Advice for new/training teachers: 1. Notes

This is the first in a series of posts aimed specifically at teachers who are new to the profession and/or training via a PGCE or GTP route in Psychology.

Lessons learned

At the end of my first year of having sole responsibility for a cohort’s learning of A Level Psychology (I was the only Psychology teacher in the school at the time) I realised that whilst I had been merrily teaching the specification with great enthusiasm, a few of my students had slipped through the net I thought I had cast securely around them.

This problem became apparent during an out-of-hours revision session when three students asked me to go through the entire course again and/or give them my notes. They appeared to have nothing to show for 8 months of learning, having arrived with only an empty bag to take home the revision booty they seemed to expect to be handed without a struggle. The scribblings that they had been furiously working on each lesson, along with the practice exam responses covered in my comments and targets for improvement, seemed to have disappeared into the ether (presumably along with the numerous pens they had each borrowed from me to produce their scribbles).

After much eyebrow raising, huffing and puffing (all from me) and shrugging (them this time) I reluctantly fulfilled the request and embarked on a whistle stop tour of AQA AS Psychology A, wondering momentarily why it had taken the best part of an academic year the first time. Again reluctantly, I gave them my notes – it was too late for anything else as study leave was about to begin and I was too nice to say “tough do it yourself”. At this moment I categorically vowed never ever to be in this position again.

These are extreme examples but I was also staggered by the number of students who seem to abandon the notes they have taken as they have gone along and rely and instead on reading and re-reading a textbook they should already have read and digested, or worst still pinning all their hopes on a revision book they have purchased which turns out not to match the specification.

Year two: the benefit of hindsight

In light of this I set out about doing things a bit differently the following year. I started the year by talking about the nature and purpose of notes in a subject like Psychology (or any subject for that matter) and included several activities early on, focussing on how students record their learning. I also provided a model folder (a set of notes I did myself) which I kept in the classroom for students to review at any time. I stressed that the idea wasn’t to produce notes like mine or to reproduce the textbook but to get an idea of the level of detail required.

When students asked why they couldn’t just use the textbook for detailed knowledge, I explained that a textbook has a wide audience and a specific purpose. Their notes on the other hand have a target audience of 1 (them) and should reflect all of their learning, a lot of which will not necessarily come from a textbook.

To support their note taking I devised some check-lists of what students must, should and could have in their notes. Students were required to check their own notes in the first instance and fill in any gaps before a scheduled folder check. The check-lists contained appropriate headings to help structure their notes and glossaries of key terms. The check-lists doubled up as handy revision lists, so when students asked exactly what they needed for the exam I could simply refer them back to this resource.

I carried out notes checks at the end of each sub-topic (this was quite time consuming the first time but worth it) and gave students targets to improve their notes if required which I followed up.

I made sure students were well aware that these notes were their revision tool and therefore it was vital that they were clear and thorough. I also made explicit that I expected students to be revisiting and annotating older notes (viewing notes as a work in progress) as their knowledge of Psychology broadened and deepened and their study skills improved.

Reflective practice

As the years went on, with more and more students, notes checks at this level of detail became more difficult to manage. I dealt with this by checking all of the student’s folders the first time after a few weeks of the course, then the checking became more selective as it became obvious who needed more support.

When folder checks aren’t worth the effort

I know that folder checks are likely to be a feature of the monitoring systems employed by most teachers but don’t start falling into the trap of checking stationary and handwriting quality. A complete, usable set of notes does not have to be pretty; it needs to be complete and it needs to show learning but most of all it needs to work for the individual who is using them.


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