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Note-taking: A Research Roundup

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Let’s talk about note-taking. Every day, in classrooms all over the world, students are taking notes. I have my own half-baked ideas about what makes one approach better than another, and I’m sure you do too. But if we’re going to call ourselves professionals, we need to know what the research says, yes?

So I’ve combed through about three decades’ worth of research, and I’m going to tell you what it says about best practices in note-taking. Although this is not an exhaustive summary, it hits on some of the most frequently debated questions on the subject.

This information is going to be useful for any subject area—I found some really good stuff that would be especially useful for STEM teachers or anyone who does heavy work with calculations, diagrams, and other technical illustrations. Of course, there’s plenty here for teachers of social studies, English, and the humanities as well, so everyone sit tight because you’ll probably come away with something you can apply to your classroom.

First, Let’s Talk About Lectures

When we think about note-taking, it’s natural to assume a context of lecture-based lessons. And yes, that is one common scenario when a student is likely to take notes. But other learning experiences also lend themselves to note-taking: Watching videos in a flipped or blended environment, reading assigned textbook chapters or handouts, doing research for a project, and going on field trips can all be opportunities for taking notes.

So instead of referring to lectures in this overview, I’ll just talk about learning experiences or intake sessions—times when students are absorbing content or skills through some sort of medium, as opposed to purely applying that content or synthesizing it into some kind of product. Even in student-centered, project-driven classrooms where students pursue their own authentic tasks like the Apollo School, or in more traditional classrooms that set aside time for Genius Hour projects, students need to gather, encode, and store information, so note-taking would still be a fit.

What the Research Says About Note-Taking

1. Note-taking matters.

Whether it’s taking notes from lectures (Kiewra, 2002) or from reading (Rahmani & Sadeghi, 2011; Chang & Ku, 2014), note-taking has been shown to improve student learning. In other words, if we want our students to remember more of what they learn in our classes, it’s better to have them take notes than it is to not have them take notes.

The thinking behind this is that note-taking requires effort. Rather than passively taking information in, the act of encoding the information into words or pictures forms new pathways in the brain, which stores it more firmly in long-term memory. On top of that, having the information stored in a new place gives students the opportunity to revisit it later and reinforce the learning that happened the first time around.

So if you’re not currently having students take notes in your class, consider adding note-taking to your regular classroom routine. With that said, a number of other factors can influence the potency of a student’s note-taking, and that is what these other points will address.

2. More is better.

Although students are often encouraged to keep notes brief, it turns out that in general, the more notes students take, the more information they tend to remember later. The quantity of notes is directly related to how much information students retain (Nye, Crooks, Powley, & Tripp, 1984).

This would be useful to share with students. If they know that more complete notes will result in better learning, they may be more likely to record additional information in their notes, rather than striving for brevity.

Obviously, some students are going to be faster note-takers than others, and this will allow them to take more complete notes. But you can do quite a bit to help all students get more information into their notes, regardless of their natural speed, and that’s what we’ll talk about next.

3. Explicitly teaching note-taking strategies can make a difference.

Although some students seem to have an intuitive sense for what notes to record, for everyone else, getting trained in specific note-taking strategies can significantly improve the quality of notes and the amount of material they remember later. (Boyle, 2013; Rahmani & Sadeghi, 2011; Robin, Foxx, Martello, & Archable, 1977). This is especially true for students with learning disabilities.

One frequently used note-taking system is Cornell Notes. This approach has been around for decades, and the format provides a simple way to take “live” notes in class and condense and review them later.

4. Adding visuals boosts the power of notes.

Compared with writing alone, adding drawings to notes to represent concepts, terms, and relationships has a significant effect on memory and learning (Wammes, Meade, & Fernandes, 2016).

The growing popularity of sketchnoting in recent years suggests that teachers are well on their way to taking advantage of this research.

This video combines sketchnoting with Cornell Notes, and it’s an approach I think is definitely worth considering.

