I want to set the context for me asking this question before stating it properly.

  1. I teach at college/university level. This question deals with first-year students, fresh from school. So think calculus, but with some vectors and proof by induction etc. to keep them on their toes.

  2. I provide my students with almost-complete notes, which they can find online (on the course VLE). The notes have no proofs or examples in them. Instead, they have big, blank boxes where the students are expected to write down the proofs and the solutions to examples. This is meant to be a compromise between giving them the complete notes and helping them to pay attention in lectures.

  3. I try my best at the start of term to make sure the students understand their responsibility in lectures is to copy down proofs and examples (and, of course, understand them etc. etc.).

Recently, I had the following conversation with a student.

Student: How do I do question X?
Me: Look at example Y in the notes. It is basically identical.
Student: Okay....its blank.
Me: I know. Did you take notes?
Student: No.
Me: ......

So I didn't know how to respond (thus the "....."), and upon reflection still don't know how to respond.

  • Giving them the notes will undermine the concept of bullet point (2), above - it will undermine the concept of the lecture! It will also give them unrealistic expectation of their later years at university.

  • Not giving them the notes will ensure they fail the course. (The "almost-complete notes" might suffice for a good student, but a poor student would likely need more.)

  • Telling them how to do this one question will not help - the issue runs much deeper. (We can assume that they have not been taking notes since week 1.)

  • Telling them to "find a friend" is just slightly cheap...


How to deal with poor students who don't take notes? What should I have said in the above conversation, when I discovered they had no notes?

  • 1
    $\begingroup$ (1) Tell them to get the notes from a friend and next time to take notes in class. (2) Can't you see while you lecture if they take notes and say something then? (3) Design your course so that you closely follow a text. Then students can just use the examples in the book. First year class (unless Harvard advanced class) are not the place for classes that don't follow the book. $\endgroup$
    – guest
    Jun 18, 2018 at 11:27
  • 1
    $\begingroup$ @guest Why not write write an answer based on that? $\endgroup$
    – Tommi
    Jun 18, 2018 at 12:22
  • 2
    $\begingroup$ How explicit are you about how the fill-in-the-blank notes are to be used? It might be worth talking about that intent more than once. $\endgroup$
    – Adam
    Jun 18, 2018 at 14:57
  • 4
    $\begingroup$ So tempted to write a "let them fail" answer... $\endgroup$
    – shoover
    Jun 19, 2018 at 16:05
  • 1
    $\begingroup$ moral plus one to shoover $\endgroup$
    – guest
    Jun 20, 2018 at 1:36

1 Answer 1


You said that most of your students are first year college students. Such students often lack basic academic skills. Perhaps they were smart enough in high school to get away with not taking notes or studying, perhaps they had teachers that provided too much scaffolding (and never took it away), or perhaps the standards were just lower. There are a lot of reasons that successful high school students might struggle in college, many of which have nothing to do with the students themselves being "poor". Thus the first step, I think, it to change your mindset. These aren't poor students, they are good students (they are in college, after all) who have received poor training.

From that point of view, you might consider that part of your job is helping your students to learn the study skills that will enable them to be successful in the future. I think that what you describe in your question is an excellent start—providing blank notes for the students to fill in emphasizes that the students are at least partially responsible for their own success.

In addition to providing notes, you might consider continually explaining to the students that they should be taking notes. Particularly early in the term, it is not unreasonable to stop with some frequency and suggest "You really should be writing this down in your notes. Do you need a little more time?" Then give them a good 15–30 seconds to write. That 15–30 seconds will probably feel like an eternity to you, but I guarantee that you'll have several students who are struggling to keep up, and will need all of that time. A suggestion: bring a bottle of water or cup of coffee to class. Leave it on the far side of the room. When you ask them to write, put down your writing implements, walk over to your water or coffee, slowly take a swig, then go back to your lecture. This slows things down a little, but feels less awkward than standing silently at the front of the room.

Another suggestion: for the first week, print out the blank notes for you students. Make it very, very clear that this is a "one time" deal, and that they need to start printing out notes ahead of time. This will hopefully help your students to understand that the notes are important. You could even make up some song and dance about how you would like to continue printing out notes for them all term, but the department lacks funding for that, so they are going to have to be responsible for their own notes (this probably isn't even a lie in most departments).

Yet another suggestion: quiz them on their notes. On a (perhaps) weekly basis, give them a quiz with a problem taken directly from the notes. Give them only a little bit of time ($<5$ minutes), and allow them to use their notes for these quizzes. Try to keep such quizzes fairly low stakes, but make it clear that they are "free points" toward their final grade.

  • 2
    $\begingroup$ I love the water or coffee part! $\endgroup$
    – Sue VanHattum
    Jun 19, 2018 at 23:01
  • 3
    $\begingroup$ This post provides good advice, sure, but it is about prevention rather than the cure. The question was to find a cure for the student(s) - what can I do now, rather than could have done earlier. $\endgroup$
    – user1729
    Jun 20, 2018 at 10:27
  • $\begingroup$ "Perhaps they were smart enough in high school to get away with not taking notes" - the culture of worksheets is not conducive to note-taking. $\endgroup$
    – Rusty Core
    Dec 8, 2018 at 6:29

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