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Course Notes and Course Outline
Workshop #2

The second EQUIP workshop deals with improved use and application of course notes and outlines by instructors in the classrooms and online. The project focused on this topic based on specific data collected from University of Northern Colorado and Aims Community College student focus groups.

Students made clear statements in focus groups that having class notes before and during class time would be beneficial to them in the learning process. In classrooms and lecture halls, students make quick decisions when takings notes and try to determine which facts and phrases to record in their notes and which to leave out. For many students, this decision period takes away from classroom learning since their attention is diverted away from the speaker and the information. Students that enter a classroom with previously reviewed notes tend to have better recall since there is less stress involved with listening and interpreting information accurately (Kiewra, 1985).

Good practice in undergraduate education, as stated by Chickering and Gamson (1991):

  • encourages contact between students and faculty,
  • develops reciprocity and cooperation among students,
  • encourages active learning,
  • gives prompt feedback,
  • emphasizes time on task,
  • communicates high expectations, and
  • respects diverse talents and ways of learning.

Contact between students and faculty increase when course notes are used because less time is focused on the transmittal of the information and more is focused on the interpretation and application of the material. When students have access to notes before class they may be more inclined to ask questions and contribute their resources as well.

Cooperation and reciprocity is encouraged when course notes and outlines are used in class.When information is shared before the class meets students have more time to reflect, review and research. When they find additional information that adds to the weekly assignment they have more opportuntiy to share their findings with others, thereby enhanceing their ownership in and contribution to the learning process.

Using structured course notes encourages active learning by allowing the focus of the class to change from wondering what should be captured in the notes to processing of the information presented. Not all information will be presented in the course notes but enough to let the student know what material needs to be read as well as links to resources and other research. Student note-taking is important to the learning process. In fact, Kiewra (1983) found that review and reorganization of notes led to higher test achievement.

Prompt feedback flows from the use of course notes and outlines because students are involved with two-way communication where “there is a flow of information among and between individuals. Because of the opportunity for immediate feedback, many of the assumptions that one makes under one-way communication about skill level, prior training, and understanding of the material being communicated gets tested immediately” (Bergquist & Phillips, 1975). Since students have the opportunity to review course notes prior to class, they are more informed about the material and more apt to offer feedback.

Time on task is less stressful and more focused because “writing comprehensive, focused notes during a lecture can be a challenging task for students. They often spend most of the time actually writing notes with little time to reflect on the material presented in the lecture, or indeed to ask questions” (Wirth, 2003). Assisting students and relieving them of some of the decisions related to the note-taking process “should allow them to follow lectures and discussions more closely, without losing track. It should also equalize the advantage of good note-takers over others, making the examinations more reflective of learning and less of stenographic ability. More learning should take place and that learning should be more accurate” (Beard, 2000).

Expect more and you will get more, according to Chickering and Gamson (1991). Give more information prior to each class, expect students to come prepared, then act as if they are. That formula works best when the high expectations come from an instructor who is creates quality course notes to share in class.

Course notes allows for diverse ways of learning by allowing students to read the material ahead of time, at their own pace and process the information. Creating and sharing a brief outline of course notes allows students to write their own notes yet helps them focus on items that are the most important to remember and review. A brief outline of the notes in skeleton fashion works best for students. “Several formats for partial notes have been examined, from outlines, to matrices, to skeletal guides. Of these, the skeletal format has gained the widest support because there is still enough room for the student to write notes from the lecture, yet have a clear understanding of the key points from the lecture. Using a skeletal framework, students remained more attentive during the lecture than did those with other kinds of notes, as evidenced by their higher scores on test-related items presented during each of the four quarters of the lecture period (Kiewra, 2002) .

Using course notes and outlines helps students focus on what to read prior to class whether it includes reading the text, reviewing web sites, listening to music clips, viewing paintings or whatever is assigned. Communication is enhanced by using the web where students have flexibility (to review material during their study hours), method (use of email or telephone) and opportunity to comment, question or suggest ideas to the instructor (in discussion boards, listserves or using email).


Beard, R. The noteless classroom. Bucknell University. Retrieved 25 March 2000 from the World Wide Web: http://www.facstaff.bucknell.edu/rbeard/papers/noteless.html.

Chickering, A. W., & Gamson, Z. F. (1991). Applying the seven principles for good practice in undergraduate education. San Francisco, Calif.: Jossey-Bass Inc.

Chickering, A. W., Gamson, Z. F., & Winona State University. Seven Principles Resource Center. (1990). Student inventory : 7 principles for good practice in undergraduate education. Winona, Minn.: The Seven Principles Resource Center Winona State University.

Einstein, G.O., Morris, J., & Smith, S. (1985). Note-taking, individual differences, and memory for lecture information. Journal of Educational Psychology, 77, 522-532.

Hartley, J. (1978). Note-taking: A critical review. Programmed Learning and Educational Technology, 15, 207-224.

Kiewra, K.A. (1985). Providing the instructor's notes: An effective addition to student notetaking. Educational Psychologist, 20, 33-39.

Kiewra, K. 1985. Investigating note taking and review; A depth of processing alternative. Educational Psychologist, 20, 23-32.

Kiewra, K.A., DuBois, N.F., Christian, D., & McShane, A. (1988). Providing study notes: Comparison of three types of notes for review. Journal of Educational Psychology, 80, 595-597.

Kiewra, K. 2002. How Classroom Teachers can help students learn and teach them how to learn. Theory Into Practice, Vol. 41, No 2, Spring 2002

Knight, L.J., & McKelvie, S.J. (1986). Effects of attendance, note- taking, and review on memory for a lecture: Encoding versus external storage functions of notes. Canadian Journal of Behavioral Science, 18, 52- 61.

Maqsud, M. (1980). Effects of personal lecture notes and teacher-notes on recall of university students. British Journal of Educational Psychology, 50, 289-294.

Russell, I.J., Caris, T.N., Harris, G.D., & Hendricson, W.D. (1983). Effects of three types of lecture notes on medical student achievement. Journal of Medical Education, 58, 627-636.

Wirth, M.A., "E-notes: Using electronic lecture notes to support active learning in computer science", ACM SIGCSE Bulletin, 2003, Vol.35, No.2, pp.57-60. [pdf]