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Note-Taking Pairs

Tomorrow's Teaching and Learning

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In Note-Taking Pairs, student partners work together to improve their individual notes.  Working with a peer provides students with an opportunity to revisit and crosscheck notes with another source.  Partners help each other acquire missing information and correct inaccuracies so that their combined effort is superior to their individual notes.  



The posting below looks at the use of note-taking pairs in improving student understanding and comprehension.  It is from Chapter 10, Techniques for Reciprocal Teaching, in the book, Collaborative Learning Techniques: A Handbook for College Faculty, by Elizabeth F. Barkley, Claire Howell Major, and K. Patricia Cross. Published by Jossey-Bass, A Wiley Brand. One Montgomery Street, Suite 1200 San Francisco, CA 94104-4594 []. Copyright © 2014 by John Wiley & Sons, Inc. All rights reserved. Reprinted with permission.


Rick Reis

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Tomorrow's Teaching and Learning

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Note-Taking Pairs



Group Size                    2

Time on Task                 5-15 MINUTES

Duration of Groups          SINGLE SESSION OR MULTIPLE


Description and Purpose

In Note-Taking Pairs, student partners work together to improve their individual notes.  Working with a peer provides students with an opportunity to revisit and crosscheck notes with another source.  Partners help each other acquire missing information and correct inaccuracies so that their combined effort is superior to their individual notes.

Being able to take good notes is an important learning skill, yet many students are poor note takers; their notes are incomplete and inaccurate.  The purpose of this CoLT (Collaborative Learning Techniques) is to provide students with a structured activity to pool information, fill in gaps, check for and correct mistakes, and help each other learn to be better note takers.  Although Note-Taking Pairs was originally designed to improve lecture notes, teachers now also use it to help students improve their notes on reading assignments and other kinds of learning activities.


Consider providing students with guidance about how to take good notes either in a mini lecture or a handout or with examples of effective notes.  Also, present material in class in ways that encourage students to take detailed notes.  For example, speak slowly, provide handouts of complicated graphs and figures so that students can keep up, and use the whiteboard or presentation slide to show overall structure by using titles and headings (Davis, 1993, p. 182).


1.     Students individually take notes of the major points from a body of content, such as a lecture or a text chapter.

2.     Students form pairs, at your direction or by choosing partners.

3.     Partner A begins by summarizing the main points from a section of the content to Partner B, who offers corrections an           additional information.

4.     Partner B summarizes the next section, and Partner A offers corrections and additional information.

5.     The partners continue to alternate sharing summaries, corrections, and additional information until they have completed        checking their notes.

Box:  Online Implementation: Note-Taking Pairs

Timing:              Asynchronous

Tool:                Learning management system (LMS)

Students who receive content in new ways in online courses, such as through videotaped lectures, often do not know the best way to organize and synthesize the information. Using Note-Taking Pairs can help students to clarify their notes and can allow them to develop effective note-taking strategies for online courses.  Using the CoLT asynchronously also allows students to have more time to digest as well as to reflect upon the notes.  The challenge in an online environment is to have students who are separated by distance compare a physical set of notes, particularly when there may be additional challenges of persistence and regular attendance.  Instructors in online classes can assign Note-Taking Pairs using the appropriate tools if the class is relatively small and enrollment is stable.

To implement this CoLT online, an effective approach would be to use documents and a wiki.  Ask students to develop a set of notes using Google Docs or a wiki, which have capabilities for showing who contributed what.  You can simply review the documents to see how strong the notes are and how complete each student's contribution is.

Alternatively, you can ask students to use e-mail to compare and improve their notes.  Divide students into pairs and ask them to use word processing attachments.  If you wish students to consolidate notes into a single partner version, different font styles or colors can distinguish individual contributions.  If you wish to review these notes, however, be prepared for multiple e-mails from students sending you their assignments.


General Physics (Large Lecture)

A professor teaching a large introductory course knew that he would lecture frequently and that most students would not have good note-taking skills.  At the beginning of the semester, he assigned students to pairs.  He told students that the pairs would work together for ten minutes at the end of each major lecture to ensure that all students would have as complete and accurate a set of notes as possible.  The professor reassigned pairs after each of the four major course examinations to give students the benefit of working with a number of their peers.

Statics (Traditional onsite)

Professor Alec Tricity covered extensive information in his lectures that was not yet available in print.  It was critical that student take excellent lecture notes.  Professor Tricity decided to require students to work with a partner to compile notes and submit both their individual and their collaborative notes as an in-class portfolio.  The portfolio was due at the midterm and again at the end of the semester, and it constituted a significant proportion of the final grade.  The professor organized the students into pairs, creating new pairs after the midterm.  The pairs were told to take notes individually and then to work collaboratively outside of class to combine their notes into a synthesized and typed single version.  The synthesized version would serve as each student's exam study guide, and students were told to (1) create a subsection that included a lexicon of terms and definitions, (2) search out additional resources and expand upon any topics that they found particularly intriguing or unclear, and (3) write down questions or make any comments about the individual lectures or class in a feedback section.

The professor also created an in-class portfolio cover sheet that the students filled out and attached when they submitted their work for evaluation.  It included the rubrics by which the portfolio would be judged (e.g., thoroughness, clarity, followed directions, additional research), along with a space for assigning points. Professor Tricity found a marked improvement on exam grades.  The portfolio also provided him with an easy and useful class assessment since it included both individual and collaborative notes and a cover sheet with assessment rubrics.  The portfolio had the unintended positive effect of creating a better sense of community as each student now had a friend in class.

