on taking note(s)…

I’m wondering, this month, how everybody else out there in Library Land handles the seemingly simple, but actually quite perplexing, task of taking notes in the service of research. I’m not asking about anything fancy like how you skillfully coach students in the art of extracting useful and relevant information as they close read from a source. We not even there yet. I’m talking about the BASIC, BASIC, BASICS of note taking.

  • Do your students take notes on paper or in some digital format?
  • Do they take notes in a specific research management platform like NoodleTools or in a word processing tool like Google Docs?
  • Do they use 3X5 or 4X6 index cards?
  • As they are scribing their notes, do they cluster the facts/content by the source in which the content is found, or do students cluster facts/content by the research question that the fact/content addresses?
  • Do you, in your library program, force students to take notes in a particular way or is it up to each student? Or teacher?

Our Context

Note taking has been knocking around in the cavern that is my head of late because since we started school in the first week of August my partner in the library, @NikkiLibrarian, and I have have been madly taking our middle schoolers through the basics of research. Our current middle school schedule is 7 periods a day and each period is 45-minutes. As a rather large school, we have 5 classes of 6th graders, 7 classes of 7th graders, and 7 classes of 8th graders. Within this framework, we’ve seen every 6th grader 6 times, every 7th grader 5 times, and every 8th grader 4 times. Let me tell you, that is a LOT of lessons!

In each grade’s lesson arc we took a project assigned by their teachers and worked with them on defining the information tasks; locating and using content in books, databases, and websites;  learning how to navigate in NoodleTools (new to us this year); and taking notes.

We are a 3rd grade through 12th grade library. Our information and research curriculum is still growing and taking form, but our emphasis in the middle school years seems to be moving toward helping students get very comfortable and confident with the MECHANICS of research:

  • Searching the library catalog.
  • Using call numbers to find a book on the shelf.
  • Using tables-of-contents and indexes to locate information within a source.
  • Searching in databases.
  • Locating the bibliographic data needed to cite an item within a book, in a database, on a website, or from an online image.
  • Taking notes.

Note: We do engage our middle schoolers in discussions about source quality and the differences between databases and websites, but over the years I’ve come to be convinced that middle school students just lack the necessary life experience and critical thinking skills required to truly practice good source evaluation. Rather than force a task for which they are not yet developmentally ready, we’ve chosen to help them get really good at the mechanics of citation so we can, largely, take that instructional piece off the table in our high school classes. This, effectively, allows us to invest our time and energy in high school classes in driving deeper learning about source selection and evaluation.

Our Quandary with the Note Taking Piece

This brings me back to note taking. We are a 1:1 iPad school and, I think, this is what is perplexing me about teaching note taking with our middle schoolers. Our students’ iPads don’t currently allow them to work with two windows open at the same time. For me, this is a PROBLEM. Here’s why…


Reading an eBook or other digital text is an abstraction.


Taking notes on a device is an abstraction.

As I see it, when I can see both abstractions side-by-side, the device “holds” both abstractions for me so I can concentrate on reading the content and extracting that which is useful.


Side-by-side windows help keep the two abstractions clear to me so I can concentrate on my content and note taking.

When I can only see one abstraction at a time, my brain becomes responsible for “holding” each abstraction AND reading the content AND extracting the parts that are useful.

I need to read this on my device. I need to remember what I read. I need to close the source app. I need to open my notes app. I need to scribe what I read in note form. I need to identify the source from which the note has come. I need to close my notes app and re-open my ebook and go back to reading where I left off…

When this is my process, I find that I run out of “brain power” and I cannot take notes well. I have students (even middle school students) who can, indeed, take notes well this way on an iPad, but I, personally, find the task and work flow very challenging. I think that good iPad note takers are a minority of students.

