Note taking in Computer Science

Monday, November 13, 2017 , , , 0 Comments

For the first couple of years of teaching CS I did not pay a lot of focus to how kids in class took notes during the sessions. Why? Well - for starters they were at the end of their high school life. They were taking notes left, right and center in every subject. Plus they consistently performed well on tests, exams and projects plus worked well in teams and on internal assessments. So what reason did I have to prescribe or monitor how they took notes?

During a conference on some subject note taking was one of the main topics. This got me thinking about how this was being done in my class. I realized quite frankly I did not know! Every kid had their own way of organizing content, in a way that would make sense to them. So why should I dictate how that is done? Who is to say my way of doing it would work them too?

This was interesting ground.

For the next few lessons I strictly monitored their note taking habits. It was as diverse a collection as their nationalities. Some had proper binders where they hand wrote things, stuck prints outs in, had labels with each topic properly separated. Some had Word documents - all over the place, sure - but in properly named folders.  Others, well this was the group that got me thinking, had basically nothing. They had some notes hand written, some electronic, some just missing! 0 organization.

This had to be fixed asap. So starting from the next class I started working closely with the last group of kids. This was pre-Google Drive era so Word documents were a big deal. I literally sat down with them and got a template going for what kind of note taking would make most sense for them. Some were quite vocal about what would work - visual stuff like flowcharts and mindmaps made sense - but lengthy paragraphs and things like Boolean math had them confused. On further investigation I found out that this was a trend with many classes and lot of teachers were struggling with getting the right note taking method to work for everyone.

That was when I devised a new method - well, a combination of sorts, if you will. The idea was that kids had to choose from one of the following to keep track of their notes:

1. The Cornell Method
2. Properly documented Word files in proper folders
3. Hand written notes are fine as long as they were minimal and well maintained.

It worked reasonably well. Since the CS program has a big chunk of coding involved I started using their programs as a way to keep internal documentation. There were classes where they spent a lot of time writing notes about their own code but within the program itself, as comments. This at the time seemed like too much work but when exam review time came it was a true blessing. 

When Smart Boards made their entry around 2004, a lot of things changed. 

I started uploading every single class note - dated and labeled - onto my class web. This became a huge reference point for kids since the notes also had screenshots of code worked on during class with annotations and useful pointers. This trend continues to this day.

What I also did was get each kid started on their log of code - essentially a Google doc which has a running table with the following headings:

1. Program no.
2. Date of coding
3. Purpose of the program
4. Unit/Topic in syllabus
5. Expected Output
6. Level of difficulty (Since I use a tiered approach kids mark in 5, 6 or 7 here)
7. Status : Complete, Incomplete or Pending
8. Link to program (This is a link to a PasteBin location where they store all their code with documentation)

For the notes I enforce only the Cornell method now since its easy and focus is always on the major key points. This has come in handy during exam reviews and mock tests during class.

Example Cornell Method Google Doc template here. And an example of a student note below:

The combination of these two methods - log of code with pastebin and Cornell - has helped tremendously. Kids use images and icons to highlight parts of the document. I have comment access to all their Google Docs so I get in there to check on code + leave comments where applicable. It is also a way to keep track of kids who are falling behind and failing to meet code deadlines.

In addition to this the class website I maintain has been a good source of information and resources too. This way kids can quickly look up a class note, relate it to either of the notes location and find a way to use it as needed.

These methods are the ones which have been most effective for every batch walking into my class each year. What I have come to realize is that even if the kid walking into your class has a tried and tested way of keeping notes that works absolutely perfect for them, the class still needs a common communication mode so that the teacher and student dialog can continue. I want to be able to look at their work at any time and be able to guide them as appropriate. Keeping such important details private does not help.

<wink>Did I mention I am the one who creates the Google Docs so they don't "accidentally" revoke my access? </wink>

So, would love to hear your take on the note taking method for your classroom. What challenges have you faced? What success have you found? Please feel free to leave your comments below!

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