Why Take Notes?

Notetaking has been the main way of recording information in class, as the information that has not been recorded in notes is less likely to be remembered than the one that has been noted (Aiken, Thomas, & Shennum, 1975; Einstein, Morris, & Smith, 1985; Kiewra & Fletcher, 1984). Di Vesta and Gray (1972) proposed that note-taking benefits encoding information during lectures and promotes reviewing the material later by supplying a record of lecture content. When students engage in this ‘encoding’ process, they recognize the input information, put it in their own words, and thus, ‘make it their own’ (Di Vesta & Gray, 1972, p. 12; Howe, 1970b). Notes have also been seen as an external memory mechanism for storing information for later review and study (Miller, Galanter, & Pribram, 1960). 

Researchers have proposed two main functions of notetaking: encoding and storage. They have found that students who took notes recalled more material than those who did not take notes, even though participants did not review the notes (Di Vesta & Gray, 1972)Note taking is believed to result in activities during learning that are beneficial to memory and help students process the information. Instead of just listening to the lecture, note-taking can lead to increased attention, more detailed comprehending of ideas and more organized lecture material (Einstein, Morris & Smith, 1985). The learning task requires learners to attend actively to the information they understand, thus the encoding function of note taking is activated. Therefore, students paraphrase, select and summarise the information relevant to their learning goals. According to Di Vesta and Gray (1972), students create a form of external storage accessible for review after lectures by writing down notes. This serves as the second function of note taking. Carter and Van Matre (1975) reported that students who were given the chance to review their notes outperformed students who were given no such opportunity, although both groups had taken notes. 

Processes During Note-Taking

In recent years, specific theories have been developed to account for the note-taking effects and are classified into either quantitative or qualitative theories. According the quantitative views, notetaking primarily affects the amount of information that is encoded. For instance, note-taking may be beneficial as it can lead to students’ increase of overall level of attention or effort. Furthermore, students who write down notes should be able to recall more information from all types. However, qualitative theories explain that taking notes leads to increased recall by affecting the nature of processing. This means that students are made to engage in processing that differentiate from normal listening, such as combining the new information with students’ existing knowledge. Therefore, there should be a difference between note-takers and non-note-takers in what is encoded and remembered (Einstein, Morris & Smith, 1985) 

Studies have revealed results supporting both hypotheses. Di Vesta and Gray (1972) found that taking notes resulted in an increase in the number of ideas recalled from a prose passage and elevated scores on multiple-choice test. Crawford (1925b) reported that students who took notes scored significantly higher on immediate and long-term recall tasks than those who did not take notes. Howe (1970b) adds that the chances to recall a concept that is included in student’s notes were around seven times higher than of items not in one’s notes. There are studies, however, that do not show significant differencebetween note-taking strategies and simply listening in the lecture on a measure of recall (Howe, 1970a; McClendon, 1958).  

Judith, Fisher and Harris (1973) found that notetaking serves as an encoding and an external memory function, among which the latter function is indicated as more important. The group who took notes and later reviewed them had the best performance and was able to apply both functions; while the subjects who did not take notes and did mental review were the subjects with the lowest recall scores. They failed to encode the data and use notes as an external storage. Participants who did not take notes but reviewed the lecturer’s notes (the second highest group) could use notes as external memory device but were not able to encode the data directly. Those who took notes and did mental review (the second lowest group) used the encoding function but were unable to take advantage of the external storage function. Therefore, the latter has been proposed to have greater facilitating effect on recall. Overall, students who prepared notes of good quality were able to recall more data than those with poor quality notes (Crawford, 1925a; Judith, Fisher & Harris1973).  

