When I teach undergraduate level math course, I make slides with a lot of white space. In my classes, I write on my slides with an iPad and project the screen to a big TV. After a class, I provide annotated slides for students. In this way, students don't have to take notes. They can just read my slides with annotations.

But yesterday a colleague commented that it is better to force students to take notes so they pay more attentions. So I was thinking maybe I should stop providing annotated notes. But then students can always take photos or borrow notes from someone who takes them.

So should we require students to take notes in class?

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    $\begingroup$ A possible solution I've seen used was to provide students with notes that have blanks they can fill in. Anything that's not valuable to have students copy down you have pre-filled in for them, and anything that you want to have passed through students' brains at least enough for them to have copied it down you can leave blank. This also solves the problem that students are slower at handwriting nowadays versus having them copy everything down. $\endgroup$
    – TomKern
    Commented Oct 18, 2022 at 0:47
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    $\begingroup$ @TomKern That looks like an answer. $\endgroup$
    – shoover
    Commented Oct 18, 2022 at 22:33
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    $\begingroup$ I don't know if they should be required or not, but I always take notes because it aids my learning. If I want to get a good grade on the tests and be able to finish the homework, I usually have to gain knowledge from the lecture, which I do much better if process the verbal information and write it down in my own words. $\endgroup$ Commented Oct 20, 2022 at 5:46
  • $\begingroup$ Do you distribute the annotated notes by posting them online somewhere, and if so, can you see how many students downloaded them? $\endgroup$
    – Steve
    Commented Oct 27, 2022 at 11:53
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    $\begingroup$ @TomKern Worksheets are evil. $\endgroup$
    – Rusty Core
    Commented Oct 27, 2022 at 14:51

2 Answers 2


I argue against requiring note taking. Although this might in fact be effective for some students, I'm quite sure it's counterproductive for other students.

Although the claim is purely anecdotal, I never learned anything from lectures in math classes until I stopped taking notes. In practice now I only take notes when listening to a talk about something which I already know very well (e.g. I wrote a paper about it), or to write down specific examples, references, theorems, or when there exists no alternative source of information (as sometimes is the case in research talks).

I often advise students not to take notes, or to take fewer notes.

Here are some more objections to note taking:

It is distracting. Concentrating on copying makes it harder to think about what is being conveyed. This effect is augmented for students who don't distinguish between minor details and key ideas.

There are better sources than a student's notes. These include - the teacher's notes, published books, and online videos. All of these are more polished, better structured/organized, and so forth.

Many students never look at their own notes (I never did).

It reinforces the notion that classes serve to learn specific things (of course they do, to a certain limited extent). Classes (the sort that might require note taking) should serve to orient and guide, to indicate key issues and ideas, but learning should occur in more active situations, or outside of class.

Obviously there are arguments in favor of taking notes, but my point is really that obligating note taking seems to me a terrible idea. It focuses attention on the wrong things and may impede learning for some in the audience.

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    $\begingroup$ It's funny, my experience is pretty much opposite what you describe. I learn more when I take notes, I look at my notes, even now I treasure notes I have from classes decades ago. That said, I totally agree it shouldn't be forced. However, I also think something needs to be done to crack down on kids just looking at their phones or laptop in class and failing to engage the discussion mentally. $\endgroup$ Commented Oct 27, 2022 at 3:43
  • $\begingroup$ Student notes often contain mistakes, and they miscopy often. $\endgroup$
    – Mike Z.
    Commented Oct 29, 2022 at 21:17

In a nutshell: no, don't require note taking, don't structure the course to really need it.

I think this is very much something where different methods by professor or student can work, so not the canned input-output Q&A format, but more a salon-like different ideas type of question (as many here are).

That said, my $.02 would be to use a book and drill program with a lot of scaffolding. NOT the "don't need a text, just follow me" idea of the romantic lecturing college professor--rather more of an athletic coach or professional trainer instead. Lectures should introduce the topic with a a question and a demonstration and then give some examples. Rest of the time is student questions, calling on students, recitation, drill, tests, etc.

I would not bother with publishing notes, especially if you are using chalk, which seems the most human way to communicate. (Not the acetate and OHP, not the projected laptop...at least you write on the fly, versus PPT, though!)

Would encourage students to take notes as they see fit, but again try to use a book that is good at explanation and examples, for those who gaff it off or miss something. And follow it. It is better to do something good, perfectly, than to do something perfect, poorly. And you have to realize there are other humans in the loop (the students) and they are the bottleneck. Which is my constant reminder to the rigor-luvvr curriculum questioners. Sometimes a shorter text, that uses more accessible language...vice impressing professor buying committees...is the way to go, but that is a tanget.

As a student, I had a system (got from a friend) and has helped me in every single class: Have a separate spiral (or bound) notebook for each class. Drill homework, or example trials (from the text) are "normal pages". Lecture notes are separate pages and have inked stars at the top. Proceed left to right and intersperse as the class progresses. Stars allow checking notes. From the back, use this for questions (with spaces for answers). Forces a feedback loop to ask instructor (sometimes figured out on own, later, though). A separate file folder (or a section of a 3 hole binder, but then you need a punch and reinforcements) is used to store handouts, tests, etc.

Best practice is to pre-study the material. In this case, lecture is really a dream (a review) and notes are easy and less of a transcription. Would encourage your students to do this, but realistically few will because of human nature. But even there, I would emphasize to them that you have a good book, that the tests WILL be from material in the book and that the lectures are so they have one more way of learning the material, not as something they must hang on since material outside the scaffolded text is covered. [IF you have some cute method like tabular integration, fine...add it, but not as a tested requirement, more as an "easier way to do things".]

P.s. I'm not a teacher. I just took STEM math classes (and not majors courses) and watched Stand and Deliver. And lived it. (Sort of.)


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