Break Up Your Lecture with Guided Notes: 5 Ways to Help Students Stay Focused, Engaged, and On Task

lecture breakers how to use guided notes to help students stay focused, engaged and on task

During a lecture, students’ attention and focus can wander, and sometimes it’s hard to get them to re-focus, re-engage, and stay on task. 

When you break up your lecture and integrate student-centered, active learning strategies into the classroom, you are helping students build their capacity to stay focused for longer periods of time and re-focus more quickly when their attention span lapses and they get off track.

I wrote about this in a previous article (Honeycutt) and highlighted the research by Bunce et al (2010). I will summarize their findings here again:

When active learning techniques were introduced, the researchers observed fewer students reporting attention lapses during and after the activity. The researchers continued, “Teachers should be aware of student attention cycles within a lecture and strive to improve student attention by using student-centered pedagogies at different times throughout a lecture, not only to decrease student attention lapses but also to increase student attention during the lectures that follow the use of such pedagogies” (Bunce, et al, p. 1442).

One way to break things up throughout a lecture and help students stay focused and engaged is to use guided notes. Guided notes are outlines of the lecture material, but they are incomplete. 

Instead of providing all of the details from every single slide in your slide deck, you leave space for students to fill in their notes on their own during class time (or as they watch a video, listen to a podcast, or read). You give them the structure and overview, and they are responsible for filling in the details.

Why use guided notes?

  • Guided notes encourage ongoing engagement and help students stay focused. If you notice students are “checking out” many times throughout your lecture, then you might want to add guided notes to your lesson plan.

    Students have to pay attention to fill in the notes. If they are repeatedly off task or unfocused, they’ll miss the information, and their guided notes will be blank and unhelpful.

  • Guided notes help students organize information. One of the advantages of guided notes is that your lecture material is already organized, making it easier for students to follow along and keep their notes structured.

    Some students struggle with note-taking, and this can help them focus on the content rather than spending time trying to figure out how to organize information or decide how concepts are connected.

  • Guided notes can become the ultimate study guide. Once students understand how guided notes work, help them realize how their guided notes can be used as the ultimate study guide.

    Sometimes it’s difficult for students to determine what’s important (and what isn’t) during a lecture. To a novice, everything seems important which leads to information overload, stress, and frustration. Your guided notes show them what’s important and where to focus their attention when it’s time to study for the next exam.

  • Guided notes can make it easier (and more transparent) for you to create exams/tests. As you create guided notes to go along with your lecture, you’ll start making decisions about which parts of the content are most important. Some information in a course is “must know” while other content is “nice to know.” This process will reveal which content must be mastered in the course.

    When your guided notes are done, you can simply go back and review the notes to create your exams and test questions. You’ll know you covered it, your students will know they covered it, and there are no surprises on the exam.

  • Guided notes help you organize information, pace your lecture, avoid information overload. As you prepare your slides and/or your lecture notes, it’s easy to get too detailed or bring in examples or stories that aren’t relevant. It’s easy for you to get excited about your content! You might jump around between ideas or make intuitive leaps when connecting one idea to another because you are the expert and you know the material so well.

    You may feel like everything is important. But, it’s not. Your students can’t possibly learn everything in the course. There’s just too much information. When you use guided notes, it helps you stay organized and on topic, and you can get a sense of how much information is too much information for a particular lecture.

  • Guided notes work in a variety of classrooms and formats. Guided notes can be used in online, blended, flipped, and in-person courses. They can be used as part of your faculty development workshops, conference sessions, or presentations. They can be used in graduate and undergraduate courses.

    Students can download the guided notes and type in the document while they are listening to a podcast, watching a video, or participating in the lecture. Students can print the notes and use paper and pen to fill in the blanks. It’s a flexible and effective strategy.

5 Ways to Use Guided Notes in Your Courses to Help Students Stay Focused, Engaged, and On Task

Now that you know what guided notes are and why you should consider integrating them in your courses, here are five ways to use these notes to help students stay focused, engaged, and on task:

  1. Combine guided notes with a pair/share activity. Break up your lecture a few times throughout the class session and ask students to turn to a neighbor to share their guided notes.

    Encourage students to help each other fill in any gaps or address areas of confusion. Allow time for a few questions before you proceed with your lecture.

  2. Insert a blank slide into your slide deck. To capture students’ attention and help them re-focus, leave one of your slides AND a section of the guided notes blank.

    The blank slide will pique students’ curiosity and pause the flow of information during your lecture. Use this moment to lead a discussion, ask a question, conduct a poll, tell a story, etc. Then help students fill in their guided notes and proceed.

  3. Provide a digital and fillable version of your guided notes. Put those laptops to work during class time! Upload the guided notes to your course website.

    Use a fillable pdf format or a Google doc and encourage students to open the file, save it to their laptop or tablet, and fill in the guided notes during class time.

  4. Combine guided notes with a reading, podcast, or video. Provide guided notes for a complicated reading assignment, an episode of a podcast, or a video. Focus the guided notes on that particular assignment.

    This is a great way to use guided notes in flipped, blended, and online courses where you’re not interacting with students in real time as you would during a live lecture.

  5. Assign groups to create guided notes for a specific section of the course material (and then teach it!). This strategy is probably more appropriate for a graduate-level course or a senior capstone course. Get your students involved in the process of creating guided notes.

    You’ll need to provide examples and structure so they know what to do to create effective guided notes. Then, assign each group or pair one chapter, section, or concept to outline for other students. (You can go a step further and ask them to teach this section of the course or combine it with student presentations.)

I hope these ideas encourage you to try guided notes in your courses this semester! You don’t have to provide guided notes for every lecture (please don’t do that…you’ll get overwhelmed!). Instead, focus on the most difficult lectures or the most challenging concepts.

Look for places where students need more support and structure and use the guided notes to support their learning and help them stay organized. You can also use guided notes early in the semester to help students learn how to take notes effectively.

Or, you can use guided notes during a time in the semester where students are having a difficult time staying focused or when they are likely to be more stressed (before spring break, before the mid-term, before the holidays, etc.).

Resources and More Information:

Bunce, D.M., Flens, E.A., & Neiles, K.Y. (2010). How long can students pay attention in class? A study of student attention decline using clickers. Journal of Chemistry Education. 87 (12). 1438-1443.

Bradbury, N. (2016). Attention spans during lecture: 8 seconds, 10 minutes, or more? Advances in Physiology Education40 (4).