Wednesday, September 14, 2016

Note-taking 101

The Fall return to school is a good time to remind students and parents about learning strategies. Lectures still dominate teaching approaches. In spite of such teaching reforms as "hands-on" learning, small group collaborations, project-based learning, and others, teachers generally can't resist the temptation to be a "sage of the stage," instead of a "guide on the side." Maybe that's a good thing, because many students are not temperamentally equipped to be active learners. Rather, they have been conditioned by television and movies, as well as their former teachers, to function passively, as an audience. Students are even conditioned to be passive by the way we test learning with multiple-choice questions, which require a passive recognition of a provided correct answer among three or four incorrect ones.
The other major teaching device, reading, is also problematic. Too many students don't like to read academic material. They want somebody to spoon fed the information to them. Most lectures are just that—spoon feeding.
Given that the dominance of lecturing is not likely to change any time soon, shouldn't teachers focus more on showing students how to learn from lectures? It seems there is an implicit assumption that passive listening will suffice to understand and remember what is presented in lectures. The problem is, however, that deep learning requires active, not passive, engagement. Students need to parse lecture content to identify what they don't understand, don't know already, and can't figure out from what they do already know. This has to happen in real time, as a given lecture proceeds. Even if the lecture is taped, seeing it again still requires active engagement for optimal learning.
So how should students engage with lectures? Traditionally, this means taking notes. But I wonder if note-taking is a dying art. I don't see many students taking notes from web pages or U-tube videos. Or textbooks (highlighting is a poor substitute). Or tweets or text messages. My concern was reinforced the other day when I gave a lecture on improving learning and memory to college students. The lecture was jam packed with more information than anyone could remember from one sitting. Yet, I did not see a single one of the 58 students taking notes. Notably, the class's regular professor, who had invited me to give the lecture, was vigorously taking notes throughout.
An explanation of how to take notes is provided in my e-book, Better Grades, Less Effort ( Just what is it that I think is valuable about note taking? First and foremost is the requirement for engagement. Students have to pay attention well enough to make decisions about the portion of the lecture that will need to be studied later. Paying attention is essential for encoding information. Nobody can remember anything that never registered in the first place.
Next, note taking requires thinking about the material to decide what needs to be captured for later study. This hopefully generates questions that can be raised and answered during the lecture. In the college class I just mentioned, not one student asked a question, even though I interrupted the lecture four times to try and pry out questions. Notably, after the lecture, about a dozen students came to me to ask questions.
A benefit of hand-written note-taking is that students create a spatial layout of the information they think they will need to study. A well-established principle of learning is that where information is provides important cues as to what the information is. The spatial layout of script and diagrams on a page allows the information to be visualized, creating an opportunity for a rudimentary form of photographic memory, where a student can imagine in the mind's eye just were on the page certain information is, and that alone makes it easier to memorize and recall what the information is.
This brings me to the important point of visualization. Pictures are much easier to remember than words. Hand-written notes allow the student to represent verbalized ideas as drawings or diagrams. If you have ever had to learn in a biology class the Kreb's cycle of cellular energy production, for example, you know how much easier it is to remember the cycle if it is drawn rather than described in paragraph form.
This is a good place to mention note-taking with a laptop computer. Students are being encouraged to use laptops or tablet computers to take notes. Two important consequences of typing notes should be recognized. One problem is that for touch typists, taking notes on a laptop is a relatively mindless and rote process in which letters are banged out more or less on autopilot. A good typist does not have to think. Hand-written notes inevitably engage thinking and decisions about what to write down, how to represent the information, and where on the page to put specific items. Typing also tempts the learner to record more information than can be readily memorized.
One of the earliest tests of the hypothesis about learning from handwriting was an experiment with elementary children learning how to spell. Comparison of writing words on a 3 x 5 card, or laying out words with letter tiles, or typing them with a keyboard revealed that the handwriting group achieved higher test scores when tested after having four days to study the notes. These results have been confirmed in other similar studies.
One follow-up study with college undergraduates compared the effects of typed and handwritten note-taking in 72 undergraduates watching a documentary video. Again, students who wrote notes by hand scored higher on the test.
The most recent experiment involved hundreds of students from two universities and compared learning efficacy in two groups of students, one taking notes on a laptop and the other by hand writing. Results from lectures on a wide range of topics across three experiments in a classroom setting revealed that the students making hand-written notes remembered more of the facts, had a deeper understanding, and were better at integrating and applying the information. The improvement over typing notes was still present in a separate trial where typing students were warned about being mindless and urged to think and type a synthesis of the ideas. Handwritten note benefits persisted in another trial where students were allowed to study their notes before being tested a week later.
Though multiple studies show the learning benefits of handwriting over typing, schools are dropping the teaching of cursive and encouraging students to use tablets and laptops. 
Why is it so hard for educators to learn?


Cunningham, A. E., & Stanovich, K. E. (1990). Early spelling acquisition: Writing beats the computer. Journal of Educational Psychology, 82(1), 159-162. doi:10.1037/0022-0663.82.1.159

Duran, Karen S. and Frederick, Christina M. (2013). Information comprehension: handwritten vs. typed notes. URHS, Vol. 12,

Mueller, Pam A., and Oppenheimer, Daniel M. (2014). The pen is mightier than the keyboard. Pschological Science. April 23. doi: 10.1177/0956797614524581.