Saturday, March 15, 2014

Taking Note of Note Taking

by Linda Stine

What role does note taking play in student learning and retention? This is an issue I keep changing my mind about. 

In my early days of teaching, at the beginning of each semester I would show my students the Cornell method of note taking: write the notes in the main part of the page, highlight main topics/key words in the left margin and save room at the bottom of the page for summary and application. I preached the SQ3R gospel (survey, question, recite, reflect, review). Then after  awhile I went with the “don’t divide your attention by listening and writing at the same time” approach, encouraging students to focus on hearing and understanding and  participating, just jotting down a few main points if they needed to and using available technology to record the rest for review if they felt that was necessary.  Then, with the growth of PowerPoint, I found myself printing out lecture slides for students or posting them online, again thinking that it made more sense for students to watch and listen and think and participate than to spend their time and energy scribbling down verbatim what I could provide them either in print or digitally. Then, with an increased focus on active learning and workshopping, note taking did not seem to be needed; retention came with the doing rather than the recording.

In an article in the Teaching Professor blog, however, Maryellen Weimer suggests that students learn two important skills from note taking: learning to listen effectively and being able to make the material their own by translating it into their own words.  She lists some small steps teachers can take to encourage good note taking:

  • Identify key concepts in the day’s lesson specifically, telling students when you get to it that what follows is important and should be written down;
  • Challenge students to retrieve things from their notes to add to the present class discussion;
  • Pause after giving a definition and tell students to write it in their own words, not yours;
  • Give students a few minutes in the beginning of class to review the last class’s notes and have a few summarize;
  • At the end of class have students trade notes with somebody sitting near them discuss what was similar and what was different
  • When a number of students miss an exam question, ask them to find what they have in their notes that relates to the question and compare their notes with those of a student who got the question right;
  • Tell students they may use notes during the next quiz and talk with them about how that changes what they write down.

What are your thoughts about whether students should take notes in class, how they should do so, and what role, if any, you might play in helping them to learn this skill? Has technology changed the way you think about note taking?  Has the new world of active learning and “flipped classrooms” eliminated note taking, at least within the classroom setting itself?  I’d love to hear your thoughts on this issue. 


  1. Maryellen Weimer's suggestions may be good for pre-college students; but not college students, who are supposed to be critical thinkers. In early learning, one may dictate notes to students to write down. By the time they graduate from high school, students are supposed to have learned for themselves, often by trial and error or experimentation, what works (or does not). As critical thinkers, even if only in training, students are supposed to figure out methods of and preferences for note-taking by themselves; and it may be self-defeating to dictate one to them, except to make comments or suggestions.

    I find that some of my students try to write down everything, and others try to write down nothing (at all). Both approaches puzzle me. Unfortunately, I do not have the data to evaluate either.

    Safro Kwame


    The purpose of writing is to enhance thinking and memory in a particular discipline, inter alia. The elements of text and graphics are my humble upbringings to satisfy western civilization’s criteria for becoming a professional teacher and an economist.

    We read books and listen to speakers in order to learn the subject matter. Do we have to take notes to aid our understanding or memory? For the most mentally-gifted individuals note-taking may be dispensed with, as an unnecessary encumbrance. For most mortals, with less brain or mind power and more desire to glean details beyond mere outlines, note-taking is very essential.

    When I study I also take notes on a notepad even these days by force of habit prior to blasting off digitally. In 2011, Gardner and Jeweler recommended to freshmen that the textbook is the notebook, on page 84 just like in the times of yore when we learnt from reading books and taking notes on a margin, on 3 by 4 cards, or a regular notepad. In Steve Job’s world, this laborious task is accomplished with an ipad or an iphone that cannot translate what the speaker is saying but which can take a picture of the outline on the speaker’s notes on the smartboard. Yes, a smart board.

    When a student studies from a digital book and is asked to take notes, there is some misunderstanding that it is acceptable to cut and paste digital content as if it is the student’s work for assignment-submission. I have seen and commented on this practice today, March 17, 2014, warning against plagiarism, a habit that could become a serious disease if it is not weaned off.