To explore sketchnoting more deeply, check out this list of sketchnoting resources compiled by celebrated education sketchnote artist Sylvia Duckworth.

5. Revision, collaboration, and pausing boosts the power of notes.

When students are given the opportunity to revise, add to, or rewrite their notes, they tend to retain more information. And when that revision happens during deliberate pauses in a lecture or other learning experience, students remember the information better and take better notes than if the revision happens after the learning experience is over. Finally, if students collaborate on this revision with partners, they record even more complete notes and score higher on post-tests (Luo, Kiewra, & Samuelson, 2016).

With this in mind, it would be a good idea to plan breaks in lectures, videos, or independent reading periods to allow students to look over, add to, and revise their notes, ideally with a partner or small group. This partner work could happen after students have had time to revise their notes alone, or students might be given access to classmates for the duration of the pause.

6. Scaffolding increases retention.

Teachers can build scaffolds into their instruction to ensure that students take better notes. One very effective type of scaffold is guided notes (also called skeleton or skeletal notes). With guided notes, the instructor provides some type of outline of the material to be covered, but with space left for students to complete key information. This strategy has been shown to substantially increase student achievement across all grade levels (elementary through college) and with students who present with various disabilities (Haydon, Mancil, Kroeger, McLeskey, & Lin, 2011).

As instructors experiment with guided notes, certain features show a lot of promise. One that I found incredibly interesting was a style developed by engineering professor Susan Reynolds to accompany her lectures: The notes combine typed information, handwritten content, and graphics, but still leave room for student notes and working out example problems.

Diagrams are pre-drawn, but some key numbers are left out for students to fill in during the lecture. These notes consolidate all the technical material for a lecture into a single document, and the information is organized to align with the lecture. The more I study these notes, the more I see how useful they are, and how well they balance the efficiency offered by guided notes with the need for students to actively participate in the encoding process.

Guided notes created by engineering professor Susan Reynolds. These have not been completed yet.

 

The same pages of guided notes completed by the instructor during the lecture.

 

Reynolds’ students have had strong positive reactions to this style of notes and consistently attribute the notes as a key factor in their engagement and learning in the course (Reynolds & Tackie, 2016).

While teachers should experiment with different styles, the take-away here is that if you want students to get the most out of a learning experience, provide them with some form of partially completed notes.

In the meantime, you can add another layer of scaffolding by simply adding more verbal cues to your learning experiences (Kiewra, 2002). Research shows that simply saying things like, “This is an important point,” or “Be sure to add this to your notes,” instructors can ensure that students include key ideas in their notes. Providing written cues on the board or a slideshow can also help students structure their notes and decide what information to include.

7. Providing instructor notes improves learning.

In an article I wrote a few years ago, I denounced instructor-prepared notes as an ineffective method for teaching, primarily because encoding this information required no effort from students and therefore made the learning too passive.

Although I stand by the assertion that we should avoid simply supplying students with notes, I need to refine the message: Research has shown that when we give students complete, well-written, instructor-prepared notes to review after they take their own notes, they learn significantly more than with their own notes alone (Kiewra, 1985).

If we combine this strategy with student revision, collaboration, and pausing to improve note-taking and learning—in other words, having students pause during an intake session to collaboratively revise their notes, then let them review instructor notes at the end—we can give our students an incredibly powerful learning experience.

One concern is that providing notes might make students more passive about taking their own notes during the learning experience. Here are some suggestions for addressing that:

8. Handwritten notes may be more powerful than digital notes, but digital note-taking can be fine-tuned.

Studies have shown that students who take notes by hand learn more than those who take notes on a laptop (Mueller & Oppenheimer, 2014; Carter, Greenberg, & Walker, 2017).

This research confirms what a number of educators suspect about the negative effects of digital devices in the classroom, and some have taken it to mean they should definitely ban laptops from their lectures (Dynarski, 2017). Others argue that prohibiting laptop use robs students of the opportunity to develop metacognitive awareness of their own levels of distraction and make the appropriate adjustments (Holland, 2017).

