note-taking · teaching tools

Tools for Note-Taking

Note-taking for the First Time

Can you recall the first research project assigned to you? I was in 4th grade, and my teacher assigned us to research the California regions. We were to research, note-take, and write an informative paper on what we learned as a culminating project. I pored through the social studies text extrapolating several words and phrases that seemed important. I wasn’t sure which details were more important than others, so my notes had become a near copy-right infringement of the social studies text. As a result, my research paper was almost a verbatim copy of the text.  

As teachers, we may have been witness to this predictable problem. We assign a passage or two, ask students to highlight key details, and then organize the information into notes. You may have received notes that didn’t resemble any process of students’ thinking. This would make sense since young children are inexperienced at researching and note-taking. By being aware of these predictable problems, we can equip ourselves with tools that support their thinking processes.

Predictable Problems with Note-Taking

The challenges I had as an inexperienced note-taker are similar to what students face now. One challenge for students is that the text may be above their current reading benchmark, making the text difficult for them to comprehend. Another major challenge is they do not have a system for processing and note-taking from the text. In the last year, I have leaned on a few strategies that can help in this area. 

Monitor for Meaning

One important strategy we can take is to model and develop students’ ability to stop often thoughout the text they’re reading, to record each passage’s gist. When my students research in textbooks, I try to always have them use post-it notes to record one or two words to help them remember what each passage taught them.

Thinking-Maps as Tools for Note-Taking

I like to use thinking Maps as an effective way to help students process and organize the information they research. David Hyerle and Chris Yeager define them as, “A language of eight visual patterns each based on a fundamental thinking process.” Each visual pattern is designed for a task-specific organization such as; defining, describing, comparing and contrasting, classifying, seeing whole-to-part relationships, sequencing, analyzing cause and effect, and seeing analogies and relationships. Each of these eight organizers supports the critical thinking processes of research and note-taking.  

Below, I share two that have helped students collect, organize, and write informative text.   

Circle Map for Defining

A circle map is used any time students are acquiring new ideas and thoughts on a topic. When working with circle maps, I always ask students to write the topic we are studying inside the smaller circle. Outside of the larger circle, I ask students to write what they already know about a topic, helping tap into their background knowledge. Lastly, we record facts, ideas, and what I like to refer to as “parts about the topic” outside the smaller circle, but inside the larger circle.

When introducing circle maps for the first time, I like to use a highly-engaging video-aloud for students to use to complete their first maps. For instance, you can use a YouTube video clip from National Geographic or any other video that you find highly engaging. For the example above, I found a great video on sharks.

Tree Maps for Classifying

Once students capture facts, ideas, and parts about the topic, we work together to classify the information. I like to have students use tree maps to classify, sort, categorize, and group information.

You’ll notice that we took three subtopics from the larger topic of sharks, organized each subtopic under a branch, and listed key details that support each subtopic. You may choose to color-code for topic, subtopics, and key details to add another layer.


There are multiple potential hurdles that prevent students from becoming effective informative writers, including possible resource texts that may be above their benchmarks, as well as students’ lack of experience with specific strategies for note-taking and organization of their thoughts. The use of thinking maps, especially circle maps and tree maps, to help develop their note-taking and informative writing skills can’t be overstated when supporting students to becoming more engaged in their writing.

5 thoughts on “Tools for Note-Taking

  1. These are really helpful Thinking Maps! I plan on using some right away, however, virtual learning adds an additional challenge for kids to type the info in somehow. I’m sure someone has a good idea how to make it easier. Perhaps having the circle map as the background picture on each individual Jamboard and then the kids can add sticky notes in the various circles. I’d love to hear other ideas for making this activity work. Thank you!!

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    1. As a remote teacher, Google slides is a platform I use a lot. You can share a circle map on a slide with your students. Then, have them each make their own copies. They will be able to create text boxes to insert their information.

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    2. Hi Carol! Thank you for taking time to read this piece. Yes, I’m fully remote and that is always an extra layer of work. I’ve tried circle maps with Jamboards as well. I felt it wasn’t as powerful as pen to paper. I usually project a white sheet of paper underneath a document camera and students draw the shape along with me.


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