A note about notes

Photo by Louis Bauer on Pexels.com

I’ve been teaching for three full years now, and it feels like I’m starting to find my feet.  A least it feels like I have some head space to start and share some of the ways I have been reflecting and (hopefully) improving my teaching practice.

After doing some reading about Cognitive Load Theory last year (find a link to a presentation I created here), one of the areas of teaching I wanted to improve was enabling schema acquisition.  In physics and chemistry this has come more naturally to me (I have a maths and engineering background); I have improved my worked examples and sharpened my explanations.  However, I found this focus on schema acquisition more difficult in non-mathematical science topics. 

For non-mathematical topics the resources available to me have been various PowerPoint presentations where students take their own notes, but I was dissatisfied with this approach.  Students were spending a significant amount of time in class taking notes and I had no real way of examining their thinking as this was happening.  There was also a difference in how quickly students were taking notes, with those who finished quickly getting (even more) bored.  Finally, students who struggled to write clearly were being penalised when the time came to study and revise from their notes.

After a tweeting a question last year I decided to trial giving students a copy of the notes that they would usually write down, and replace that time with processing of information provided.  Below is an example of a notes sheet from a year 8 lesson on Igneous Rocks.  I have provided the previous PowerPoint presentation, and the replacement notes sheet that I replaced them with.

Previous 12 PowerPoint Slides
Replacement Notes Sheet

When I created the notes sheet I have a number of aims, which were:

  1. One lesson of information onto two A5 pages (printed side by side on A4). This reduced printing, keeps me focused on the key information, and allows students to glue the notes page into their exercise books.
  2. Rewrite the PowerPoint notes in paragraph form because I want students to have to carefully read, and it allows the explanations in the notes to be clearer.
  3. Remove extraneous information from slides, so that students are only presented with the information that I want them to learn.
  4. Provide a number of questions which start with simple comprehension questions and build to questions which probe for understanding.

When using the notes sheet in a lesson on Igneous Rocks I used the following lesson sequence:

  • Quick-fire review questions from previous lesson
  • Start with a short 2-3 minute video on igneous rocks
  • Hand-out notes sheets and provide some explanations that are not in their notes, and discuss some images of igneous rocks (on PowerPoint), which would take about 10 minutes.
  • Students work on questions in their exercise books, leaving space to glue the notes sheets later.  During this time I am walking around the classroom checking student answers, asking for elaborations, and checking for understanding.
  • Students spend some time in groups inspecting various igneous rock samples, filling in a table in their exercise books. Students are using what they have learned to determine if the rock sample is intrusive or extrusive.  During this time I am moving between groups discussing the rocks with them.
  • End of lesson.

It’s early days, but what I am seeing is students engaging with the content in a way that I wasn’t when presenting information by PowerPoint. I am also able to see what students are thinking by their written answers to questions, and then provide immediate feedback.  In addition to this I’m also seeing a reduction low-level disruption (from students who have finished copying the notes quickly).

I hope you find this blog post useful!Dan (@dan_braith

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