Because technology is always changing, and because as a species, we are still adjusting to these new formats, I would hesitate to ban laptops from the classroom. Here’s why:

See What Other Teachers are Doing

To learn more about what other teachers have found to be most effective note-taking methods, I put the call out on Twitter, asking teachers to share what works for them. You can browse that conversation here.

 


References

Artz, B., Johnson, M., Robson, D., & Taengnoi, S. (2017). Note-taking in the digital age: Evidence from classroom random control trials. http://doi.org/10.2139/ssrn.3036455

Boyle, J. R. (2013). Strategic note-taking for inclusive middle school science classrooms. Remedial and Special Education, 34(2), 78-90. https://doi.org/10.1177%2F0741932511410862

Carter, S. P., Greenberg, K., & Walker, M. S. (2017). The impact of computer usage on academic performance: Evidence from a randomized trial at the United States Military Academy. Economics of Education Review, 56, 118-132. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.econedurev.2016.12.005

Chang, W., & Ku, Y. (2014). The effects of note-taking skills instruction on elementary students’ reading. The Journal of Educational Research, 108(4), 278–291. https://doi.org/10.1080/00220671.2014.886175

Dynarski, S. (2017). For Note Taking, Low-Tech is Often Best. Retrieved from https://www.gse.harvard.edu/news/uk/17/08/note-taking-low-tech-often-best

Haydon, T., Mancil, G.R.,  Kroeger, S.D., McLeskey, J., & Lin, W.J. (2011). A review of the effectiveness of guided notes for students who struggle learning academic content. Preventing School Failure: Alternative Education for Children and Youth, 55(4), 226-231. http://doi.org/10.1080/1045988X.2010.548415

Holland, B. (2017). Note taking editorials – groundhog day all over again. Retrieved from http://brholland.com/note-taking-editorials-groundhog-day-all-over-again/

Kiewra, K.A. (1985). Providing the instructor’s notes: an effective addition to student notetaking. Educational Psychologist, 20(1), 33-39. https://doi.org/10.1207/s15326985ep2001_5

Kiewra, K.A. (2002). How classroom teachers can help students learn and teach them how to learn. Theory into Practice, 41(2), 71-80. https://doi.org/10.1207/s15430421tip4102_3

Luo, L., Kiewra, K.A. & Samuelson, L. (2016). Revising lecture notes: how revision, pauses, and partners affect note taking and achievement. Instructional Science, 44(1). 45-67. https://doi.org/10.1007/s11251-016-9370-4

Mueller, P.A., & Oppenheimer, D.M. (2014). The pen is mightier than the keyboard: Advantages of longhand over laptop note taking. Psychological Science, 25(6), 1159-1168. https://doi.org/10.1177/0956797614524581

Nye, P.A., Crooks, T.J., Powley, M., & Tripp, G. (1984). Student note-taking related to university examination performance. Higher Education, 13(1), 85-97. https://doi.org/10.1007/BF00136532

Rahmani, M., & Sadeghi, K. (2011). Effects of note-taking training on reading comprehension and recall. The Reading Matrix, 11(2). Retrieved from https://pdfs.semanticscholar.org/85a8/f016516e61de663ac9413d9bec58fa07bccd.pdf

Reynolds, S.M., & Tackie, R.N. (2016). A novel approach to skeleton-note instruction in large engineering courses: Unified and concise handouts that are fun and colorful. American Society for Engineering Education Annual Conference & Exposition, New Orleans, LA, June 26-29, 2016. Retrieved from https://www.asee.org/public/conferences/64/papers/15115/view

Robin, A., Foxx, R. M., Martello, J., & Archable, C. (1977). Teaching note-taking skills to underachieving college students. The Journal of Educational Research, 71(2), 81-85. https://doi.org/10.1080/00220671.1977.10885042

