Building from the bare bones: Skeleton notes and lesson structure

Scaffolding learning for students is one of the best ways to get students from where they start to the place we want them to be at the end of a lesson, unit, or class. A way to do this is to use skeleton notes, also known as guided notes, to give students a structure for notetaking and learning in class.

Skeleton notes are simple instructional aides that require minimal planning on our part as instructors. To do them, follow these steps:

  • Go through your lecture and identify the core information you want to ensure students know.
  • Create a version of your notes that is paired down and includes blanks or open boxes for students to complete the information you provided. For example, maybe you write a definition and the blank at the beginning or end of the definition is the vocabulary term you will share with the students during a lecture.
  • The document becomes a “skeleton” of your lecture and its purpose is to help students focus on what you believe is the most critical, and the other information is structural support to the students’ learning.
  • Other considerations for your skeleton notes could be essential or guiding questions, explainers, activity notes, or additional context. You may also include time stamps or essential reminders for students to recall when you said something during the lecture; this could also help students who missed class and maybe watch a recording.

After creating skeleton notes the first time you teach a course, the maintenance is simple. Adjust them to the modifications and changes in your lesson and how students respond to the notes.

As I go further into the semester, I provide fewer guides, removing some training wheels from my students as they begin to show mastery of the curriculum and objective performance.

Skeleton notes can be traditional paper, electronic, or a combination. What you choose to create should be what best supports your students.

Here are advantages to using skeleton notes in your classroom:

  • Students are freed from worrying about writing all the notes down while the instructor is talking. Instead, the students work on capturing main ideas, core keywords and terms, and significant points.
  • Giving students guided notes increases the accuracy of student notes while also helping students to be focused and engaged.
  • Students can keep time and not fall behind because they are still on other bullet points of notes.
  • Lectures become more efficient because students have definitions, formulas, and complex information already in their hands.
  • Instructors have more control because they are supplying the information they’ve deemed the most relevant and important for student learning and retention; it also removes the ambiguity for students trying to understand what could be important.
  • Supports students who have missed class.
  • Structured notes reduce the amount of text in front of students and provide students with accommodations and the instructional support they need but are often afraid to ask for.

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