Instructional Strategies for Summarizing & Note-Taking

Instructor: Sharon Linde

Sharon has a Masters of Science in Mathematics

Note-taking and summarizing is an important skill for students. This lesson will highlight techniques for each and show how teachers can effectively instruct students on the use of these skills.

Why Summarize and Take Notes?

We've likely all been there - in a classroom where the teacher is lecturing and students, you included, are busily writing in notebooks. Not every single word the teacher says is important, so you're listening for the main pieces and writing them down in an organized way. You know you'll use these notes later to study for a test or work on a project.

Sound familiar? But there are other reasons to teach students how to summarize or take notes. In fact, students who are able to take information and put it into their own words will remember and understand it better. What kinds of skills are involved in summarizing and note-taking? Let's take a look.

Skills Used to Summarize and Take Notes

Like most skills necessary for success in school, students aren't just born with the ability to take quality, useful notes and summarize what they hear or read. In fact, several higher-level thinking skills are necessary to be able to takes notes properly, like analyzing and evaluating. When deciphering what's important and what isn't, students are analyzing by:

  • deciding what to delete, or leave out
  • deciding what to add in so information makes sense
  • deciding what to substitute, or how to reword things to increase comprehension
  • deciding what to keep as is

Did you notice how each of these requires a student to evaluate what will work best for their particular learning needs? While there are generalizations teachers can teach about effective note-taking and summarizing, students who are successful at each recognize that some information is vital, and other information can be changed to make it memorable and understandable for them.

For example, let's say an eighth grader named Ethan is taking notes in science class. The teacher is talking about the sun, moon, and Earth. Ethan is listening to the lecture, making decisions about what to delete, add, substitute or keep, then taking notes he'll be able to understand and use later. How did he learn this? Good question.

Instructional Strategies for Note-Taking and Summarizing

The goal when teaching students how to take notes is to enable them to organize information they can use later, like we saw above. Students who are successful at taking notes need to summarize, or decide which information is needed. We should realize that when teaching these skills, students will need guided practice and lots of it. Learning the procedure for summarizing and taking notes is a process. Let's take a peek at three instructional strategies.

Rule-Based

You may have used this strategy and not been aware it had a name. The Rule-Based strategy for note-taking follows a set of steps to help students summarize. Teachers should be aware that teaching these rules takes time and practice. The steps are:

  1. Delete information not necessary for understanding
  2. Take out information that is repeated or redundant
  3. Combine information from lists. For example, Mercury, Saturn and Earth can be written as 'planets.'
  4. Write a topic sentence - either create or use the one available

Let's go back to Ethan. When taking notes and summarizing using this procedure, he would delete information that isn't necessary, like the fact that Earth is a planet; Ethan already knows this. Next, he'll remove information that is repeated often, like the rotation of the Earth - he only needs to write that once. Like we saw above, he'll combine lists, such as 'planets.' Finally, he'll write a topic sentence, one that will help him organize and zoom in on the central idea, like 'The rotation of the Earth creates days, seasons and years.'

One-Sentence Paraphrase

Another summarizing and note-taking technique is called the One-Sentence Paraphrase. Using this technique asks students to use the higher-level skill of synthesizing and focus on the big picture instead of smaller details.

Teachers use this technique during instruction. After covering material, the teacher asks students to write one sentence that summarizes their understanding of content. Students then share their sentences and create notes from them as a group. Teachers can also use one-sentence paraphrases for conversation starters or to check for student understanding.

This technique helps students learn to pick out important concepts and eliminate details that aren't vital to understanding. An important part of the process is the conversation surrounding the chosen sentence - teachers should make sure to ask students to talk about their thinking so they can guide them towards strong summarizing skills.

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