Wammes, J.D., Meade, M.E., & Fernandes, M.A. (2016). The drawing effect: Evidence for reliable and robust memory benefits in free recall. The Quarterly Journal of Experimental Psychology, 69(9). http://doi.org/10.1080/17470218.2015.1094494

Wu, J. Y., & Xie, C. (2018). Using time pressure and note-taking to prevent digital distraction behavior and enhance online search performance: Perspectives from the load theory of attention and cognitive control. Computers in Human Behavior, 88, 244-254. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.chb.2018.07.008


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31 Comments

  1. joyous moi says:

    What grade should note taking begin? Middle school? Upper elementary? 🤔🤔

    • Christine says:

      I have the same question. I teach gr 3 and am trying to think of ways to incorporate this into our class.

      And THANK-YOU for consolidating all the research for us here! This website is my go-to source for research-backed, teaching best-practice info.

      • Amara says:

        I’ve done some of this in grade 3! For example, we watched a video and I asked them to jot down what they noticed. We’d recently done some mind mapping so I suggested they do it in that format. Then I asked them to share what they had noticed and we made a mind map together, with students adding anything they had missed (wherever they felt it fit best).

    • Hi, Joyous! I love that you’re asking this question. What about 1st grade? Kids love to write and doodle, right? As a former 1st grade teacher, all throughout the day, I provided tons of opportunities for kids to record their thinking. They were writing, doodling, drawing arrows, labeling, captioning … doing all that stuff that we want them to do when showing understanding. Of course, this came with a lot of scaffolding, modeling, and direct teaching. I think sketchnoting is perhaps the most natural way to get kids started. Here’s a specific activity I did at the end of the year that some might say was a science lesson, others a reading lesson, and others a writing lesson. I say it was all that and more. My real intention was to teach a learning process: 1. Listen to just get familiar with the content. 2. Listen again, this time really visualizing the content. Draw, write, label what you understand. 3. Listen again and fix or change. The tool we used was a Scholastic News issue that happened to coincide with our weather unit. (I read it aloud, one section at a time.) Here’s a link to 4 samples of student work. In case you’re wondering, one of the samples is from an ELL student, another from a struggling student and another from a gifted student. Several note-taking strategies were part of this lesson: sketchnoting, revision, pausing, scaffolding, and shout-outs, which I considered a form of collaboration. While kids were sketching and revising, I saw some really neat things happening, that I’d just shout out. For example, “Hey, if anybody’s interested, I’m noticing Johnny is numbering the different stages. See if that’s something that will work for you.” I’ll be honest. I did this lesson 3 years ago and at the time, I didn’t even think of it as notetaking. Then Jenn’s post helped me realize that note-taking, that thing I hated most growing up (almost as much as I hated liver and onions for dinner) was actually something I was teaching my 1st graders. Not only could they do it, but they enjoyed it…and the learning really did stick. Hope this helps!

  2. Heather Manchester says:

    Thank you for consolidating the research. You’ve given me a lot to think about.

  3. George Couros says:

    This:

    “Whether it’s taking notes from lectures (Kiewra, 2002) or from reading (Rahmani & Sadeghi, 2011; Chang & Ku, 2014), note-taking has been shown to improve student learning. In other words, if we want our students to remember more of what they learn in our classes, it’s better to have them take notes than it is to not have them take notes.”

    Does it improve student “learning” or “retention”? I think there is definitely power in taking notes but does this actually look at deep understanding of a concept and application or retention and regurgitation? Would love to know your thoughts.

    Thanks for sharing this! So much great stuff 🙂

    • Hey George,

      I think we can define “learning” in a lot of different ways. If students are only consuming information, recording it, and then regurgitating it, but never applying it in any authentic way, then it’s questionable whether they are really learning it.

      On the other hand, without consuming actual information and ideas that have been put out into the world by others, students will be limited in how far their application can go. I can think of all kinds of examples, but I’ll use myself here:

      When I wanted to create a podcast, I watched a lot of YouTube videos and read a lot of articles that taught me how to do it. I took notes. Lots of them. Messy at first, but then I rewrote and reorganized them so they were more useful to me later. I watched some of the videos more than once and revised my notes. Then, as I practiced with all the technical elements of audio recording and editing, I referred back to those notes. The learning was an interplay between intake, processing (note-taking), and application. If any of those parts were missing, I think the learning would suffer.