Geriatrics (Flipped)

Because many students were not scoring well on the weekly quizzes, Professor Penny Cillen believed that students had not been reviewing their online video assignments thoroughly and critically.  Her first solution was to ask students to take notes on their online assignments and to submit these to her for review.  As she reviewed the notes, she noticed that some students were much better note takers than others.  She decided to use Note-Taking Pairs so that the better note takers could help the poorer note takers develop more effective note-taking strategies.  She made a quick list to organize student names into two columns based on the quality of their notes.  She formed pairs based on her lists and asked students to take out the notes they took the night before.  Without formalizing the tutoring process by asking the better student to help the poorer student, she simply asked students to compare notes, with each person adding something to his or her notes from the other student's notes.  She used this technique for the next several weeks, noticing that students' notes gradually improved, as did the overall student performance on the quizzes.

History of Western Civilization (Online Course)

Professor Meg Nacarta had been posting text lectures in her online class, and students were required to complete worksheets covering the information in the lectures as one of their weekly assignments.  She discovered that a significant percentage of students were simply electronically copying segments of the lectures and pasting them in their assignments as the answers to the worksheet questions.  For the next semester, she removed the posted lectures and published her lectures as a separate document that was sold along with the textbook in the college bookstore.  This prevented students from simply copying and pasting the material.  She also modified and expanded her worksheets to include questions requiring more critical interaction with the information as well as questions asking for simple summaries of various portions of the readings.  She organized students into pairs and asked them to work first individually and then to email each other to compare notes and to complete each worksheet.  Students were given an initial deadline for their individual assignments and a second deadline for a collaborative version of their assignment.

Physics (online Course)

A professor teaching a general physics course decided to use Note-Taking Pairs to ensure that students in the online section of the course were fully grasping the content from his video lectures.  He began by announcing the pairs; he intentionally assigned high-achieving and low-achieving partners based on previous quiz scores.  He told them that each pair would have a student one and a student two and that assignment would be determined by alphabetical order of last name.  He created Google Docs for each pair (which they would use throughout the term) and a very basic Google Docs template for students to collaborate and organize their work together:

Student One Notes                     Corrections               Student Two Notes              Corrections

Video 1 [insert due date]           [insert due date]           [insert due date]           [insert due date]

Video 2 [insert due date]           [insert due date]           [insert due date]           [insert due date]

Video 3 [insert due date]           [insert due date]           [insert due date]           [insert due date]

Video 4 [insert due date]           [insert due date]           [insert due date]           [insert due date]

He then invited the students to join.  Students were informed that one student would share notes on the first two videos and the other student would offer corrections.  The second student would summarize the second two videos and the other student would offer corrections.  He next posted four five-minute video lectures on the subject of electromagnetic induction.  He gave students three days to complete the task.

Variations and Extensions

- Ask student pairs to sit together during the lecture.  At various times throughout the lecture, stop and ask partners to participate in this CoLT.  You can offer specific prompts, such as Ask each other what was the major point so far and make sure that that point is clear in your notes.  This technique keeps students' attention focused on the lecture and allows students to rehearse the information and to correct any misinformation or perceptions.

- Give students overnight to revisit their notes to make revisions and corrections and to add information before sharing the notes with a peer.  This will allow students to clarify their own thoughts and to make their writing more legible before sharing their notes with another.

- Consider making your lecture notes available to student pairs after using this CoLT for students to recheck and thus revisit their notes a third time.

- If you do not wish to use in-class time for students to compare notes, tell students to share their notes outside of class through e-mail attachments.  Students can copy and paste notes into a single partner version, using different font styles or colors to distinguish individual contributions.

- Use this CoLT for students to review homework assignments, to check answers to homework problems at the beginning of class, or to review for a test.

Observations and Advice

- This technique can help reinforce course concepts, but it can also reinforce inaccuracy if both students in a pair have faulty information.  Repeat and emphasize the main concepts frequently, and review and assess the notes periodically to make sure that students are learning the correct information.

- It is important that each student take something from the other student's notes to improve his or her own notes.  If only one student is taking good notes, that student will probably resent helping the student who is taking poor notes.

- To assess learning, use the Minute Paper method (CAT 6, Angelo & Cross, 1993, pp. 148-153) asking students to respond in writing to two questions: What is the most important suggestion you got from your peer? And What do you think is the most helpful suggestion you gave to your peer?  If the major purpose of the exercise is to improve written note-taking skills, occasionally collect notes before the peer conversation and again after.  Or to simplify your review, ask students to highlight or indicate what changes they made as a result of discussion with a peer.  If you are more interested in assessing the quality of the peer suggestions, ask students to hand in one set of their notes with suggestions by their peer made in a different-color pencil.

Primary Resources

Johnson, D.W., Johnson, R., & Smith, K. (1998). Active learning: Cooperation in the college classroom.  Edina, MN: Interaction Book Company, pp. 2:28, 3:21-3:22.

Millis, B.J., & Cottell, P.G., Jr. (1998). Cooperative learning for higher education faculty.  American Council on Education, Series on Higher Education.  Phoenix, AZ: Oryx Press, pp. 113-114.