Make A Note Of This!
By Lucinda Powell
Effective note taking enables more to be learned and for information to be encoded into long-term memory on the first pass. Here’s what to do.
For the past year I have been grappling with the best way to get my A level Psychology students to take notes. Over the past 20 years in the classroom note taking has become an increasingly digital activity. So last year I decided to revert back to getting my students to handwrite notes as I felt it could be a really effective learning tool. They did not like it, but was I right to make them hand write summaries of information I wanted them to learn?
Why write notes at all? When I was at school textbooks were very dense and not course specific, and photocopying was expensive (we are talking a long time ago) so teachers dictated a lot of notes. Nowadays with course-specific textbooks which are also available online and document sharing, it could be argued that note taking is not needed and class time could be dedicated to other learning activities.
However, I believe that, done well, effective note taking can be a really beneficial learning tool and is an opportunity for formative assessment. In terms of learning, note taking can enable more to-be-learned information to be encoded into long-term memory on the first pass, this does not mean to say that it will not need to be revised or revisited but effective note taking should aid the learning process and given how little students enjoy revision learning more in the lesson should be a bonus.
So what makes effective note taking (in or out of the classroom)?
Notes can come in many shapes and forms, for me it is a summary of information that you have read, heard or seen that is written in your own words. This therefore excludes copying or dictation. Over the past year my classes have written notes in a linear form, structured forms such as Cornell Notes or more unstructured forms such as mindmaps.
So here are 5 evidence based reasons why I believe note taking can support learning:
Craik and Tulving (1975) suggested that the deeper our understanding of material the more easily it sticks in long term memory. In one study they gave students one of 3 lists of words: words in capitals or lower case (structural processing – what it looks like), words that rhyme with a second word (acoustic coding – what the word sounds like) and with the request to include the target word in a sentence (semantic processing – what the word means). When they were tested later it was this latter group whose recall for the words was best. Therefore the most effective way to take notes is not to copy (structural) or dictate (acoustic) but to generate your own notes because it requires you to understand the content about which you are writing. In addition, in the classroom this serves as an excellent formative assessment opportunity, if students are summarising verbally delivered content or the textbook, they have to understand it. Wandering round the classroom it is easy to identify who is struggling and give them an extra bit of support.
2. Generative Learning Theory
We can go further than this though and say that we not only have to understand to-be-learned information but we have to reorganise it and integrate it with our existing knowledge (Fiorella and Mayer, 2015). By physically reorganising information into written notes students are more likely to transfer new information into long term memory. Therefore to encourage encoding to long term memory students should read the to-be-learned information then not only rewrite it in their own words but generate links to previously learned information. For example if students are learning about memory in Psychology they might make links to research methods and include this in their notes.
Furthermore, in a recent piece of research by Fiorella (2022) it was shown that this not only aids memory but also students’ ability to apply newly-learned information to novel situations and this is strengthened when we encourage students to summarise their learning without the visual cues of powerpoint slides or printed resources.
3. Retrieval Practice
Most of us, I am sure, will be well aware of the benefits of retrieval practice. Information is more strongly encoded into long term memory when we have to recall it rather than just passively receiving the information (Roediger and Karpicke, 2006). Therefore it is fair to conclude that if we are keen for students to retain more information we should give them as many retrieval practice opportunities in class as possible, note writing (summarising from memory) affords one more opportunity.
4. Handwriting vs Typing
Many students nowadays tend to type notes and many will need to type as their ‘normal way of working’. From a practical point of view this seems sensible – no bits of paper to lose at the bottom of the bag or heavy files to carry. However, there is evidence that typing notes means that students retain less information than handwriting (Smoker et al, 2009). It may well be the case that many students can type faster than they can write, so if they are typing as you talk they can type verbatim what you are saying (processing information at a shallow level), whereas if they are handwriting they have to be more selective about what they choose to write and identify the key words and points to include – processing at a deeper level (e.g.Mueller & Oppenheimer, 2015).
This suggests that we should encourage hand written notes, or if a student must type, encourage them to either handwrite a few key words to prompt their notes or type up your explanation in their own words after you have finished speaking.