  4. Ann R says:

    Loved this. I’ve been trying to wrap my head around how to teach my kids with special needs how to do notes, and I loved how you covered scaffolded notes and the digital issue. This is just amazing.

  5. I saw Daniel Willingham, a widely respected educational researcher, present on this topic a year or so ago. This post by him is a good summary and also points to some research studies that you didn’t include. Enjoy, everyone! https://tinyurl.com/ycxtk4rf

  6. A very important issue in note taking is the distinction learning from taking notes and using notes to learn. These processes are distinct and very different issues can be important with each. If notes are not used for review, some learners would be better off note taking notes. Note review does not necessarily depend on the learner taking notes.

  7. Jackie says:

    What a great resource on how to make note-taking an integral part of our classroom. I am planning on using a few TED talk videos in my 9th and 11th grade English classes, and this has helped me think about how to have the students taking notes in a much more scaffolded way for their learning.

  8. Thank you, Jennifer, for such a useful and thoughtful post. I’ve just translated it to Portuguese to share with my colleagues and oldest students at my school.
    Your writings have already inspired my teaching so many times!
    Ines

  9. Great post!
    I’m wondering if you have any handy-dandy “how to take notes” mini-courses like the plagiarism one you created? I bought that one and love it! Thanks for all of your hard work and your honesty. It shines through in your podcasts.

  10. Pete Pitard says:

    I’ve used Cornell notetaking for many years now. And I’ve added a column on the right to place visuals. And like Doug Neill, I’ve observed some of my high school students using the visuals on their tests! I’ve given them extra points for using them. I’m excited to use more visuals this year!Great info. Thanks

  11. Arjan Harjani says:

    The age-old tradition of note-taking with a few more research based findings made this podcast truly interesting, and for that, Jenn needs to be complimented for preparing and sharing such an important part of learning at all academic levels. As a high school teacher of 30+ years, I have always encouraged my students to take notes at all time, having a notebook open and ready to go- write, draw, doodle, something. I do give them ideas on how to be a great note-taker! I kept my hand-written notes for years (depending on my need for them in high school, undergraduate, and then graduate school) I even have years of notes as a teacher and I always feel that adding or editing newer versions has been fun and has brought new meaning to teaching. With changes coming along with 21st-century learning, it is always good to blend the old and the new… thank you Jenn for bringing new light to this tradition. Cheers.

  12. Kia London says:

    Hi Jennifer,

    Thank you so much for sharing your finds. I am curious to hear your thoughts about taking notes in a proficiency/ci based world language classroom. I provide the students with visuals and specific phrases in context for comprehension purposes. I have strayed away from traditional practices in the language classroom, and therefore having the students sit for 20-25 minutes taking notes is not a reality in my classroom.

    Thanks!
    Kia

    • Hi Kia ~ I’m not familiar with the methods you’re describing. I found something about Comprehensible Input in language learning, but I’m not sure if that’s right. Also, the description I read didn’t make much sense. If you could explain the process a bit more, that would help.

      With that said, what I’m trying to get across in this post is about the value of note-taking in general, and in some classrooms, that might mean just a few notes every couple of days. It wouldn’t have to be 20-25 minutes of solid note-taking. In your class, do students take in any information that they might remember better by writing it down? If so, and if they don’t currently have any strategies for doing that, you might consider building it into your class time.

  13. Angela says:

    I love the information on scaffolding and guided notes! I see so much value and potential in that to help kids get the value of note taking even if thier natural aptitude is poor in this area.

    Do you have any suggestions on how students who struggle with note taking like my daughter who is dyslexic, as well as been diagnosed with DCD (developmental coordination disorder) can modify note taking so they can gain the benefit of the process without using all available focus and attention on it, and losing out on the greater information because they are struggling with writing and spelling?

