Notes and the Interactive Notebook

This one’s for Adam, who commented,

This is fantastically helpful. I am doing a notebook for the first time this year, but only for labs, demonstrations, and some reflection. While it is helpful and the students like it, I’m recognizing that only using it sometimes is a problem. Could you elaborate on what you are doing with notes? That’s an area I have yet to touch with the notebook and would be curious to hear your method.

Sure, no problem.  And I have to admit, this was one of those things that seemed difficult to find a solution for but in the end was pretty intuitive.  The answer is: some pages are for notes.  Students just take notes on them.

I used to do this in my research notebooks.  I would go sit in a library somewhere (my office was at Ohio State in Orton Hall, so usually I’d just go upstairs to the Orton Hall Geology Library and either sit in a comfy chair with a journal article and my notebook or sit at one of the old worn tables to take my notes and make tables from my reading.


At first, I drew notes on my whiteboard and wanted my students to copy what I was writing as I wrote.  They had a good deal of difficulty doing this.  Many of my students write at different rates and I was writing things across the board or over diagrams and while they were writing they were looking down, and didn’t immediately know where I was working on my whiteboard.  They got very frustrated.

My notes for classification - useful to no one but me.  This was not working for my students.
My notes for classification – useful to no one but me. This was not working for my students.

When I asked for feedback, many students asked for “more notes”, which I thought I’d been giving them.  A few (brave) students came to me and said that what they specifically wanted was powerpoint slides with notes.  This now makes sense to me – they are very predictable for students.  They can look down to write and predict where the next thing they need to write will be on the slide.  As an added bonus, they are easy for me to print off (frequently using the “print as an outline” feature) for students who need more time for this process – this way I don’t have to completely stop for the one or two who are below grade-level readers and/or slow writers, and those students can choose to just listen during lecture and write later.  (Our sped support teachers know I’m doing this, and I’ve started sending them copies of scans of my notebooks and the ppt slides so these students can access them in their rooms as well.)

Its important to never forget that our students are learning the skills of being a student – including note writing.  They get writing fatigue if you give them a ton of notes.  I try for less than 10 slides, and each slide usually has one or two nice figures (right now we’re doing “the Cell” so its SEM pictures of organelles or bacteria, or nice diagrams without a lot of words on them).  These slides note’s fit less than two pages of a composition notebook, and I also give them an “overlay” page with diagrams that complement the notes.

And since I mentioned overlays… an “overlay” is a handout page that gets taped as a flip page over the notes – so a student can flip it up or to the side and see what’s written on the page underneath.  I like distributing these figures as handouts because students don’t need to draw pictures in their notes (which is time consuming) and it gives them a reason to trick them into spending more time in their notebook and in the material (coloring the picture). If you go this route, you can hand them out at the beginning of the lecture or the end.  I have been using pages from The Biology Coloring Book and other similar texts (reduced to 92%), and students color them in during downtime during lecture.  Some students may find this really distracting, and for those students you may want to hold the overlay insert until after the lecture.

So, here’s what my more recent pages have been looking like:

Notes Spread

This is a two page spread of notes, with a handout for an overlay.  It takes about 10 minutes to cover these notes (which feels like forever to me), but this day we also did special organelles in plant cells (with a plant cell handout), and structures in prokaryotes.  This allows just enough leftover time for questions (we’ve had a lot on cells) and then time for distributing the handout, taping, some coloring, and time for me to walk around and see who didn’t take notes.

Also, students can borrow my notebook as a “master” if they miss a day.  They don’t get to leave the room with it, though.  Its not uncommon for it to be floating around the room during class, and everybody always knows where it is (its nice that it has a funky distinctive cover, which helps when it takes more than 5 seconds to figure out where it is).

Does that answer your question?  I’m happy to follow up if I need to.

2 thoughts on “Notes and the Interactive Notebook

  1. I know this post is from 2013, but I just came across your blog. I have a question about your student’s notes…Do you print out their notes as the outline feature and where do they put them in their INB? I would love to collaborate with you for a few minutes if you have time.

    1. For this lesson, I wrote them out on my whiteboard and they copied them in. Some information is just best done this way. For learning organelles, I HIGHLY recommend checking out Carolina Biological’s “CellCraft”, and having students write down the names of organelles and their functions as they encounter them in game. Students love this game!

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