The processes involved in note taking have been further investigated by Peper and Mayer (1978). Their study was based on Ausubel’s (1968) theory, according to which learning involves actively integrating new material with person’s cognitive structure. This process leads to ‘meaningful learning’. Therefore, notetaking will aid meaningful learning, if it makes students actively process data while making their notes. In this case, notetaking will assist performance, if subjects paraphrase, organise the material and elaborate on it. Peper and Mayer’s (1978) and Einstein, Morris and Smith’s (1985) results supported those of Ausubel’s (1968) subsumption theory (Ausubel, Novak & Hanesian, 1968). They found that although notetaking facilitated performance, it was only on specific types of tasks, such as far-tests of transfer. However, a group who did not take notes performed better on a test of factual material (near-test of transfer) than the one who did take notes. Therefore, it is important to ask not only whether notetaking facilitates learning, but also what is learned in notetaking.  

Types of Notes

Mayer (1984) has found that forming internal connections among lecture ideas aids learning. By making conventional notes, students usually miss relations made not explicitly in the lecture, as they follow the structure of the lecture. Kiewra et al. (1991) have noticed that conventional notetakers often have difficulties retrieving the relations and ideas discussed in the lectures. Therefore, they propose that linear noteswhich are written lines one after the other, promote internal connections more than conventional notes, due to their organised structure (numbering/lettering). Using this kind of notes helps students distinguish the main concepts and make the information clearer and more visual Furthermore, as topics and subtopics are included in the notes, all written lecture points are connected to at least a topic and subtopic, which creates at least two retrieval pathways to each written idea. Another type of notes, called matrix notes also helps learners build internal connections in a similar way to linear notes. Using this method, students create tables with headings and subheadings in order to organise the lecture material in a way that shows connections and comparisons between concepts. The major difference is that matrix notes emphasize cross-topical relations, which allows students to synthesize ideas across topics 

Student Views on Note-Taking

Van Meter, Yokoi and Pressley (1994) have shown that students are usually goal-directed in their note taking. One of the main goals of notetaking is to keep being focused during class:  

When the class is boring though, taking notes helps me to pay attention.  

If I didn’t take notes, I would fall asleep.  

Taking notes definitely helps concentration in class (p.327).  

Students selectively choose what to represent in notes. They prefer to write down information that is important to know, such as material accentuated by the professor, information written on the board, or content included in the syllabus, definitions, crucial concepts as well as, main points. Some material, including movies, guest lectures and common knowledge is neglected, as students believe it is less likely to be included in the assessment or because they are already familiar with the information. Although the material can be formatted into outlines in various specific forms, such as bulleted listings or arrows, students write mainly notes in order to be able to see meaningful groupings and connections (Van Meter, Yokoi & Pressley, 1994). Furthermore, they report that paraphrasing helps lessening the amount of writing demanded in class and understanding the lecture content better:  

‘Paraphrased notes are shorter. Ideally, I would write [the notes] all in my own words so I could check my understanding of them, I let the professor finish the concept. Then, I can write it down in just a few words. If I can’t write it down in a few words, then I know I don’t understand’ (p.328 

Students emphasized on the fact that their notes consist of mainly information that is personally meaningful to them, relevant to their existing knowledge and to what they need to know and understand: 

Having taken notes helps to trigger my memory when I study. I’ve written down keywords, and those are meaningful to me. I wouldn’t be able to use someone else’s notes because those aren’t meaningful to me. They’re meaningful to whoever wrote them. What’s best for me may not be best for someone else. My notes meet my needs. I don’t think that you can say one set of notes is good, and the other is bad. If one person wrote them for him- or herself, they’re all good because they’re meaningful for that person. Only he has to follow them (p.331).  

Students note that there are some factors that affect notetaking. According to them, lecturers can signal what information needs to be in the notes by creating clues such as (a) writing down material on the board, (b) slowing the rate of speech, (c) repeating specific information, and (d) telling the class what information is crucial. Students find it difficult to take notes when: 

Teacher spoke really fast. She went over a lot of stuff not in the book, and she’d go too fast, so you’d miss stuff. [She] jumped from point to point … [and was] not considerate of student limitations. Everything was at the same level.  