    • Hi Angela ~

      I have a couple of suggestions: (1) Guided notes are especially helpful for students who don’t take notes quickly. If her teachers are willing/able to provide skeletal notes where more is already written down and your daughter just fills in key information, it would really benefit her. (2) She could be paired with another student in class who takes good notes and sit beside that student, watching as the notes are built and even suggesting additions or changes as they are written. Then the notes could be copied (or shared digitally) for your daughter to use in her own studies. (3) She could make audio recordings of lectures and listen later so she can add to the notes she took during class. Using something like a Livescribe Pen would even tie her written notes in with specific parts of the audio.

      This collection looks like it would have some more in-depth suggestions.

      Hope this helps!

  14. Thanks so much for this, already shared with all my HS classes with appropriate emphasis of course. I find assigning a simple grade that is reviewed regularly helps with motivation 1-3 dependent on the level of engagement/reflection.
    On the point of handwritten v typed notes, I’m so tired of hearing this argument trotted out, a close reading of the research shows that the issue is not the medium, but the method; ie are they mindlessly transcribing, or actively summarising/reflecting/questioning? When taught the latter, then the medium used is irrelevant, the bigger issue—as your post so effectively highlights—is that note taking is rarely actually taught (like the skill of summarising and paraphrasing) it’s assumed that it’s an automatic talent… For those that are interested in a more critical consideration of the research around typing and note taking, please see my post here: http://doverdlc.blogspot.com/2016/04/typing-vs-writing.html

  15. Paula Mullet says:

    I loved your video. Great ideas I plan to try with my Aspire/GED class. Thank you.

  16. Marsha H Ratzel says:

    Thanks for this great post & reminder. I was just needing to add formal textbook kind of learning to what students learned in a hands-on lab. Using some of your points, I hand-drew an interactive notetaking guide to the chapter that might have resembled a treasure hunt more than note-taking. After using it with 8th graders the past 2 days, I can tell you that it was more effective.

    I did a little variation on the pause/reflect step. I had them do that and then collected and redistributed all the papers. Everyone had a someone else’s paper. They read thru the paper and concentrated on their recap summaries. We talked about what they noticed, what was good & what could be improved. THEN we talked about how a coach tells players how to improve on something without being “mean”. They wrote a note for improvement on the paper and briefly explained it.

    And then each person got their original paper back…decided how much of the suggested improvement was valid and I gave them time to make an improvement. Especially encouraging them to make a judgment about whether the suggestion was worthy of doing or if they could customize it even better.

    I will tell you that between the highlighters, colored pencils, recaps, suggestions for improvements and class pauses (which I call Hey Wait a Minutes)….it went 1,000,000% better.

    Thanks for your suggestions and good ideas.

  17. Natalie T says:

    This podcast couldn’t have come at a better time. Starting next week, I’m attempting a note-taking portfolio for the semester that I’m really excited about.

    I teach ESL to international students at a university. We’ve done listening/note-taking practice with pre-recorded lectures and an open-notes comprehension test at the end, but its inauthenticity has always driven me crazy.

    So, I made my students buy Rocketbook Everlast notebooks and Frixion Pens (not an ad, I promise) in lieu of a textbook. They will have to have take notes in their major grad/undergrad classes, then submit compile their notes into a .pdf – easy to do with these notebooks – and submit them weekly/biweekly. I’ll be giving small amounts of feedback and adding criteria based on different learning theory (ex: try dual coding/sketchnotes, or Cornell notes, etc…). My hope is that this will create buy-in and accountability, while also helping them by successful in their other class. Fingers-crossed!

    Thank you for all you do. Even though I’m not your typical audience, your work has been a huge inspiration! A tech-loving, graphic-designing creative who’s serious about innovation and best practices in teaching? It ticks all my boxes. 🙂

  18. Sylvia says:

    I love this task… but it seems a bit long.

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