Notes on Nonsense.


One of the constant problems is to do worthwhile activities that will actually help kids remember and understand. I know that sounds vague, what I’m thinking about here is taking notes. It is, frankly, nonsensical.

The Problem

  • Kids need a copy of the information to (hopefully) refer back to.
  • Copying notes off the board or out of a book can go in through the eyes and out through the hands, without the brain involved.
  • What is the point of copying when they can’t actually read the information for understanding?
  • Copying can become a long, boring process drawn out forever by kids who for various reasons don’t want to get on to the next bit.


There are several standard solutions to this problem.

  • Given modern technology (or even photocopiers) you can just give the students a copy of whatever it is. Almost completely useless, they don’t even have to look at it.
  • Slightly more effective is to write one or two sentences that are cloze activities and they need to fill in the blank. Not wonderful but quick, requires a bit of thinking/understanding and is usually in their reading range. Of course that assumes they do it themselves and don’t just leave it blank or wait for the answers.
  • Mind-maps. They are lovely for getting all the information including links and relationships in an intuitive format, but without all the reading and writing frills. Copying a mind-map has some of the same pitfalls as copying notes, although hopefully it is quicker, but to get students to create their own is a skill that takes a while to teach and practice.
  • Questions can be a good solution if you’ve been through it or they can read and interpret. It’s very similar to a cloze activity, just the structure is different. It does have the advantage of being open ended, if you have simple questions first and then more complicated ones you can make sure everyone gets the basics while others get extension. If you are going to give a text and questions, you either need to know that your kids can already read for information or construct your questions and text very carefully so it supports them to find the answers.


I’ve just done one with a year 9 group that was a bit different and fun (I thought). I like it because it gave the activity extra dimensions – there were physical actions and arranging the information, and there was some literacy because it required an understanding of how paragraphs work. It was quite simple to set up:

  1. I wrote a couple of paragraphs summarising what we had been doing, all double spaced but with normal punctuation (ie paragraph indents). I couldn’t resist making it a bit of a cloze activity as well and putting some equations in, because that’s what they were practicing.
  2. On the word processor I cut lines and pasted them up and down until it was thoroughly jumbled, then printed it out for students.
  3. Students have to cut out the lines then physically rearrange them into the correct order. To do this they can use clues like indents and full stops, but they also need to read the lines to make sure it makes sense both grammatically and scientifically. Voila – literacy and engagement with the text.
  4. Seeing I made it a cloze they need to fill in the blanks and complete the equations somewhere in these steps.
  5. When they are sure they have it in the right order, they can glue it into their books.

It solves the problem. It gets them the information, lets them physically manipulate it, forces them to engage on some level and encourages collaboration. Of course they can still copy from a friend, and given that it’s a more active class it’s easier for them to hide that they are mucking around. Hopefully it’s more engaging to make up for that.

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