me to apply for an aide position in the resource room that she oversaw. She promised me that working there would be the best professional development of my career– and, as was always the case– she was right!

During the year and a half I worked in this position, I realized how important it is to help students ~all students~ learn organizational, note taking, and study skills.  While working in the resource room, I helped students develop strategies that would work in all subject areas as well as strategies for use in specific disciplines. In my private tutoring,  I helped all types of students figure out strategies that worked best for them. Although students were not jumping up and down from the excitement of learning different strategies, they did feel empowered. Instead of wondering how they would ever understand the material, take notes, or remember information for the test, they knew that, if they worked smarter, not necessarily harder, they could make progress. The more they figured out  and used strategies that worked for them, the more confident and, ultimately, successful they became. Did all students get As in all of their classes as a result of these strategies? No, though in most cases their grades improved. Did the strategies help them become stronger students and better learners? Absolutely. 

While working as an aide, I started taking graduate courses toward my Master’s Degree in English. After doing so for two years, I was encouraged by one of  my professors to apply for a Graduate Assistantship, which would pay for my course work and provide me with a small stipend. Because of my background in helping students develop different skills, I was awarded a Graduate Assistantship working in the Academic Advising Center at Bridgewater State College, now University.  I taught classes about study, organizational, and note taking skills to incoming freshmen. I also worked individually with any student on campus who wanted help in these areas. 

Resources used with different literary works.

In August 1994, within two weeks of finishing my Master’s degree, I walked in to Grafton High School to drop off my resume. Within a week, I interviewed and was hired. One of the classes I would teach was called Freshman Reading, a requirement for all freshmen.  It supplemented their full-year English class and its objective was to help students strengthen their reading skills and learning strategies. Because there was a great deal of flexibility with the curriculum, I was able to incorporate what I had learned through my  experiences in the resource room, tutoring, and in Academic Advising.

When introducing a reading or note taking strategy, I would have students bring in their World Cultures textbook as they were all taking that course. I showed them how they could use the features of the text to navigate the reading, take notes, and prepare for tests, then they would use the book to practice. While it was not the most exciting class, it helped.  I collected and graded their notebooks to help with their organization. I had them keep track of their grades in their classes so they could identify their strengths and weaknesses and make decisions about studying and time management based on that information. 

Although the class was eliminated after a few years due to budget constraints and scheduling needs, I have always incorporated  study, organizational, and note taking skills into every class I have taught from freshmen to seniors, from college prep English to Advanced Placement Literature and Composition. We often assume that high-powered students have mastered these skills, but the reality is that, while some have, many haven’t and they could all benefit from learning a variety of strategies so they can pick which ones work best for them. Even many college students need help with learning strategies. 

I would argue now more than ever – in our distraction-filled world- that it is critical that we help students develop good study skills. Telling students to look over the Power Point,  to review their notes, or to reread a chapter isn’t enough.  

It would be great if  every teacher could explicitly teach students how to take notes, organize their notebooks, and study for tests using specific strategies appropriate for their subject.  Although that sounds like it is adding one more thing to teachers’ to do list, strategies can be embedded easily and meaningfully into instruction and assignments.

At the beginning of the year,  I ask students directly through a survey  about how they learn best and what they find especially difficult about English so I can create  resources that address those areas.

Most students indicate that they struggle with assigned reading– completing it and then understanding the material. So, a few years ago, I created what I call Visual Summaries. 

Visual Summary used with Lord of the Flies.

After they read something, I have them create a  Visual Summary either as a classwork or homework assignment (though it could be used in many ways). Essentially, they visually depict/draw the 4-6 most important parts of  the reading . I have them do it right after they read so details are fresh in their heads and it does not seem daunting nor is it time consuming. If they do this regularly, they can later use their visual summaries to review for a quiz or test or to prepare for a writing assignment. 

These assignments are versatile (work with any type of reading), quick and easy, yet they force them to think about the important details of the assigned material. They are also help me see if they have understood the reading. When I walk around to check their homework, I might ask, “Oh, what’s that?” or “Why did you add that detail?” By listening to the students’ explanations,  I can tell not only if they understood the material but any insights they have.   For example, in the above Visual Summary, this student’s depiction shows that early in the novel in Lord of the Flies, Ralph was overwhelming elected leader over Jack- a more insightful observation than “The kids voted Ralph to be their leader.”