My (Not So Universal) Solution

I have become an advocate for the use of paper notes, but given our school culture I do not “dictate” note taking formats. I have middle school teachers who have a strong (and admirable) desire to give students choice and agency when it comes to the way that they take notes and I am okay with that. I just like to have the discussion with teachers ahead of time so that they are aware of the advantages and disadvantages inherent to each. The only requirement that I impose is that however the notes are taken, a note must always be connected, in an explicit and unambiguous way, to a specific source in some form.

Here are some iterations of paper note taking formats we have been using this year.

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Our “starter” format developed by Sumoha Jani, our 6th grade Project Inquiry class teacher. Click here to view as a Google Doc.

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Our “a little beyond starter” format used by 6th graders later in the year, 7th, and 8th graders. The form started with lines in the boxes, but some students note by webbing or drawing so this works gives them more flexibility. Click here to view as a Google Doc.

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Sometimes you just need the citation box so you can paste it into your composition notebook on the page(s) where your notes will live. Click here to view as Google Doc.

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Sometimes you have to cite a lot of images for a project and we’re finding that sometimes gathering information on paper before entering it into NoodleTools is faster for some students than switching between apps in real time. Click here to view as Google Doc.

People will Use Technology the Way THEY Find Useful, Not How YOU Expect Them To…

Because of my iPad abstractions theory (BTW, the whole abstractions thing is totally just based on my personal observations so they aren’t researched-based in any other way, shape, or form.) I purposely chose not to introduce the NoodleTools notecard capability in our NoodleTools rollout. When you give resourceful, tech-confident people choice and agency, however, they tend to exercise those choice and agency muscles and within a few days, teachers and students were using the NoodleTools notecard feature–many of them with absolute glee!


Some of my teachers LOVE the ability to have students copy/paste/enter original text and paraphrase in the same space!

Aside: Seriously, people, everything would be SO MUCH EASIER if you all would just do things my way, but okay, I get that it’s not all about me in the end (Honestly, in my head it actually will always be ALL about me, but well…Nobody else goes along so I try to keep my delusions of grandeur in my head where they belong…). Hahaha!

And then on to High School…

When our students move on to high school, we find that high school students and teachers come to develop their own note taking systems. Some continue to group notes/facts/quotes by the source in very much the same way that notes are gathered on the worksheets. Many are finding, however, that it is oftentimes more effective to either cluster notes by topic or to just write all of your notes out as you find them and cluster like ideas together later in the process. We recommend that they skip spaces between notes and write only on the fronts of sheets so that if they choose, notes can be cut into strips and grouped. Our students do a lot of “co-construction” in their classes so this is a method that is modeled for them frequently. Personally, I find it messy and challenging, but I have teachers who have required students to do it once and found that students continued the practice even when it wasn’t required in subsequent projects.

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Our high schoolers are taught to put “sources consulted” into NoodleTools FIRST, then use parenthetical citation to tie a note to its source.

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Then use MLA parenthetical citation format to link your note to its source of origin.


A National History Day note taking template developed by a high school social studies teacher to scaffold the note taking process for frosh. I like how the structure is a bridge between what our students did in 8th grade and what they need to do as Frosh. Note taking for older students is much less structured.

Addressing Plagiarism (in Part) by Building a Culture of Documentation

There is probably more than enough on the “addressing plagiarism” for a great many future posts in this space, but I just wanted to mention that within our note taking lessons we are trying to embed a culture of documentation into our research process. During lessons we have started to emphasize to both students AND teachers that regardless of the note taking format that a student chooses to use, they are expected to be prepared to produce their notes on demand at any given point. I have also strongly suggested that teachers ask that students produce their notes (or share their NoodleTools projects/notecards to a teacher’s inbox) and turn them in either along way through the process or with final projects. I do not even feel that the notes need to be “graded,” but when students know that their notes will be collected I believe that they’re actually more apt to actually engage more deeply with more of their sources. A quick mid-project formative assessment survey of a student’s notes where 90% of the content is from a single source and four other sources show only a single note or two linked to them is a quick way to determine that a teacher or librarian needs to do some research coaching before we are ready to work on final products. Ultimately, the best time to address the either the issue of shallow research or an issue of academic malpractice is before they ever takes place!

