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Writing math notes has changed significantly from when we went to school.  In retrospect, did I even take math notes?  Very rarely did I write much down beside the problems my teacher was writing on the board.  I never thought about writing down key vocabulary words that will help me with my homework.  But I relied heavily on my textbook to jog my memory each night while completing my homework assignments.  

In English and history classes, teachers spend time to teach you how to write your notes. Typically, they tell you to write everything down or use the Cornell note system or two column notes. These systems help students relate the detail to the gestalt (the academic word for big picture ideas). However, math teachers do not usually spend the same amount of time teaching students how to write notes and simply tell students to write down every problem.

Taking notes with camera phone1

As important as it is to have example problems written in your notes, it is just as important to understand the “logic” steps behind each line. Noticing with my students that are typically overwhelmed in their math classes but successful in their other classes, I realized they needed to take notes like they do in their successful classes. The difference being making sure that they understand the reasoning, math rules, and math logic behind each problem. Having students explain their logic can be very illuminating but is also a great way to prepare them for geometry proofs. In an English or history essay, you cite your sources or quote texts. In math problem solving, you have to know the rule you are using or prove that you didn’t “break math law” (a special thank you to David Berg of Making Math Real for this wording).

Sometimes writing down the problem isn’t enough. This brings us to homework. The point of homework to practice the problems that you just learned especially making sure you can solve the problem on your own. When confused, students can access their notes. Complete and thorough notes will help students understand the logic steps they need to solve the problem. If there is not a good enough sample problem, this is the perfect time to ask your teacher or other professional for help.

These habits of using notes and first attending problems before asking for help may seem trivial, but these are the habits of active learners, learners who will be more successful later in life. Below are tips for all students to have organized, methodical, and helpful notes in any subject:

General Note Taking Tips for Any Class:

  • Write your name and date at the top of the page.
    • This is a good habit to get into and it will make sure that your notes are chronological.
  • Have a different section, binder, or notebook for each class and start taking the next day’s notes after the last notes you took for that subject.
    • Organization is the key for making your notes work for you.
  • Use two columns to organize your notes.
    • In math, this can be a column for solving the problem and a column for writing out your logic steps.
    • In English, history, or science, this can be a main idea column that corresponds to the details of that idea in the next column.
  • Color code
    • This will not only help you organize your information, but it will also help you find information more quickly!
  • Rewrite your notes if a subject is hard for you
    • Rewriting your notes into your own words will help you make sure you understand the information, know when to ask questions, and help you learn the material for a second time.
    • Most people need to learn new information at least three times before remembering it but it can be more if you do not like or understand the topic.
  • Make sure you leave a space at the bottom of the page for questions to ask your teacher, topics to research more yourself, and a list keywords to help you find topics and vocabulary when studying for your finals.

Two Column Math Notes Example

Note Taking Tips for Students with Dysgraphia or Difficulties writing:

There are students with dysgraphia (a diagnosed writing difficulty). This means that it is physically painful or difficult for the student to write. For these particular students, using assistive technology (AT) can be very useful. Since note taking is critical, students with dysgraphia can use AT and/or write minimal notes to stay attentive in class. For students who can write even a little, this will help their memory and recognition of the material immensely as a neuroscientist noted in a Guardian article. Here are a few links that will tell you more about the importance of handwriting:

Assistive Technology (AT) Ways to Help:

  • Take a picture of the board or a classmate’s notes
  • Use Notability or other apps to help with note taking
  • Type your notes if you can’t read your handwriting
  • Use a Smartpen if you can’t get down enough information from lessons

Middle school is a great time to practice note taking skills.  This allows your child to find what method really works best for them so that higher stake classes in high school are minimally impacted by your child’s ability to take detailed notes.  What about you now?  What do you use to take notes to remember important details?

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