Note-taking: A Blender for your Brain

Note-taking: A Blender for Your BrainA fourth grade student came up to me this week and said, “Ms. V. I need a book about Denmark.”

Sadly, we do not have a book about Denmark. I have books about countries and cultures on my collection development plan for the year. I also had the 900s on my weeding list for October. I viciously weeded this section and pulled several boxes of outdated books from the shelves.

So, no Denmark book.

I asked a few more questions about the project and realized that this student had already found a few resources about his topic. I recommended CultureGrams for the completion of his project as a resource he could use in the library or access at home.

He thanked me and said, “Oh, and I was taking notes about Denmark yesterday. That Cornell one really helped me. I liked it.” He pointed to the large charts I had on the wall from our previous note-taking lessons I had done with his class.


We should expect that our teaching makes a difference. We absolutely should. But, in reality when I keep at least 15-18 minutes of class sacred for book checkout, there are only 20-22 useable minutes left in our class. It’s not a lot of time to teach something meaningful AND have students remember it AND have students use it in the future.

When I teach note-taking I have three strong messages:

  • You should find a note-taking style that is right for YOU as an individual
  • Note-taking is a tool to get from an original source to a product in your own words
  • Note-taking is NOT about the rules of a prescribed format

Here’s how I teach note-taking to fourth grade students:

I have chosen three formats of notes that I like: Cornell 2-Column Notes, Landmark 2-Column Notes, and Extreme Mapping. I found templates for each of these from Pearson Education at

I usually pull an article or content relevant to a topic the grade level is learning in science or social studies and keep my eye out for something that does translate really well to note-taking. I want the students to see the ease in note-taking.

I always begin with Cornell 2-Column Notes. I feel like Cornell has some of the best (but hardest) features of the three styles I use with students. Landmark is a good transition between all the parts of Cornell and the loosey-goosey Extreme Mapping.

When I teach note-taking in three classes then each format gets a class. When I teach in two classes then Cornell gets a session and the other two share a session. I won’t lie–it’s  rush to fit it in.

RF_Cornell_NotesThis fall I taught the classes with articles about the extreme weather happening around our nation as it coincided with our fourth graders’ weather research projects. I used articles at Time For Kids. For our Cornell day I printed the article on the backside of the Cornell template. We spent a few minutes reading the article. Then I asked the students to think-pair-share with a neighbor a few keywords from the article that they would share with someone who had not read the article. We brainstormed these as a class and listed them as keywords. This is one of the aspects of this format I LOVE! I ask students to be sure to add the words they would want to use in their final project to communicate with their audience.

I strongly encourage students not to just copy my model even though we’re doing it as a class. “These are YOUR notes for YOU,” is my message. “Your brain might not think the same way my brain does.”

Then we read the article together and talk about headings and paragraph topics. I explain about the Roman Numerals, but I don’t emphasize those. At this age the Roman Numerals can be more of a problem than an asset. I stick to a I. Main Heading and then A., B., C. as details.

Finally, students think about one sentence they would use that would summarize all of the information on the page. (The summary doesn’t have to be one sentence, but for this assignment the ideas they’ve taken notes about usually fits in one sentence.)

This is the part where I emphasize the blender metaphor. We started with an original article by an author. We put it through the note-taking process and the result is something in our own words! It’s similar to the original, but changed by the process.

The following week I demonstrate the Landmark 2-column notes. It is similar to the Cornell, but doesn’t have the keywords, the Roman Numerals or the summary. It does have the main idea on the left and the details on the right. I explain that as we get older we all settle into our own styles for making lists. You can number, use bullets, stars, little boxes, etc. I tend to use hyphens in lists where I don’t have to do anything and boxes for to do lists. I explain this to the students and make it very clear that I make lists for me as ME and not as me the TEACHER. They do NOT have to use hyphens just because I use them in my example. I make a mini list off to the side of all of their options and ask them to choose one. I let them know it’s important to choose some kind of marker to an item in a list so that you can tell when the idea changes, especially if it is more than one line long.

Extreme Mapping is similar to Landmark notes. I tell students that this format is great for students who are truly art-smart. Most of the students in a class will choose this format as the one of their choice, but in reality it probably only suits one or two students. I flat out tell them that this type of note-taking is difficult for me. It’s more work for me to think in pictures than it is in lists. That’s not true for everyone. But I also tell them that sometimes the hard kind of note-taking is good for us because we have to really think about what we write down. When I’m forced to draw to explain my thoughts it means I really have to understand the concepts well in order to draw.

When we finish I ask students to move to one of three locations in the room representing each note-taking format. it gives me a chance to summarize each one and to emphasize the useful features of each.

I love teaching note-taking because I believe it is powerful. I only wish I had more opportunities for students to practice and integrate it. I can only hope that my lesson about taking notes being important and individual sticks with them long enough for it to be of some use.

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