I have also created a variety of  simple but helpful note taking sheets, a handout that  has physical space for them to quickly record details as they read. The goal isn’t to give them busy work but rather to help them learn to pull out important parts of assigned material.  To be honest, the simpler the resource, the more likely it is that they will use it. Also, the simpler the resource, the more likely they will start to create their own resources based on what you have given them. Once they see how it was helpful in your class, they  start to create similar resources for other classes. In fact, I have had students show me study materials they have created for other classes, and they are actually proud of them. They have figured out ways to take something simple and replicate that in their other classes. 

Note taking sheet that could be used for any piece of literature. I especially like that it provides a place for students to indicate areas of confusion. It holds them more accountable when doing their reading so they have to pinpoint what was confusing rather than coming in stating,” I didn’t understand what I was reading.”

These are just some examples of simple resources I have created to help students. I have created some on paper and some on the computer. You can use whatever resources are available to you- simple or sophisticated.

After I assign them, I make a point to use the resources again in a different way so they can see that they were not a stand-alone assignment that they perceive as busy work but rather something that helped them learn material, earned them homework credit and was useful in another way. For example, when I have required the completion of the above handout for each reading assignment, I would later have them use them to gather quotes for a major writing assignment. I am clear when I assign the note taking sheets that it is definitely worthwhile to complete them because they will save them time in the long run. Once they see that this is true, there is a definite buy in. If they didn’t complete them the first time, they are more likely to do so the next time. Again, I am always reminding them to work smarter not harder.

While many teachers already explicitly teach strategies that help students with their learning, some teachers may find  they aren’t quite sure how to offer specific tips. If that is the case, talk to other members of your department or reach out to colleagues in the special education department. There is no need to reinvent the wheel, especially if a colleague has an effective resource that they are willing to share. Of course, there are lots of other great resources on-line or on websites with teaching resources such as Teachers Pay Teachers (which has MANY free resources).  Check them out and find something that works for your subject area and your approach to teaching. 

I shared some of the things I do personally when taking notes and included an explanation why. This was intended to use as a resource and to get students thinking about how they take notes and little ways to make their note taking easier.

I can’t emphasize enough the importance of incorporating  study, note taking, and organizational skills into your classroom– no matter what subject you teach; I have seen the benefits of doing so from the moment I started working in education.  Besides helping students become better learners and hopefully less anxious about their learning, providing these types of resources shows your students that you understand that your subject can be challenging – even daunting- and that  you want to do all that you can to help them. At the end of the day, most importantly, creating these resources is just one more way to show your students that you care. 

Link to my Beginning of the Year Survey for your use or to get some ideas for your own.   https://www.teacherspayteachers.com/Product/Beginning-of-the-Year-Survey-Getting-to-Know-Students-as-Learners-4701987

Food For Thought:

  • Do you currently explicitly teach  note taking, organizational, and/or study skills in your subject?  If so, which resources do they find particularly helpful?
  • Are there any parts of your curriculum with which students typically struggle because of the difficulty of material? Is there a resource you could create that might help them with this particular material?
  • When you were a student, what are some ways that you learned and studied your subject matter?
  • In your school district , who might be able to help you locate or develop resources for your students?

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2 thoughts on “Helping Students Learn Good Study, Organizational, and Note Taking Skills in Your Content Area

  1. What can I say Beth! When I first met you, I was excited for both of us. I knew I was talking to someone who understood that many students had to be taught how to learn/study. You have made these techniques a major part of your teaching methods and have brought this information to so many in the profession. I am so proud to have been just a small part of what has made you the best educator I know! Sending hugs your way.

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    1. Thanks so much, Roberta! There is always more we can do as educators, but this is something I am so grateful to have understood before I had my own classroom. I saw that it mattered firsthand and was able to watch a seasoned educator effectively help students become empowered. So lucky to have had that time to work with you and know you as a person. Such a strong advocate for all learners, but especially those whose voices are not always heard. Thank you!

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