NB Take Notes!

When I see my students engaged in a frenzy of note taking I get a warm feeling inside. Sure, it can be mildly frustrating to pause my lesson to allow students to catch up on their note taking, but there are few things worse than being engaged in a presentation and not seeing anyone scribbling down what I am saying. A lack of note taking sends a signal to me that my lecture is boring, that the material I find so interesting is of little interest to my students. When such moments arise I cajole my seemingly less than enthused pupils on the importance of taking notes and there is always one who, with a knowing look, taps their temple and says, “my notes are all up here”.

Surely this can’t be right. Can a student who doesn’t take notes really hope to learn as much as one who does?

It seems common sense that taking notes during lectures is fundamental to the learning process and yet I’ve sat in lecture halls as a student myself and seen my peers simply sit back and listen. So just how effective is note taking to academic achievement? Can you arrive to class without a pen, paper or computer and hope to succeed?

According to the research, note taking is, as you’d expect, very important when learning new material. Students need to work if they are going to get results. Writing notes in class takes effort, it is work. If we want students to remember more from their lessons it is better that they take notes.

However, it’s not quite that simple. While no note taking is clearly not an effective strategy, too much might be similarly flawed.

Lots of words, little processing

In a Princeton study with a catchy title, The Pen is Mightier than the Keyboard (Mueller and Oppenheimer, 2014), it was found that students who took notes on laptops performed poorer on conceptual recall tests than those who took handwritten notes. What accounts for this result appears to be that computers have made it easier for students to simply transcribe what the teacher says verbatim rather than reframing the content into their own words.

Simply put, our classrooms are becoming populated by stenographers rather than students.

While some might use these findings to call for a ban on laptops in the classroom, it is not the technology that is the problem. Indeed, access to detailed notes can be helpful later when it comes to revision. However, it is the lack of thought that goes into the note-taking process computers facilitate that is problematic. It’s the equivalent of simply pressing record on a dictaphone.

So, while no note taking is bad, note taking on a computer may be little better and can encourage mindless transcription from the lecture rather than the harder work of note taking which involves more synthesis of the content.

“Memory is the residue of thought.” – Daniel T. Willingham, Why Don’t Students Like School? 

Recently, I’ve been encouraging my students to take an ‘old school’ approach – to write by hand rather than using a keyboard for initial note taking. It’s an extra step for them. Many will likely transfer their handwritten notes into a digital format after class. The idea is to encourage them to process the material more.

Less efficient, more effective

Writing notes by hand will likely be a slower process for students but it can encourage them to become more effective note takers in the future. Using pen and paper may also appeal more to creative students. Sketchnotes and the creation of diagrams to organise thoughts can soon turn a notebook into a work of art and research shows that drawing does indeed improve memory (Wammes, Meade and Fernandes, 2016).

It’s prudent to speak to students about the practice of effective note taking. I usually advise my students to:

  • Review relevant material before you come to class. If slides have been shared with you in advance, make sure you have reviewed these, if there is some recommended reading to be done – then it’s a good idea to do this in advance of the lesson. We learn more if we already have some knowledge about a subject. Pre-knowledge will help you understand the new material as it gives you something to hook new content on.
  • Get organised! Your notes will be confusing out of context. Write a title and use subheadings as you progress through the lesson/lecture. The Cornell Notes system is a popular method to show students.
    Cornell Notes

    Cornell note-taking system

  • Focus on the main points. Use bullet points rather than recording scripted speech. Remember too that while brevity is important, it is equally important that notes cover the whole lesson and are complete. It is claimed that students, on average, record just one third of all important lesson ideas and that the more complete the notes, the higher the students’ achievement (Kiewra, Colliot and Lu, 2018).
  • Jot down questions you have about the material and points you would like to explore further after the lesson.

Once students are familiar with these general guidelines they may find they prefer to work in a more analogue format but the aim is not to banish computers from the classroom, rather to foster the skills which will allow them to work in a more efficient and effective manner. Once mastered, these principles can be applied to students’ typed notes too.

So, before launching into your next lecture on subject matter close to your heart, it may be worthwhile talking to your students about effective note taking – and make sure they take notes!

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