Skeleton notes -helpful and effective?

March 4, 2016 at 1:05 pm | Posted in educational | Leave a comment

The idea underpinning skeleton notes (also called guided notes) is a simple one; students are provided with a set of lecture notes that has gaps where selected key details and formulae should be, and fill in these gaps during the lecture. There might also be charts, graphs, diagrams and maps which need lines drawn, axes labelled, data values added etc.

The aim is to scaffold students’ ability to create well-structured notes that contain an appropriate level of detail and to reduce the amount of time (and therefore attention) they need to write the notes, while at the same time helping them to maintain attention during the lecture. Far too many students try to write everything down, making it difficult for them to actually process what is being said and creating notes that are difficult to use as revision aids.

Skeleton notes are also good for dyslexic students, since they greatly reduce the amount of text that needs to be written and so make it possible for them to take their own notes during a lecture. They would also work well for a student who missed a lecture and caught up using a recording – they could take their own notes instead of copying a friends.

A useful paper is Do Guided Notes Improve Student Performance? by John Morrow (2012) which provides a good introduction to guided notes, a literature review and a study which reveals some surprising results:

“It is interesting to note that while there was no significant difference in performance between students in the two semesters, the majority felt that guided notes were extremely beneficial to their success in the class. With respect to the in-class benefits, 82% responded that they were better able to pay attention to the presentation while using guided notes and 73% reported that guided notes helped them retain more of the material because they used guided notes. Additionally, 76% preferred using guided notes over taking their own notes, stating that guided notes better organized the material. Regarding the usefulness of guided notes for test preparation, 88% stated that guided notes helped them prepare for exams.”

So lots of benefits, but none of them translated into improved exam performance! That said, this is only one study, and others he cites did show improvements.

A quick green-ink rant about the awfulness of 3-slides-per-sheet PowerPoint printouts. Many tutors put too much text on their slides (slides are not substitute lecture notes!) so the text is unreadably small – and these printouts ‘excuse’ students from taking their own notes, which we all know are a key way for them to identify key details, organise that information and link it to previous knowledge.


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