Biology professor Kayla Rihani has adapted a tool from the mid-20th century to get students to share their thoughts and questions more freely.
Instructor of Biology,Northeastern Illinois University, Chicago
MS in Microbiology and Immunology, BS in Biology
Kayla Rihani has been a fan of the Cornell Note-Taking System since she was introduced to it by her AP Biology teacher in high school. The method involves dividing a page of notebook paper into three sections: a large area for notes, a narrow column for questions and keywords, and a space at the bottom for a summary.
“It’s a way of visually organizing notes so that every page doesn’t look the same,” says Rihani. “As students are using the notes to prepare for an exam—or using them during the exam, depending on the instructor—it’s easy to find things. The visual presentation jogs the student’s memory faster than a continuous page of notes would.”
Years later, when Rihani was designing an online biology course for Northeastern Illinois University in Chicago, it occurred to her that the Cornell Note-Taking System could help her increase the teacher-student interaction that is often sorely lacking in distance learning. She revised the original template, creating an editable document that students use to share their ideas and ask questions—and to which she can easily respond.
The approach also enables her to get an idea of her students’ thought process, which she says has helped make her a better teacher. “I want to know what’s come into their heads—what they’re thinking about when they read a certain section of the text,” she explains. “For example, a student’s mom may have just been diagnosed with cancer when we’re [learning about] mitosis, which has a potential link to cancer. So she’s reading this section differently from the way I’m reading it. I want to understand that connection she’s making, so I need her to write her questions down so they can be part of our discussion.”
The approach has provided such unique perspectives and deep insights that Rihani now uses the approach in her face-to-face classes, too. Below, the professor shares some observations into her personal twist on this tried-and-true method.
“The student’s perspective is unique. A student’s mom may have just been diagnosed with cancer when we’re [learning about] mitosis, which has a potential link to cancer. So she’s reading this section differently from the way I’m reading it. I want to understand that connection she’s making, so I need her to write her questions down so they can be part of our discussion.”
-Kayla Rihani, MS
Course description: A biological approach to understanding the natural environment. This course introduces basic ecological principles including biogeochemical cycling, energy flow, the origins of biodiversity, and population growth; considers how humans interact with natural systems; examines the origins of contemporary environmental issues, including the role of humans in contributing to environmental changes; and explores potential solutions to environmental issues that are based on biological and ecological principles.
Rihani’s “noteworthy” strategies for engaging students
The Cornell Note-Taking System was invented in the 1940s by Cornell University education professor Walter Pauk, who documented it the 1962 best seller How to Study in College (now in its 11th edition). Details on the approach are provided by Cornell University, but Rihani has adapted the format, as explained below, to suit her needs and teaching style.
To get started, Rihani provides students with the template at the start of the semester, then requires them to use it for all note-taking. Below, Rihani shares some additional thoughts about how she makes the most of the system:
Create a note-taking template that is easy to use, submit, and grade
As is evident below, Rihani does not start students with a blank page—nor does she expect them to remember what information goes where. She spells it all out, providing a form that is easy to complete.
“This note-taking activity is my version of the weekly assignment that is required for our course,” says Rihani. “My template is an expandable Word document. Students can type on it, or they can download and print it and then take handwritten notes on it.” This lets students customize the approach to their own needs. After filling out the template, students upload it to the learning management system to submit it. (Those who take handwritten notes must either photograph it or scan it first.)
Have students write individual questions—then do research
On each page of notes, students must include the “essential question” of the chapter, which is usually specified in the book or in her lecture. She also requires them to list at least two questions they have after reading the chapter and listening to the related lecture.
“In my BIO-104 class, I ask them to pick one of their questions to research and post to the discussion forum,” Rihani says. Sometimes finding the answer is an easy Google search, she notes; other questions will require more research. Once they have posted their research, she says, “other students can then discuss the question and answer with the original student online.”
When grading the notes, focus mainly on students’ questions
Colleagues have asked Rihani about the time required to review and grade the notes of 50 students per week. She asserts that this is not as time-consuming as it sounds. “Really, all I’m trying to assess is: Is the template complete? Are the notes for the right chapter? And then I try to answer the one or two questions each of them asks,” she explains. “It could be as simple as explaining a term the student didn’t understand, or it could be a deeply philosophical discussion.”
Either way, those answers become the basis for a personal (usually digital) one-on-one conversation between instructor and student, which Rihani’s favorite outcome of her note-taking requirement. “We might not otherwise have that personal interaction [in an online class],” she says.
Give students time to adjust to this unusual requirement
Adapting to this note-taking technique can be challenging, Rihani acknowledges: She herself took a while to adjust to it when she was a student. With that in mind, she counsels educators to be patient when they introduce it. “Some students are not going to respond well to being told how to take notes—I mean, I was that student,” Rihani observes.
“After a couple of weeks, generally they understand that standardizing their note-taking approach is important for efficient grading, and they’ll get faster feedback from me if they use the templates. Being positive about why it’s important to use this approach is the best way to motivate students to apply it.”
She also provides a powerful incentive to adhere to the plan: Students are allowed to refer to their templated notes during test-taking, too. “They know that ahead of time, and it’s an impetus to do an effective job on [the notes],” she says.