Adding Friction. How Can I Help Students Use Notecards More Flexibly?

When a student copies and pastes gobs of information into a single notecard, his unstated strategy is: "I know I'll need something…so I’ll keep everything.” Just as one might bracket or highlight an entire page in a book, he has “tabbed” a digital text to revisit. Faced with a dense text, he suspects that some part of what he’s captured is relevant. Under time constraints, he doesn’t slow down enough to zero in on what’s important or valuable. Without some intellectual processing (e.g., paraphrasing, summarizing, or adding questions and original ideas), the notecard is only marginally useful. An excess of such placeholders can leave the student overwhelmed, unable to analyze, evaluate, and synthesize, as he steers toward patchwriting and perhaps even plagiarizing.

Chunking Strategies

When you see placeholder notecards and suspect that the student hasn’t grasped the gist of the entire source, one remediation strategy is to ask the student to reread the source and divide it into discrete chunks. In straightforward information texts (see fig. 1), distinct ideas are often signaled by paragraphing. A student can self-prompt to identify the main idea by pausing after each paragraph and saying, “This section is about…”  Paragraph by paragraph he builds a picture of the author’s argument. (This chunking strategy can also be used to test the organization of his essay).

An alternative strategy is to target bloated notecards. Simply highlight the discrete elements of a subtopic in the “Direct Quotation” field, then use the adjacent field to label them succinctly with corresponding colors (see fig.2) and transfer each color-coded element to a separate notecard. 

Now the student should reread the more complex quotes (e.g., fig. 3), looking for important ideas and questions. Only then can the content from multiple sources be grouped into piles suitable for outlining.

Flexible Notes

Although highlighting and color coding do improve reading comprehension, and repeatedly practicing one type of thinking (e.g., summarizing) has been shown to build competence, these are not the ultimate goals of notetaking. Notes can help us analyze, organize, and synthesize ideas— and that means they should be used flexibly. Indeed, the more tailored they are, the more valuable they become.

Rough visuals can show students the comparative nature of various notetaking strategies. A paraphrase (fig. 4 - 4.1) is conventionally about the same length as the original and is most useful for laying out an author’s line of reasoning. A summary, which condenses the author’s words to less than half (fig. 4 - 4.2), helps to understand the main idea.  However, useful notes are always purpose-driven. For example, instead of either paraphrasing or summarizing, one might use bullet-point notes to collect statistical evidence (fig. 4 - 4.3) (e.g., fig. 3). 

Disturbed by his students’ overstuffed notecards, a history teacher recently ruminated, “I’m beginning to think I should ask them to allocate their words according to a ratio, for example 20% direct quote, 10% paraphrase, and 70% their own ideas.” He’s on to something. These percentages reiterate that he wants notes to be used to develop voice and insights.

If our notecard instructions are tailored to different purposes, students might begin to think of notes as a means to an end, rather than a format to finish. An English teacher could suggest pulling a significant quote from a novel for the “Direct Quotation” field of the notecard, then ask for a summary and analysis in the “Paraphrase or Summary” field (fig. 4 - 4.4), while a history teacher would ask students to contextualize and analyze a primary source (fig. 4 - 4.5) in the paraphrase field. Since the student’s ideas, in both cases, are part of the analysis, the “My Ideas” field can become a parking lot for follow-up questions or leads to pursue.

If a teacher wants to focus on finding useful information for an argument (fig. 4 - 4.6), the “Direct Quotation” field could be repurposed to accommodate a claim or evidence and the “Paraphrase or Summary” field would contain an explanation of the author’s reasoning. Then “My Ideas” can contain an assessment of the author’s argument and explain how it will be used. Rather than constrain thinking, the notecard structure flexes to enhance it.

Purposeful notetaking must adapt to research needs. Just as we might modify our instructions to reflect the type of thinking we expect students to do, we ought to give them permission to scaffold notetaking to fit their own objectives. The proof of efficacy, of course, is visible improvement in their products.   


Common Core Standards: Research to Build and Present Knowledge:

Draw evidence from literary or informational texts to support analysis, reflection, and research.

About the Author

Debbie Abilock, MLS, cofounded and directs the educational vision of NoodleTools, Inc., a full-service teaching platform for academic research. Her column is based on over 55,000 research questions from educators and students that have been answered by NoodleTools' experts. As a former school administrator, curriculum coordinator, and school librarian, Debbie works with district leadership teams and professional organizations on curriculum and instruction. She was founding editor-in-chief of Knowledge Quest (1997-2010), writes for education publications, and has co-authored Growing Schools (Libraries Unlimited) about innovative site-based leadership and professional development led by school librarians.

MLA Citation Abilock, Debbie. "Adding Friction. How Can I Help Students Use Notecards More Flexibly?" School Library Connection, May 2016,

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Entry ID: 2016022

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