If your child has ever wailed, “I don’t know how to study for this test!” on the night before an exam, you have our sympathies. Ditto if you then helpfully suggested they look over their notes, only to find an indecipherable collection of hastily scrawled half-phrases, jokes, song lyrics, and doodles. And then you know the sad truth — your middle-school student just doesn’t know how to take notes in class.

Taking notes is not something that kids — even good students — are born knowing how to do. Recording the most salient bits from class lectures, reading assignments, or research materials requires students to evaluate, organize, and summarize information. How note-taking is taught varies from teacher to teacher and from school to school, but parents can play a big role in helping kids develop this key skill, which they’ll need in middle school, high school, and college.

California high school teacher Jim Burke, whose book, The Reader’s Handbook, offers reading strategies and tools for high school students, prefers to use the term “note-making,” which he defines as making meaning from information, to what he says is the more passive “note-taking.”

“Note-making,” he says, is “manipulating information to make it sticky.” Some students can make information “stick” by making outlines. For more visual learners, using different colors might work better. Burke gives the example of one student who went back over her science notes using a red highlighter to indicate blood and a blue highlighter for oxygen. Ultimately, kids will need to develop a note-taking system that works for them, but these tips will help you help them.

  1. Focus on the purpose.

    “Sometimes you have to sit down and say, here’s this whole chapter. How do you decide what’s important? What are you going to use these notes for? To take a test? To write a paper?” says Burke. Knowing the purpose of the notes before your child starts will help him hone in on what’s relevant and make the notes more effective when it comes time to study for the test or write a paper. “Students who don’t take notes well, don’t use them,” he says. “They lose faith in the process.”

  2. Be organized.

    Each day, for each class, your child should start a fresh page, whether it’s a Word doc, a Google doc, or a notebook page. They should start with the date at the top. Coach your child to leave space between topics or ideas so she can scan the information more easily later.

  3. Use shorthand.

    Teach your child to take down key words and concepts, not sentences. He should feel free to use abbreviations or symbols that make sense to him, so long as he is consistent, to take down key points. Examples include w/ for with, math symbols such as > or = or a triangle to mean change. See more note-taking abbreviations and symbols.

  4. Pre-read before reading and taking notes.

    Many experts advise students to pre-read a textbook chapter to get an idea about what it is about, rather than simply wading in. Students can grasp the main themes by first reading the introduction text, subheads, graphics, photo captions, summary paragraphs, and study questions at the end. Getting an overview will help your child focus on what’s important as she starts to take notes, rather than getting mired in the details. As she reads, she can look for answers to study questions to get in the habit of remembering where information is located and to get in the habit of self-testing, which is proven to be one of the best ways to help people remember what they learn.

  5. Review notes early and often.

    Kids should read over their lecture notes soon after class, while the information is still fresh, to make sure they’re accurate and complete. Teach your child to ask herself: “Was this really the main point? If not, what was?” You child can then add anything she remembers being a salient point or main example if she thinks it will help clarify the information or help her remember it later. Reading notes again just before starting homework in a particular subject can help your child focus on the topic at hand, too.