Taking notes from teacher presentations or from text or electronic material is an expectation for students beginning in the intermediate grades that increases at each level: middle school, high school and especially college. For some students, figuring out what to record is difficult and confusing, and they often lack organizational schemes for making sense of new information.
Taking good notes requires a number of skills including distinguishing important from less important information, organizing information to connect ideas, and making meaning from new information. There exist in the research literature a variety of strategies for giving students a structure for taking notes that will aid them in understanding and mastering content (Teaching for Results, 2003).
Note taking is a strategy for recording key points and important ideas from a lecture, video presentation or text material. A variety of note taking schemes exist helping students to organize and review their notes for assignments and test.
What the Literature Says About the Efficacy of Student Note Taking
The research literature on student note-taking yields mixed results on whether students are able to understand and retain information by taking notes, or are better prepared to perform well on tests after reviewing their notes (Beecher, 1988). An ongoing debate has centered on whether note-taking aids semantic encoding of information, with some studies supporting this idea (Hult et al. 1984 cited in Beecher, 1988) and others showing little or no impact on information recall (Henk and Stahl, 1985, cited in Beecher, 1988). A more recent literature review from Vanderbilt University (2014) cited Robert Williams and Alan Eggert’s 2002 literature review which focused on note taking efficiency, “defined in terms of the ratio between the number of conceptual points recorded and the number of words in the notes” (p. 175). They concluded that the literature on student note taking was mixed, especially in relation to factual recall.
However, other researchers approach the purposes and outcomes of student note taking from a different lens. Boch and Piolat (2005) drew on the fields of cognitive psychology, linguistics and teaching science to identify note taking as a form of writing across the curriculum, helping students to learn and to learn to write. Their research examines four aspects of note taking: “(1) the principal functions of note taking: ‘writing to learn’; (2) the main note taking strategies used by students; (3) the different factors involved in the comprehension and learning of knowledge through note taking; (4) the learning contexts that allow effective note taking: ‘learning to write.’” (2005, p. 101). They cite the importance of both the act of note taking and the reflection that follows, noting that techniques such as re-reading, highlighting and summarizing.
Rutgers’ researcher Joseph Boyle approached to topic of note taking in relation to middle school students with learning disabilities, referencing that these students in particular are poor note-takers and need scaffolding in how to take notes (2010). His experimental design study looked at 40 middle school students with learning disabilities and focused on note taking in science classes. Half the students took notes on videotaped science lessons without any instruction on note taking; the other half were taught “strategic note taking” to use with the same lessons. Strategic note taking has students identify the day’s topic, record three-six main points with details as they are being discussed, describing how ideas are related and noting new vocabulary, in an iterative process they repeat throughout the lecture, and then at the end of the lecture, recording the five most important points and related details. The results of Boyle’s study showed that strategic note taking, when taught to and used by students, significantly increased both short and long term recall, comprehension, and the number of lecture points and words, as compared to the control group that use conventional note taking methods. While his study focused on middle grades and students with learning disabilities, the idea of teaching students to use a template for note taking could certainly have wider application.
More recently, renewed interest in college readiness has caused education researchers to take another look at note taking as an essential skill for success in college. David Conley’s work at the EPIC Center in Oregon has promoted a four-part model for college readiness, one part of which involves student mastery of study skills including note taking (2008). In a related article published in ASCD’s Educational Leadership (2008), Conley noted that schools need a comprehensive college preparation program that includes not only cognitive skills, content knowledge and understanding of the college context, but student self-management skills that help students keep track of large amounts of information and access that information for assignments and tests. Harvard Research Fellow Michael Friedman concluded from his own research and that of colleagues: “Good note-taking practices can potentially make the difference between efficient study behaviors, better course outcomes, and even retention of course content beyond a course’s conclusion” (2014).
Strategies for Note Taking
Much of the literature discusses the lack of classroom instruction aimed at helping students make sense of new information as they are hearing and recording in it their notes. Yet there is research that looks at using graphic organizers or visual schemes to help students in processing lecture information. Williams’ and Eggerts’ research mentioned earlier suggested that recording only main ideas is not sufficient just as trying to record everything is inefficient. They concluded that notes are most efficient when they highlight an overall framework for the lecture and add important details (2002, p. 177). As an example, Column Notes is a graphic organizer that takes a number of forms and has students record key lecture ideas on one side of the page and details on the other (https://www.facinghistory.org/resource-library/teaching-strategies/two-column-note-taking). A number of variations occur, including students recording important ideas in one column and their response to those ideas, which allows for reflection and can prompt writing about the ideas to increase understanding. A three-column version asks students to record information, construct a visual representation of that information, and in the third column, generate questions about the information presented.
Another way to accomplish that balance between an overall framework and important details is incorporating Williams’ and Eggerts’ definition of efficiency to include using doodles and diagrams to capture ideas using few words. Vanderbilt’s Center for Teaching Director Derek Bruff suggests that “sketchnotes” which uses visuals to improve recall and understanding can also help capture structure and relationships of ideas in a lecture (2014). An example of sketchnotes follows from Bruff’s “Student Note Taking for Recall and Understanding: A Lit Review Review” (CFT 2014).
From Robert Talbert: Real Time Assessment in Bruff (2014)
Finally, some recent studies have focused on whether using technology, such as a lap top computer, can increase students’ efficiency in note taking and their recall and understanding of content. A study by Mueller and Oppenheimer published in Psychological Science (2014) involved UCLA college students and compared performance on tests of factual recall and conceptual understanding based on one group taking lecture notes on a laptop and the other group taking notes in longhand. Some students were tested half an hour after the lecture, and some one week after the lecture and encouraged to review their notes. The researchers found that right after the lecture, both groups of students did well on the factual recall questions, but longhand note-takers did better on conceptual understanding questions. The second assessment a week later showed marked advantage on both factual recall and conceptual understanding for the students using longhand to take notes, even though students using a computer had taken more notes.