Teaching and Learning Forum 2000 [ Proceedings Contents ]

Reading, taking notes, and problem solving

Geoff I Swan
Physics Program
Edith Cowan University
    An attempt has been made to explicitly incorporate learning strategies and skill development for students undertaking a first year physics unit at ECU. Students were encouraged to reflect on their strategies for studying and learning physics. Lecture time was allocated to teach skim reading, note taking, and problem solving strategies. Students believed that the lecture time spent developing skills in these areas was useful to them.
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To succeed at university, students need to possess a range of strategies and skills that support independent and self-directed learning. Traditionally, many of these strategies and skills, some of which are highly generic, are not explicitly taught to students in the expectation that students either already have these skills, or will naturally acquire and develop these skills in their course of study. Unfortunately this is not the case for many tertiary students, and intervention to teach these skills to these students is increasingly being seen as necessary. For example, the key skills in higher education dissemination project web site (1999) shows a wide variety of projects aimed at improving the learning skills of tertiary students.

The spur for me to allocate lecture time to explicitly teach these skills came through participation in a professional development course on teaching learning strategies early in 1999. The course was run for interested staff in the Faculty of Communications, Health, and Science at ECU, and was based on "Teaching and Learning at University: Theory and Practice" by Chalmers and Fuller (1995). Participants were required to teach at least one learning strategy in a first semester unit in 1999.

I chose to teach skim reading and note taking from text in SCP1111 Physics of Motion, a first year calculus based introduction to mechanics. The physics textbook (Halliday, Resnick & Walker, 1997) is a major resource for students in acquiring and working with information. It is also used as the textbook for SCP1112 Waves and Electricity, and as a reference text for parts of second and third year physics. Improving reading and note taking skills for this textbook would allow students to become more self-directed and independent learners in physics, and less reliant on their physics lecturer.

Lecture time was also set aside for teaching problem solving strategies. Students need to be encouraged and assisted in developing a wider range of techniques to help them cope with the increasing complexity of physics problems at tertiary level. I was able to make use of a recently acquired multimedia CD-ROM that had a module on problem solving in Physics ("Saunders Core Concepts in Physics CD-ROM", 1998). The short video clips from this module were incorporated into a group activity to teach problem solving strategies.



Physics of Motion consists of 24 lectures over a 12-week semester. The learning strategies were taught early in the course so that any benefits would be available during the whole semester. In particular, teaching skim reading and note taking skills provided a context for students to become familiar with the structure of their textbook. The timing for the learning strategies project is given in Table 1.

Table 1: Timing for the implementation of learning strategies

LectureLecture taskHomework task
Reflective Survey on learning physics and self evaluation of reading and note taking skills
2Skim reading outlinedSkim read chapter 3 on vectors
3Note taking from chapter 3 on vectors
5Problem solving activity
24Evaluation survey

Suggested steps and pedagogy

Although the suggested steps (Chalmers, D, & Fuller, R, 1995) for skim reading and note taking from text were followed with only minor adjustments, the suggested steps for teaching these strategies were not. This decision was taken to ensure that the teaching of these learning strategies could be completed in just half of the lecture time suggested by Chalmers and Fuller (1995), thus ensuring that the unit content could still be covered adequately in lectures. The modified teaching approach for all learning strategies incorporated the following components: The relative generic nature of learning strategies and their importance for success at university and beyond were also discussed with students. In addition, they were introduced to ideas of metacognition and encouraged to think more deeply about how they learn.

Reflective survey

The students were given the scenario of learning a chapter from a physics textbook for a test in a few days time. They were given a reflective survey to complete at home that asked them to: They were also asked to rate their reading and note taking skills and hand in their answers at the next lecture. The purpose of this survey was to encourage students to think about how they go about reading, making notes and learning physics as an important first step in teaching skim reading and note taking.

Skim reading

About 10 minutes were allocated at the end of the second lecture to go through the purpose of skim reading, and then the steps suggested on how to skim read (Chalmers, D, & Fuller, R, 1995, pp. 92-93). They were then presented with a modified version of these steps to follow with the physics textbook . They were then asked to skim read the chapter 3 of their textbook (on vectors) at home.

Note taking

About 25 minutes of the third lecture was used to teach note taking from textbooks. The procedure was as follows: Students had a copy of my PowerPoint slides on skim reading and note taking from text. It was also made clear that the steps shown could be applied in other subjects and that as individuals they were likely to develop their own skim reading and note taking strategies which will probably vary somewhat from the suggested steps which were highly generic.

Problem solving

Short video clips from the problem solving in physics module of Saunders Core Concepts in Physics CD-ROM (1998) provided a basis for teaching problem solving strategies through a projectile motion example; to find the range of a soccer ball. The teaching strategy contained the following steps: I emphasised the major points of the videos as they were shown, and during the group activity moved around asking groups to explain their strategies in words. Teaching problem solving took approximately 25 minutes.

Results and discussion

In the reflective survey given out in the first lecture, students rated their reading skills and then their note taking skills on a scale of 1 (Excellent) to 5 (Very Poor). Most students (83% in both cases) rated themselves as a 2 or a 3, indicating that although they thought their skills in these areas were good or at least OK, there was still room for improvement.

In the final lecture, students were asked whether they agreed or disagreed with the following statements:

  1. Time spent developing skim reading skills was useful to me
  2. Time spent developing note taking skills was useful to me
  3. Time spent developing problem solving strategies was useful to me
  4. More lecture time should be allocated to the development of the above skills
The results are given in Table 2.

Table 2: Student evaluation on the usefulness of time
spent developing learning skills and strategies

Question Total
Agree DisagreeStrongly
1. skim reading 60%510 1001
2. note taking 68%413 801
3. problem solving 85%715 400
4. more lecture time 42%28 1132

Most students believed that the time spent developing these skills in lectures was useful to them and no student strongly disagreed. This was in spite of less time being allocated in lectures for teaching skim reading and note taking than that suggested by Chalmers and Fuller (1995). In addition, a small majority of students were against more lecture time being allocated to develop these skills. This suggests that the incorporation of these skills into the unit was useful to the students, and the actual time allocated was about right. I believe that explicitly teaching learning strategies and skills in this physics unit was worthwhile, and in the short term will be continued. In the longer term, I expect that the teaching of specific generic learning skills will be more coordinated across units, levels and degree programs.


The professional development course on "Teaching Learning Strategies" was conducted by Richard Fuller and funded by the Teaching and Learning Committee of the Faculty of Communications, Health, and Science at ECU. Thanks.


Chalmers, D. & Fuller, R. (1995). Teaching for learning at university: Theory and practice. Perth: Edith Cowan University. ISBN 0 646 252559 3

Halliday, D., Resnick, R. & Walker, J. (1997). Fundamentals of Physics. 5th ed extended plus CD-Physics version 2.0. New York: John Wiley & Sons. ISBN 04171339830

University of Nottingham School of Education. The key skills in higher education dissemination project. http://www.keyskillsnet.org.uk

Saunders Core Concepts in Physics CD-ROM [computer software]. (1998). USA: Saunders College Publishing. ISBN 0-03-020104-7

Please cite as: Swan, G. I. (2000). Reading, taking notes, and problem solving. In A. Herrmann and M.M. Kulski (Eds), Flexible Futures in Tertiary Teaching. Proceedings of the 9th Annual Teaching Learning Forum, 2-4 February 2000. Perth: Curtin University of Technology. http://lsn.curtin.edu.au/tlf/tlf2000/swan.html

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