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Tweak the Purposes & Uses of Content-Area Notebooks

August 22, 2014

Tweak the Purposes & Uses of Content-Area Notebooks

Rather than using student notebooks to simply store notes copied from the board, look for opportunities for students to engage with the lesson material. This requires students to go beyond restating what the teacher said or regurgitating what the text stated. They should repackage the information into their own words and even into a different form or format. Students learn and retain content better when they recompose it.

Draw boxes & jot bullets

Teach students how to read and note each main idea in a “box.” Then they are to add 2-3 related examples, specific details, or important facts bulleted below it. This format helps students recompose paragraphs of long informational texts into more manageable bite-size chunks.

Draw Boxes and Jot Bullets Example

Elementary Teachers: First, execute this as a whole class using chart paper. Eventually, give students the Boxes & Bullets template to generate their own notes.

Repurpose worksheets

Rather than asking students to simply label or match items on a loose worksheet, look to repurpose the worksheet content and house it in the notebook. Give students scissors and ask them to cut up and reorganize the information. Then, require that they glue it into their notebooks and explain their thinking. For example:

  • In math, instead of simply labeling the different angles on a worksheet, ask students to cut and organize them into the three types–acute, obtuse, right. Then have them explain how they differentiated among them.


Labeling Angles Worksheet Example
  • In social studies, give students multiple worksheets with images and have them cut, organize, and explain the characteristics of rural v. urban communities.
  • In science, apply this same strategy to stages, steps, or phases of any system, cycle, or timeline. (Here is the plant cycle sequenced and then explained by a third grader.)
  • In language arts, rather than labeling worksheet sentences as simple, compound, or complex, ask students to cut them up, group them, and glue them into their notebooks. Then have students write clarifying sentences that define each type and how they distinguished among them.

More than passively labeling worksheets, students are now utilizing their knowledge to recognize, organize, and explain their thinking. And, if this kind of thinking and learning is housed in their notebooks, it becomes a fabulous resource for students to refer back to later.

Visualize information

Much of the information students receive is verbal (written or spoken). The notebook could be a place to recompose that verbal information into a visual format. For example:

In math, require students to include a visual representation for all their math vocabulary terms and definitions.
In social studies, have students draw a map that outlines the trade routes or migration paths explained in long paragraphs of text. (This could also include a corresponding timeline.)

Map of Trade Routes with Timeline
  • In science, have students sketch and dissect a diagram or create a flow chart for causes and effects.
  • In language arts, have students sketch a character from the story and label what the character sees, hears, smells, tastes, touches, and feels according to details inferred from the text.

Each of these three strategies–Boxes & Bullets, Repurpose Worksheets, and Visual Information–requires students to interact and recompose ideas. This increases their participation in their own learning and moves beyond the passive copying of notes from the board.

Insert classroom resources

Provide hard copies of created classroom resources for students to insert or adhere into their notebooks. (Often students are mindlessly copying down the information, not paying attention to what they are writing. Not to mention they may copy the information inaccurately or incompletely.) The following are examples:

  • If you create an anchor chart or a visual on the white board during class, snap a picture and give students a hard copy printout the next day to insert into their notebooks. This will act as a memory trigger later.
  • If you watch a video that includes a key scene or image, screen-shot it and print it out for the students to insert into their notebooks.
  • If you expect students to utilize certain reference material regularly (e.g., multiplication charts, periodic table, maps, primary source documents, character-trait lists, etc.), then give them a reduced photocopy to insert into their notebooks.
  • If you walk through an example math problem, a scientific process, or how to cite a source, then shoot a picture of the steps for students to refer to later.

Use textbook subheads

Comprehension increases when students have an authentic purpose for their content-area and textbook reading. Mary Hall (Sweetser Elementary, Sweetser, IN) helps her students identify their purpose by teaching them to turn traditional chapter subheadings into questions. Have students locate and reword subheads from the textbook to create a Q & A format in their notebooks. Finding an answer to the question becomes the students’ purpose for reading.

RE-WRITE: Where was the sea route to India?

RE-WRITE: What is the Renaissance?

Expedite end-of-chapter questions

Another time-saver might involve rethinking how students respond to end-of-chapter questions. Rather than having students write out all the questions (and their answers), consider giving them a vertical list of the questions to glue into the far margin of a blank notebook page. Then students write their responses adjacent to each question.

Paraphrasing Ideas and Questions Example

For the teacher, this requires typing the questions into a vertical column in a Microsoft Word document and then copying and pasting the column of text. Make photocopies and give a “strip” of questions to each student.

Content-area notebooks are not a new concept. But tweaking their form and function can make student learning even more powerful.

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