Taking Science Notes Effectively (Resource Overview)

Taking Science Notes Effectively

T. R. Girill
Technical Literacy Project
Sept. 2018
trgirill@acm.org

The Note Skills Problem

Many students fail to realize that the same usability techniques that improve their instructions and descriptions for others can also help improve the notes that they take for themselves. Many teachers fail to realize that the same cognitive-apprenticeship moves that help students build general technical writing skills can also strengthen their approach to taking notes. If we could offer both children and adults the chance to take science notes spontaneously (without requiring it) and see how their notes evolved over time, we could discover how important explicit coaching is to refine people’s notetaking techniques. Merce Garcia-Mila and Christopher Andersen (2007) have conducted that experiment and their results are indeed revealing.

Garcia-Mila and Andersen asked 15 grade-4 students (ages 8.5 to 10.5) and 16 adults (ages 22 to 47) to participate in basic “scientific inquiry tasks” (Garcia-Mila and Andersen, 2007, p. 1039; simple physics experiments or science-information management projects) twice a week for 10 weeks. Everyone received a notebook “in case you want to keep a record of what you find out” (p. 1040), but notes were never required. Most subjects were self-reported Hispanic/Latino, and 13 of the 16 adults (but none of the children) claimed Spanish as their first language (p. 1041). This experiment thus allowed within-subject developmental comparisons (notes were checked weekly during the 10-week project) and between-subject age (maturity) comparisons in an urban ESL population. Without getting into the inevitable scoring eccentricities of an experiment this complex, we can learn much about the relevance of cognitive apprenticeship for notetaking by looking at what these researchers found about the

  • amount (count and frequency),
  • content (kind of recorded information), and
  • scientific completeness (intellectual adequacy)

of the notes that their child and adult subjects chose to take on their science activities.

Modelling and Embedding

Because the point of this work was to observe the notes taken “in the wild,” when not dictated or illustrated by any teacher, no one here modeled “correct notetaking” or influenced the content (or amount) of child or adult notes. The experimenters did observe, however, that perceived task relevance was important for participant motivation. Real-life notetaking “needs to be exercised within [science] tasks,” not as an isolated activity (Garcia-Mila and Andersen, p. 1053). Those participants who saw their own “notetaking [as] necessary for the task’s completion” (each week) took more, and more effective, notes than those who never connected their notes to their success with subsequent science tasks (p. 1054). This finding reinforces the value of embedding writing into other (science and engineering) activities, a standard feature of cognitive apprenticeship.

Externalization

Gacria-Mila and Andersen found that differences in cognitive maturity between their adult and child subjects yielded very divergent patterns of spontaneous notetaking. Fifteen of their 16 adults used their notebooks during the 10-week study. The adults made about three times as many “note entries” (roughly, text blocks) as the children, and their rate of making notes held constant between the first and second 5-week block. On the other hand, 7 of the 15 children “never made a note” during the experiment (p. 1044), and the note entry rate for the children who took notes dropped by half from the first to the second 5-week block (p. 1046).

While the adults mostly recognized the potential value of taking notes, the children needed someone to externalize the relevance of their notebooks for them: “Notetaking was not perceived by [child] students in this study to be a valuable activity” (p. 1053). Garcia-Mila and Andersen therefore urged educators to make explicit for their students two aspects of studying (and later researching) in science of which the children were unaware without help (p. 1054):

  • “the cognitive demands of the task.”
    The children underestimated the complexity of the science activities that they were trying and misjudged the “size of the problem space” that they had to manage, a task virtually impossible without notes.
  • “the limits of their own cognition.”
    Big science projects cannot be easily memorized, yet access to early details later is often crucial for success.

Scaffolding

When these experimenters looked at the difference in content between adult and child science notes, they found more opportunities for cognitive apprenticeship. For example, “[child] students need to understand what to note” (p. 1054), a need that extra prompts or scaffolds can address in three ways:

  • Completeness cues, since many spontaneous notes were incomplete, “lacking the necessary information to replicate earlier” work.
  • Scope cues, since many notes were redundant, needlessly “repeating previously recorded information.”
  • Task-relatedness cues, since “noting extraneous information” unrelated to the project was common too.

Coaching

Another related aspect of content weakness in the spontaneous notes studied by Garcia-Mila and Andersen was imbalance: “children appeared to use their notebooks to write only conclusions rather than variables and outcomes…” (p. 1051). Learning to balance economy and completeness in technical notes usually calls for some personal coaching. A writing coach can call attention to the scope and structure of student notes as they evolve. An experienced coach can also suggest alternative features or organizational structures that inexperienced notetakers can gradually explore but would never think to try on their own.

Successive Approximation

Mastery through apprenticeship comes iteratively, not suddenly. Unsurprisingly, Garcia-Mila and Andersen found that the subjects in their study who used their earlier notes improved the quality not only of their later science (their problem solving) but also the quality of their later notes. “By making one’s internal thoughts explicit on paper, they become more available as objects of cognition” and criticism (p. 1052), but only for those who bother to review their notes to tap this source of self-feedback. Notetakers who worked iteratively discovered this path to better experimentation along with better subsequent notes: “the participants’ evaluation of the usefulness of the [earlier] notes provided feedback that fueled the development of their [own] strategic and metastrategic knowledge of notetaking” (p. 1054).

Resource Overview

Resources are available to help your students apply general good-description writing techniques to the specific challenges of taking useful science notes. They include customized guidelines (checklists), note templates or scaffolds, and motivational case from the history of science.
This chart summarizes these links:

Taking Science Notes Effectively
How cognitive apprenticeship addresses the note skills problem (this document).
Taking Notes Effectively: Techniques To Try
An itemized chart of helpful, specific notetaking techniques for students.
Helping Students Take Notes Effectively
Pedagogical background and history-of-science cases to help teachers support the checklists (left).

References

Garcia-Mila, Merce, and Andersen, Christopher. (2007).
Developmental change in notetaking during scientific inquiry. International Journal of Science Education, June, 29(8), 1035-1058. Online at http://dx.doi.org/10.1080/09500690600931103