Skeleton Notes

Initial Publication Date: September 22, 2011
skeleton notes
Skeleton Notes are partial lecture note handouts and are a tool used by many instructors to try to maintain student engagement throughout a class period. Skeleton notes are an interactive tool in the sense that while even though they are not like a cooperative student group activity, they maintain the focus of the students and keep them active in an intellectual dialog with the instructor as students complete the notes as the lecture progresses. Some instructors make a partial version of their power point presentation available before class. Other instructors use course packets and handouts. Typically only pieces of the lecture content are included in the skeleton notes. This technique is especially useful in large enrollment courses, although many instructors use this technique in smaller courses as well.









Advantages of using skeleton notes

  • Students must be engaged and stay focused to complete the partial notes as the lecture progresses.
  • Providing part of the notes, such as wordy definitions, complicated formulas, or numeric information can allow the lecture to move more efficiently without students needing an enormous amount of energy or time to write things that might become tedious.
  • Being free from writing all information the instructor conveys druing a class ideally frees students to listen more than write, for better comprehension. Often students are so busy writing they fail to listen to what the instructor says as the content is interpreted.
  • As the more technical portions of the lecture are already provided, it increases the degree of accuracy of the notes from which the student studies.
  • The instructor can control when during a class period students are taking notes and to some extent how much students write.

Steps and tips for using skeleton notes


  1. Start with your full set of lecture notes for a given class period.



  1. Create a pared down version of your notes that show partial information, but not everything. The remainder of the information will be distributed in some fashion during class. For the partial notes you give students, some instructors chose to leave parts that might be difficult for students to write as notes during class or pieces of information for which the instructor wishes to insure accuracy such as formulas, equations, numeric data, or lengthy definitions or theories. This will increase accuracy and free student time and energy for taking notes on explanations and discussion points. These notes might also be a place to include information and questions student might need for structured problem solving to be completed in the context of other interactive activities the instructor might employ during the class period.



  1. Chose a medium for distributing the partial notes. The instructor may put skeleton power point slides, PDF files, or Word files on a course website prior to class. Students might have already purchased a course packet where the notes are included or depending on copying budgets, the instructor might provide handouts during class.


Challenges when using skeleton notes

When considering the use of lecture note handouts, instructors mention concerns about lower attendance, students paying less attention in class, and "spoon feeding." The key to address of these concerns is to not allow the notes that are provided to be a good substitute for listening or attendance. It is for that reason that it is essential that the skeleton notes NOT provide all of the information. The biggest mistake an instructor can make with regard to this technique is to provide "skeleton" notes that are actually a full body - and not just a skeleton.

Specific Examples of Skeleton Notes

References, further reading, and sources for examples of skeleton notes

  • Austin, J. L., Lee, M. G., Carr, J. P. (2004). The effects of guided notes on undergraduate students' recording of lecture content. Journal of Instructional Psychology, 31, 314-320. 
  • Austin, J. L., Lee, M. G., Thibeault, M. D., Carr, J. E., & Bailey, J. S. (2002). Effects of guided notes on university students' responding and recall of information. Journal of Behavioral Education, 11, 243-254.
  • Cornelius, T. L., & Owen-DeSchryver, J. (2008). Differential effects of full and partial notes on learning outcomes and attendance. Teaching of Psychology, 35, 6-12.
  • Kiewra, K. A., DuBois, N. F., Christian, D., & McShane, A. (1988). Providing study notes: Comparison of three types of notes for review. Journal of Educational Psychology, 80, 595- 597.