What I do…Writing notes

In this series of blog posts I will write about What I Do in my classroom. The topics will cover a broad range of areas such as planning/preparation, marking/feedback, writing notes, questioning, setting homework and managing behaviour.

This is part two of the series. My first post was about how I do recall. Click here to read.

Blog post number 2 will be about What I do about writing notes. 

We all expect our students to write neat, clearly laid out notes in their exercise books. Which we then expect them to keep organised. Free from graffiti/doodles and in a state that they can then use for revision? Preparation for their examination/assessments? We make a point of mentioning these in their reports and at parents’/carers’ evening.

You can also find many a policy like the one I randomly Googled below. (Interestingly, most of searches returned Primary school policies.) These policies state that this necessity of perfect presentation is driven by the need for consistency. Schools up and down the country get their students to stick their preferred work layout or making policy in the front cover of their exercise books. Only to be almost entirely ignored by all involved. (Well, at least after a couple of weeks.)

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I have been pondering this for a while now. But, what is the point? (I am secondary school teacher, I think that is relevant.)

I still spend time in and out of lessons getting students to ensure they have taken pride in their work. I undertake a substantial amount of effort to ensure my students are showing me they care about their learning. One way I loosely determine this is by the way their work looks to me. I look to see how it is set out. Whether it is fully completed. Organised. Neat? I expect excellence. Excellent effort. But to me, this doesn’t mean a perfectly set out piece of work. I check to see whether they are paying attention to their learning by checking amongst many things items such as whether their titles have been underlined. Or if their work has been dated and a C/W for classwork is written next to their title. Or H/W for homework! I even sometimes give time to students in lessons to go back over their work, underline titles, highlight key words. Ensure all work is to a ‘high’ standard.

Now, don’t get me wrong, I am not suggesting that is all I do. I look further than  aesthetics. I mark/judge and read the actual content. I address their misconceptions and expect them to act on my feedback in some shape or form. (DIRT time.) But, now, I am wondering…

What is the point of expecting a specific type of way of writing notes? I have moved on to stating to my students that the information I display/talk through in lesson needs to be written down/notes should be taken. However, I make it clear that the way they do this is up to them…

  • Hand written notes- copying
  • Magenta principles
  • Mind maps
  • Text boxes
  • Sketch notes
  • X4 grid tables
  • Keyword blocks
  • Cornell method of note taking

The students decide how to get the information down. Generally, they get a great deal of satisfaction from an independent choice of their end product. They decide what works best for them. I then use their books to inform my planning further. I look more at what they have written, then how it looks.

(I determine if this student has reached the level where they can decide what is important and what is not. If not, I have this discussion with them.)

Ultimately the question I am asking why do we bother insisting on expecting the students work is neat? Whether they have underlined a date or title? Whether they have stuck in a worksheet neatly? Whether they have used a blue or black pen? Whether their diagram is drawn with a pencil? Why? Is it to show that their ways of working should not be carefree, lackadaisical or effortless? Or is it to show they have had lessons that have been ordered? Structured? Useful?

Who is the neatness for?

I think about how I take notes when at conferences or CPD/INSET. My notes are now mainly electronic. If they aren’t, then they are definately not generically or ‘socially’ neat. BUT, they work for me. I can read them. I can re-use them. I know what they say. I use them to jot down things that I need to remind myself of. I need my notes, because nobody else will give me this information again.

So, what about the idea that having a neat, organised book helps students in order to show they have taken pride in what they are doing? Are we suggesting that students who are naturally messy do not? Is naturally messy actually a thing, or is it just being lazy?

Now, being a SENCO, I think of my SEND students, usually first. (Sorry!) So, I wonder, what does this mean to them. Does expecting high standards in presentation and work etiquette from all ensure they try really hard in lessons? Or does it detract them from doing what they should be doing, which is thinking, and thinking really hard. Are they spending more time thinking how to lay out their work, trying to write neatly and keeping up with the expectations of the school policy?

I also know for those students who don’t manage to keep their books like the school policy expects. There are then sanctions that can be put in place:

  • Copying up notes from a good/example book
  • Re-doing their notes again
  • Buying another book?

For me this isn’t about the way they have written their notes/lack of notes. It is more about their organisation, their understanding and their current state of mind.

The reason I have been pondering this, is because of the student who has lost their book three times in one term. That other student who has missed lots of lessons, and you know that other student who just can’t stop scribbling things out. Oh, yes and that other student who just can’t seem to write within the lines. Or how about that student that can’t read his own writing. What do I do for them? Do I continually write the same feedback points in their books when marking? Or, What I Do is I provide them with revision booklets, condensed notes, worksheets/answers, resources, textbooks, guides and all resources on my class blog. I give them what they need. Now, they must still learn/revise/recap/learn these things. However, I will always do that. I do that for all my students, no matter how neat their book is.

So, are exercise books really revision aids or are they just work books? Note pads? Somewhere to get down ideas? Thoughts? Work things out? Look like work has been completed?

Those students whose books are a total mess, will get resources that will not hinder their chance of success. I will allow them to revise and be better prepared for their exams. I won’t let them look through a book with an excessive amount of green/purple/red pen trying to find something they have written. I won’t let them affect their productivity looking for something. As long as they were thinking hard in my lessons by being stretched out of their comfort zone. Then how they write notes is simply up to them? If they struggle with writing neatly, then exam access considerations now state that using a computer should be their usual working practice. Therefore, they should be doing this in your lessons, every lesson.





  1. Thanks for this, Amjad.

    I think the issue of crossing out is an interesting one. I have taught in three girls’ schools where some girls have rated neatness of presentation above quality of content. So if they see something they could correct/improve, they’re reluctant to do that because they don’t want it to ‘look messy’.

    Is this an issue you ever come across? How do you respond, if so?

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