Mildred Dresselhaus
Mildred Dresselhaus, MIT Professor of Physics, 1972

Making class notes available ahead of time to students can solve a lot of challenges for teachers and students alike.

Teaching at a community college often means working with students who need help learning notetaking and other  “college ready” skills. Also, today’s students often come to class without reading beforehand, and with little skill in listening to lectures. This means that active learning, which relies on applying concepts, can be difficult, and teaching often defaults to a “sage on the stage” model just to cover enough material to get through an activity.

The strategy of giving out notes ahead of time can compensate for these difficulties. When I transitioned to a community college environment, I found my lectures expanded beyond the time I allotted. I could trim lectures back down to ten or twenty minutes by putting substantive outlines on Blackboard and requiring the students to bring the notes to class.

Some people criticize this approach because it’s “spoon-feeding,” and it makes attending class and reading the textbook superfluous. On the flip side, studies do indicate that the source of notes students use has no impact on test performance (Karen Gee 2011). Students’ success doesn’t correlate to notes they took themselves, provided by peers, or by the instructor. After reading the studies, I see no instructional merit in requiring students to take their own notes without a rationale or some value added. In fact, making students take their own notes just for the sake of doing it seems a form of busy work or academic hazing that “puts hair on their chest.”

Really, then, arguments about whether or not to give out notes ahead of time become about attendance and commitment to particular styles of pedagogy. One study shows that 30% of students skip class when notes are provided ahead of time (Mark Grabe 2005). Yes, that’s a big number, but not necessarily more than usual. Students vote with their feet. If you don’t provide something extra that makes class worthwhile, why should they come? Similarly, if you lecture from the textbook, why should they read? So handing outl lecture notes is ineffective unless the class lecture offers something extra.


Following the “teaching to where the students are” philosophy, giving out notes provides a teaching opportunity. This strategy can teach students how to listen to lectures and how to take better lecture notes that do add instructional value. I believe it works because I make the notes necessary and useful. If used correctly, the notes provide scaffolding, reduce cognitive load, and promote higher order thinking. Incorporating the pause procedure, think-pair-shares, muddiest point, and similar activities into the note-taking process adds value to pre-written notes.

Tips on how to handle the notes in class:

1. Before class during the first few classes, remind students as they walk in to bring their notes. If your school has a lab, let them print the notes before class. By the second week, students will develop the habit.

2. During the first two weeks, walk the rows during lectures,  and quietly comment to students who don’t have notes. Use a neutral tone without drawing attention to them.

3. Explain that lectures provide additional content such as definitions and examples, which students will forget unless they add commentary to the notes. Explain that they need to put this commentary in their own words. Show a model or example of notes with markings, underlines, annotations, and highlights.

4. Throughout the lectures ask students to engage with their copy of the  notes by telling them to write things down in the margins – an example, a definition, a question, an experience. Remind them use their own words. Periodically remind them to underline or star something on the test. Write think/pair/share responses in their notes.

5. Use the “pause procedure.”  Pause two  or three times during lecture to allow students to reflect. Here is a potential script:”Review your notes. Is there anything you need me to fill in or explain? Do you have any questions?” This goes a long way to encouraging them to bring notes to class. Students without notes have an awkward moment of nothing to do. Additionally, the “pause procedure” is a well-known component of good lecturing and active learning. You’d be surprised at the increase in quantity and quality of questions if you do this.

6. Let students spend five minutes reviewing notes either at the beginning or end of class. Reviews can be focused with a question (muddiest point, what’s one question you have, etc.). Explain that studies show students who review notes immediately before and after class perform better on exams. Again, students without notes experience that awkward do-nothing moment.

7. When students come to office hours to discuss their tests, their grades, or their performance in class, review their notes and discuss ways to improve their skills. Connect this to their other classes where lecture notes are not provided.


  1. Hi there. I was just wondering what class size you used with this approach. I have varying class sizes from 15 up to 400 and I find some approaches work best for smaller classes. I was just wondering what you thought about this approach for different class sizes.


    1. Author

      My average size is about 24, but I can see this working with any size. It’s been several years since I taught a large lecture class, but I believe using notes like this would be effective because it would enhance interactive lecturing. Toward the end of the semester when enrollment drops down below 20, I still use this strategy in my classes even though we drift more heavily toward discussion. Lately I’m making the transition to flipped class or inverted class style, which means even less lecturing, but I still provide notes. Thanks for the question.

  2. This really is the 4th article, of urs I checked out. Yet I personally like this particular 1, “voxygen.
    net | Giving students lecture notes before class”
    the most. Thanks ,Winnie

  3. I just came across this article. I was wondering if you saw a quantitative improvement in the grades (exams and/or overall) after switching to this strategy.

    1. Author

      Hi KLB. Thanks for your comment. It’s hard to attribute improved grades to any one thing. Every semester I tweak things, and every semester is different in class chemistry. I also suffer from a severe confirmation bias. I do believe that class discussions and retention rates improve. Students are more lively in class and they say they leave class with greater application to life.

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