Where Do We Go From Here?

I think with note taking, there are always going to be individual differences amongst our students. A middle school student that struggles with executive function and cannot keep track of a notebook or physical pieces of paper, might well be best off learning to take notes with NoodleTools notecards or in a Google Doc. I totally get that. I’m just trying to think through my reasoning for advocating my positions when it comes to note taking.

When we’re working on a project collaboration and I ask, “How are your kids going to take notes?” I frequently have teachers tell me, “I like to have my students choose the method that works for them.” One of the things that I’ve come to realize is that teachers frequently don’t realize that nobody has ever explicitly taught their students multiple methods for taking notes. Everybody assumes that someone else has covered that ground. I guess, though, that’s why we have librarians who keep track of stuff like that over a 15 year curriculum! I’m fond of pointing out that a choice of the one method that you know how to do is, in reality, not a choice at all. I’m fortunate to work with teachers who get that and work with us to try to address this need in as clean a way as it possible given our school culture.

At some point we need to carve out time in the curriculum to work with students on note taking work flows in paper formats, note taking work flows in digital tools like Pages or Google Docs, and note taking work flows in research management platforms like NoodleTools. Only after our students have experimented well with more than one method of note taking, have we really given students any choice at all.

For future consideration:

Okay, now that you know that you prefer to take notes on (choose one):

[  ] Paper     [  ] NoodleTools     [  ] Google Docs

What do you actually write?

That’s a whole other post for a whole other day!

So how are you handling note taking in your research curriculum, folks? I’d love to hear about what you’re doing and what you are thinking!

6 thoughts on “on taking note(s)…

  1. 4th grade – fill in the blank on paper
    5th grade physical notecards with noodletools bibliography
    6th grade & up noodletools cards or paper (vast majority choose noodletools)
    We are a google school & practically 1:1 chromebooks

  2. Great questions for us all! Something I love about being a librarian is my ability to play a role in students’ research over many years. We have a few teachers with strict guidelines for notetaking, but my personal goal is to have each student develop a system that works for them and that they’ll stick with in college. A few years again, we videoed our seniors talking about their “systems” as advice for the freshmen. For those disorganized students, a cloud-based system was vital! Others had notebooks, and there was an ingenious highlighting system that a visual student found worked wonders for her. The best part is that you are asking students to think about why we take notes and what might work for them. I personally still find paper more effective, probably because that’s what I learned first and because it provides fewer distractions. Perhaps you can update us on this later this year?

  3. Thank you for this contemplation into note taking in research; it is timely for me as I am prepping for a workshop for teachers on Google Docs and Research. Your Google docs examples are great- I hope it is alright, but I want to use one of them as another example beyond the ones I have created and from other teachers at my school. I will cite and track back to you. I get pegged as makerspace librarian, but topics like this excited me too! Thanks again

    • Hi Courtney,
      Please feel free to use any of the material! That’s why it’s there! I’d love to see what you do as well. Please share!

  4. David: what a post with lots of food for thought. We do not have a division-wide mandate (MS or US) on note taking standards (teachers take the ideas of *independent* school to a classroom level!) Now that our MS is all iPad, there is some movement towards standardization regarding apps used etc. Our US is BYOD, and has variety in how students take and turn in notes. Regarding your “Aside”: I, too, think everyone should do things the right way (also known as MY way!) Seriously, people, get with the program! (*smile*) Thank you for sharing!

  5. We start Noodletools note taking in 6th grade. Recently one of our 7th grade teachers required the kids to use physical note cards, but the kids didn’t like it! Once you get used to Noodletools, you appreciate the functionality. Though, I think they have, yet, a lot to learn to be able to really use the notecard function effectively.

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