5. Identify Key Terms
Something worth encouraging students to do during the note taking process is to identify key terms or ‘cues’. Given that in schools we are aiming to pass exams this part of the notetaking aims to highlight terms that are likely to appear in exam questions – cues to recall. The theory that underpins this idea is ‘cue dependent forgetting’ and suggests that cues (in this instance words – though it can be images, smells or sounds) trigger memories, acting a bit like a key to unlocking other memories. If a student learns a specific word as a cue and then hooks other information to this – let’s say ‘photosynthesis’ is the cue word, there might be 5 other ‘items’ that link to this: chlorophyll, plants, respiration, the equation for photosynthesis and energy, from this list a student can expand out further to explain why each of these is important and links to photosynthesis.
I hope that I have persuaded you that notetaking is a worthy classroom learning activity when it is done from memory, summarises information, identifies key words, links new information to old information and is (preferably) hand written as it helps students retain information in their long term memory, enables them to transfer newly learned information to novel situations more effectively and can act as a useful formative assessment tool. But getting students to do this is really hard. So I wanted to address a few of the barriers I have faced.
Firstly, be aware of cognitive load. We know that working memory has an incredibly small capacity but when also processing information this can be further reduced. Therefore when we are asking students to summarise notes we should break down to-be-learned information into manageable chunks. It is tempting, especially when students are older and the amount of content to be covered is greater, to use a more lecture based teaching. Be aware of how much information your students can cope with and how well developed their note-taking skills are when you ask them to write summary notes.
On this note (no pun intended) because of the pressure to cover content students are rarely taught how to effectively summarise information into note form: you will need to teach them. You may want to have a go at different styles and scaffolding the different ideas such as Cornell Notes. Do not assume that they can just ‘do it’. In reality this means setting aside time to do this in your lessons, however, this is such a good skill it is worth the effort. For more ways of doing this check out Fiorella and Mayer (2015) cited below.
The biggest challenge though is student reluctance, students do not like to write notes that they might use at a later date for revision, from memory. Many of them really worry that they will not get the information ‘correct’ or they will miss vital bits. As a result they like to copy. I have tried several things to help get over this:
- The first iteration of notes are thrown away;
- Initial notes are written in pairs, checked and then put into ‘neat’;
- The notes are written from memory in one colour and then added to with additions from slides/me/textbook in another colour;
- Notes are structured in such a way that it is easy to add in missed bits of information (e.g. mindmaps are easier to change than linear notes);
- Typing can allow reordering, change and improvement.
Finally, one of my biggest problems is typing whilst I talk. We now know that typing verbatim requires little processing. The student will feel like they have a comprehensive set of notes but they may not understand them. Firstly I insist on all laptops being closed whilst I talk, then if they really need to get something down whilst I talk they have to use paper and pen (regardless of whether they type or not in the end). When I have finished explaining then, and only then, may they open up their laptops to type.
Students do not like this way of note taking – it is unfamiliar and they feel insecure, however it should aid longer term retention of information. The problem is that copying, reading and dictating give the illusion of fluency. Students feel like they really know and understand information when they use these techniques, they are easy and comforting. Writing notes, in your own words, from memory is challenging, it highlights what you do not know and it makes you feel less like you have learned anything.
This illusion of fluency means that students do not want to do the difficult thing because it feels wrong and ineffective – it is taking a risk. Your challenge is to persuade them that it is right!
If you want to find out more about the concepts addressed in this article the hyperlinks will take you to a ‘Psychology in the Classroom’ podcast episode that delves a little deeper.
Craik, F. I. M., & Tulving, E. (1975). Depth of processing and the retention of words in episodic memory. Journal of Experimental Psychology: General, 104(3), 268–294. https://doi.org/10.1037/0096-3422.214.171.1248
Fiorella, L. (2022) Learning by explaining after pauses in video lectures: Are provided visuals a scaffold or a crutch? Applied Cognitive Psychology 36:5, 1142-1149 https://doi.org/10.1002/acp.3994.
Fiorella, L., & Mayer, R. E. (2015). Learning as a generative activity: Eight learning strategies that promote understanding. Cambridge University Press. https://doi.org/10.1017/CBO9781107707085
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
Roediger, H. L., & Karpicke, J. D. (2006). Test-Enhanced Learning: Taking Memory Tests Improves Long-Term Retention. Psychological Science, 17(3), 249–255. https://doi.org/10.1111/j.1467-9280.2006.01693.x
Smoker, T. J., Murphy, C. E., & Rockwell, A. K. (2009). Comparing Memory for Handwriting versus Typing. Proceedings of the Human Factors and Ergonomics Society Annual Meeting, 53(22), 1744–1747. https://doi.org/10.1177/154193120905302218