Developing ‘College Success’ Skills for High School Students

When schools want to create a systemic approach they can and do! So why don’t we see a stronger systematic approach to College Success skill development in high schools?

Written By rodaniel

On March 30, 2012

Read more

this post was updated June 15, 2022

I had the opportunity during 2012 to visit more than 30 schools and 400 classrooms across state as we were supporting the work of GEAR UP projects in Kentucky. During my observations, I saw a multitude of instructional models from lecture and note-taking to reading text with guided notes to students working in small groups to create a group product, and several more that I don’t have time to discuss. I bring this up because of what I didn’t observe. I did not see a systemic approach to developing College Success skills in any school.

students taking notesMany colleges define one aspect of College Success skills as study skills and strategies that may be helpful to students to effectively make the transition from high school to college. The skills include but are not limited to: note-taking, active listening, study for better recall and memory, time management, test-taking, and effective writing. I list these skills here because of these skills the only one that I saw approached systemically was test-taking and that’s not for college success as much as immediate success in high school. I share this observation because it shows that when schools want to create a systemic approach they can and do! So why don’t we see a stronger systematic approach to College Success skill development in high schools? Especially when you consider in Kentucky that Senate Bill 1 makes college and career readiness a priority.

I know creating a College Success skills program/curriculum might be an overwhelming task for schools but I’ve witnessed a vast array of note-taking routines that do not seem to be producing very good results. In place of a total curriculum, is it worthwhile for schools to think about developing a comprehensive approach to note-taking? Schools must work with students immediately upon arrival to begin learning the skills, but school need to clearly identify effective practice and create an alignment of expectations for what note-taking will look like in the entire school.

Im not advocating that every course must use the Cornell Note Taking system developed by Dr. Walter Pauk (ex 1, ex 2, his book) but the school can work to identify key characteristics of note-taking and develop 2-3 variations that teachers utilize.

If teachers are going to ask their students to take notes anyway, shouldn’t we as educators use a system that is effective, helps students learn the material, and promotes deeper learning? If not, then why take notes?

The Cornell note-taking method and other approaches encompasses three key characteristics:

  1. Take class notes: main ideas, supporting details, examples, etc.
  2. Identify and pull out the keywords, key ideas, develop questions, make connections, etc.
  3. Finally at the end of class or after the class is over, thoughtfully reflect on the meaning of the material, summarize it, and take action on the material. Taking action means to see how the new learning connects to what students already know or how they can use their new insights.

In the classes I observe in, teachers routinely have students do #1, but I rarely see teachers have students interact with material to identify keywords, and summarize intentionally. This example shows how a school is providing intentional structure for students as they take notes in class, make connections, and summarize what they have learned.

Pauk also develops five R’s of note-taking:

  1. Recording: Writing down key words, phrases, facts, main ideas, and key concepts.
  2. Reducing: This step reduces the learner’s notes into summary form for quick studying and preparation for a test.
  3. Reciting: Learners should review and rephrase their notes as soon as possible after class putting the notes into their own words. This step makes it easier to understand their own thoughts and meaning.
  4. Reflecting: Something that many learners don’t grasp is that notes (concepts, ideas, and keywords) should be thought about. It is easy to fall into the trap of reciting notes by rote. The key is to think about the concepts, their meaning, and implications. Through this thoughtful process, learners are getting the most of out of note taking and classes.
  5. Reviewing: Learners should periodically review to keep the information fresh in your mind. One real secret of successful studying is to know when, how, and what to review. Like an accomplished performer, it is the quality of the review that makes a difference. Reviewing is an intentional, intense, and active process, not a passive process (Pauk, 2000; Center for Literacy Studies, UT).

In the five R’s Pauk, creates a great system that schools could build a routine and expectations around. Teachers can make Reducing the homework assignment, or could make the summary an exit slip that students turn in at the end of class so the teacher can offer some feedback/suggestion about improving the quality of the summary (not longer but include key points or important details, etc.). Teachers could post summaries or build a better summary together to start class the next day. This active intentional approach to building student capacity to summarize provides important scaffolding for students to understand the purpose for note-taking.

If teachers made each R an intentional part of their instruction, they wouldn’t be adding anything that they don’t want and need students doing anyway. Instead of making it just the students job to do these things, teachers create value and understanding of the process as part of their daily instruction. Yes, hopefully if students have been supported during their high school career senior teachers will need to supply less scaffolding and support.

There are a multitude of research articles that found students who take notes and review those notes were more successful than students who did not take notes on immediate assessments and delayed assessments (Bligh, 2000; Kiewra et al., 1991), but we can’t assume that high school students understand how to review those notes. In fact Kiewra found that students who took notes but did not synthesize and/or review scored lower than students who didn’t take notes, so if we are going to have students take notes, it is incumbent upon us to support them in understanding how to be successful in using them.

Along these lines, it is important to help students learn what material to record, and how to record it. Several studies of college students found that only 60% of main ideas delivered verbally were recorded and that number was a dismal 11% for first year college students, so imagine what a freshman in high school is able to do with a verbal lecture! Research does indicate that writing the information down does help to increase information that students write down. As students write their material down, there is a very important concern with inaccuracy, especially with diagrams, numbers, and equations (Johnstone and Su, 1994). Additionally, correcting those inaccuracies once written down is seldom successful.

This research isn’t hard to understand but does point to the importance at the high school level for creating a systemic approach to note-taking and the development of that skill. It isn’t OK for us to put all of the onus on students to ‘study’ their notes and then be upset when they don’t. How are teachers making notes valuable for students? How are teachers helping students make connections with the materials? How are teachers developing students’ ability to synthesize the material? Are they doing these things? If not, why not?


Bligh, D. (2000). What’s the use of lectures? San Francisco: Jossey-Bass.

Center for Literacy Studies, University of Tennessee. Note-taking skills. Accessed, March 29, 2012.

Johnstone, A. H, & Su, W. Y. (1994). Lectures- a learning experience? Education in Chemistry, 31(1) 75-75, 79.

Kiewra, K. A., DuBois, N., Christian, D., Mcshane, A., Meyerhoffer, M., & Roskelley, D. (1991) Note-taking functions and techniques. Journal of Educational Psychology 83(2), 240-245.

Pauk, W. (2000). How to study in college. Houghton Mifflin Company; New York.