In [one class] I have to write everything I can get because he goes so fast, I can’t figure out what to write down. So, I write everything (p.328 

Students express similar difficulty when the course requires expressing information through diagrams or pictures:  

Pictures, diagrams, and graphs are already drawn on the board. You can’t get both the explanations and the picture. [There were] a lot of diagrams and charts you have to write to understand … [it’s] hard because while you’re writing it, he’s explaining it. [You] have to do two things at once (p.328 

Another problem pointed out by students is that they struggle to take notes when the lectures are poorly organized, which hinders comprehending the notes after the lecture: 

[He] jumps … [I] can’t tell when he’s done with a point. [I] can’t tell when there’s a subject change, but, [I] don’t have enough time to do anything about it anyway. [He] taught a concept with examples. [He] never stated directly what the concept or steps were. A lot of it’s technical. … [I was] so busy trying to get down the language that I didn’t know if what I wrote was relevant to the test. … Nothing tells me about the transition, if it’s a new topic or not.’ (p. 328 

Some participants believed that note taking aids understanding and organising the information presented in lectures. They reported that well-construct notes help studying after lectures, thus, providing a good review of the material that can be included in the exams: 

‘Taking notes gives you the structure of the concept 

Much of the test is based on stuff in the notes. If you don’t take notes, you miss a lot of the information for the test.  

I don’t read the whole chapter. I skim it and read the stuff I heard mentioned in class. I use my notes as a guide in reading the chapters so that I know what to read.’ (p.327)  

Take Away Message

Students benefit from note-taking in class, as the information that has been noted is more likely to be remembered and later recalled than the one that has not been recorded. This ‘encoding’ process can increase attention to details, boost comprehension of ideas and lead to more organized lecture material. Many studies have shown that note-taking has some beneficial effects, therefore, students should be encouraged to take notes in class. Lecturers can help students by emphasising the information which needs to be noted, slowing their rate of speech and structuring the lecture material well. Therefore, in order to be beneficial, note-taking appears to be a two-way process – students should try to pay attention to the lecture material and summarise the most important ideas and concepts, while lecturers should put effort in encouraging students to take notes. 

About the Blog Post Author:

Mary Ray Daver is a forth-year Psychology student at the University of Dundee. Her passion for Psychology started when she was in high school in Bulgaria, as she participated in many national Philosophy and Psychology student conferences, competitions and debates. Furthermore, her grandma was a well-known psychologist back home, so she knew this is the career she wants to pursue. She was not sure exactly which discipline would be the best for her, but after three years of studying different aspects of this field, she realised that she is most interested in Cognition and Emotion, Forensic Psychology, Clinical Psychology and Applied Psychology. Maria is curious and always tries to find articles, TedTalks and books that can help her acquire new knowledge and skills. She is grateful to be part of the TILE Network and meet people who are also innovative and thirsty for knowledge. She became a volunteer at the TILE Network because the education system in Scotland (both Secondary and Further Education) is very different to the one in Bulgaria and she started realising how important the educators’ approach is. This motivated her to read more and even suggest new practices, techniques and other ideas to her teachers. Furthermore, she has been involved in journalism (writing articles, short stories and preparing interviews) for quite a long time. Therefore, this volunteering opportunity is not only a chance for her to contribute to something bigger than student community, but also to communicate with professionals, acquire invaluable experience and knowledge, and of course to do what she loves – to write.

TILE Student Voice

This is a new section of the TILE Network that features the student voice in learning and teaching. We want to shine a light on the student perspective when it comes to teaching and learning practice and what better way to do this than letting the students express this themselves. This series also aims to give students to opportunity to engage in science communication and writing. Broadcasting scientific findings to a wider audience is a valuable skill and TILE provides students with the platform to practice that skill.

If you are a student and interested in contributing to the TILE Student Voice section, get in touch: tile@psy.gla.ac.uk


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