Textbooks have a general reputation for being the driest reading to any school-aged thinker. Small pictures and mounds of paragraphs crammed together make it difficult, if not improbable, for the eyes and mind process it all in a meaningful way. My ninth grade students tell me this every time they crack open one of these massive tomes. Testimonies include “I didn’t get it”, “There’s too much going on” or “I’m tired of reading this stuff.” The greater difficulty arrives when teachers review the new Common Core standards and discover that their students are now expected to become stronger, non-fiction readers than previously taught.
The true problem does not lie in the student. It is found in the way we teach reading in schools. The guiltiest are the social sciences where teaching reading is absent and assumed to be the responsibility of language arts classes. I was guilty of this as well until a few years ago when I discovered both how to effectively engage students in reading history and teach them elaborative rehearsal memory skills.
Cornell notes is the strategy that I use with slight modifications. According to James Madison University’s College of Education, Cornell notes is a two column note taking strategy that teaches students to honestly read and interpret a textbook instead of scanning and hunting for answers to questions on a worksheet. I adopted a modification from a MAXTeaching seminar I attended three years ago. Here’s the how and why it works extremely well:
Modified Cornell Notes
1. Divide the paper “hot dog bun” style in 1/3 (left) and 2/3 (right) section
2. Left column is reserved for questions students synthesize from headings and subheadings in the assigned reading – “Why” and “How” questions work best and go beyond “yes/no” responses
3. Students then read the applicable section
4. Placing a bookmark in the book, students then close the book and write the answer to the question in the larger right-hand column using their own words
5. Once students run out of memorized material, they then open the book, read the section again and write what they missed in their own words
6. Repeat strategy for the entire assigned reading (NOTE: it is important to model, supervise and provide immediate feedback for improvement before assigning as homework)
Notes as a living, active document
The work with Cornell Notes does not end there. Not only should students accomplish this initially difficult task every reading assignment (students get used to it and they find ways to make it more manageable as time goes by), they can apply these notes in a variety of ways actively in class. If you fold the notes so the questions are facing the opposite directions as the answers they act as flash cards with partners. As student learn extended information relating to the topic, they can add it in their notes. One of my favorite strategies to complement Cornell Notes is Argument Statements (which I will discuss in another article.)
Psychology’s Elaborative Rehearsal
Recall that the purpose of reading and learning is to retain information for future use. We memorize by constant repetition and through elaboration. Repetition is good for memorizing strings of numbers, but not very effective for information. Cornell Notes drives home the importance of elaborative rehearsal by forcing the brain to give attention to new information in working (short-term) memory and then create meaningfulness by writing the data in our own, common language. Even when we use these notes as flashcards, students are expected to answer the questions in their own words beyond what they wrote the day before. Students with reading or writing disabilities can have this assignment modified and their responses will better show their understanding of the material. The more elaboration, the more students will both learn the appropriate material and become stronger readers.