    My first major assignment in note taking occurred when I was twenty years old, covering the Commonwealth Finance Minister’s Conference as a rapporteur in Georgetown Guyana. One hour of listening and writing verbatim and generating a first draft for dictating to stenographers and getting the second draft to the typist with a three hour turn-around time, producing three drafts for the Secretary General’s minutes of the day’s proceedings by nine o’clock sharp the very next morning.
    At the International Monetary Fund between 1994 and 1997, listening to Executive Board Meetings and taking notes proved to be a major skill to brief executive directors and making presentations to other professionals from different parts of the organization or world.
    Locally in my classes, I supplied key terms or chapter outlines and asked students to add bulleted sentences or phrase-notes to enhance the value of the outlines in order to prepare for the midterm exams. The results were mixed.

    Students who made a bona fide effort to write their own notes tended to produce a better quality short answer than students who copied definitions from a glossary and attached them to key terms. Some students just could not write any coherent answers or answer the short answer questions. It appeared that only some students who supplied value added to the key terms were able to answer about 50 percent of the multiple choice questions or supply written definitions of key terms.

    After the midterm, I shortened the assignment instructions and asked students to read the chapters assigned and produce their own ‘study notes’ that must be reviewed and submitted for 40 percent points prior to taking the final exam. Other class presentations such as video or lecture and discussions are to stimulate and enhance learning. I can agree with Professor Safro Kwame that ‘students are supposed to figure out methods of and preferences for note-taking by themselves.’

    At last, the old-fashion notepad can be a very good tool to do efficient or creative work. I mean any type of creative work. I am still waiting for the digital instrument that would match my speed of translating and digitizing my manual script writing. The last device I bought was returned because it was too slow to write as fast as I could think and write.

    Ganga Persad Ramdas
    Professor, Business and Entrepreneurial Studies
    Lincoln University.

  3. Kwame: You say, "I find that some of my students try to write down everything, and others try to write down nothing (at all). Both approaches puzzle me." I have found the same thing, That's why it seems to me that guiding them in the right direction (whatever that may be) might be productive. Whether or not they should have learned these skills earlier, is it feasible to expect them to do so on their own now? Is saying "you are in college and should thus be thinking critically" enough? Or do you mean the best practice might be to take that student who is not showing mastery of note taking, point out the problem you're seeing, give them some alternatives, and THEN tell them to think critically about it and come up with something that works better? I could agree with an approach like that.

    Ganga, as one of those mortals you write about "with little brain or mind power" I chuckled as I read your response. I do like your example of assigning study notes that count as a percentage of the grade as a way to encourage and develop note-taking skills. And you raise another interesting point about how the whole e-book issue is changing options for note-taking. Is there anyone (I'm talking to the youngsters among us, I guess) who finds it as easy to annotate and underline and take notes when working with either an electronic text or with an electronic recording device?

  4. I'm saying you can take a horse to the river, but you can't force it to drink; you can, however, use it a teachable moment and provoke students to think critically about note-taking.

    Safro Kwame

  5. Note taking is very beneficial to students because it allows us to review, learn how to personalize and write what’s important. I use notes as a guide when studying for exams or to elaborate when asking questions. I believe it helps students talk about what we have in our notes and explain things to each other while using them. The value of note taking includes learning to listen well, recording information clearly, and enhancing short hand tips. Research has shown that reviewing is most beneficial right after the notes have been taken .Students can be given two or three minutes to review and enhance their notes at the end of class, during class when a discussion has ended, or at the beginning of the next class. This review time does more for learning and retention if students add to their notes.

    This idea is not only beneficial in the classroom but is applied to our daily lives. Once students have the ability to take good notes from the class room, they soon learn that work meetings become easier to record. Some careers involve long meetings which cover many topics and students can rely on that learning and listening skill learned in school to help retain important information related to their career. A good note taker can enhance others to think in many ways by commenting and introducing new ideas on notes they have taken. In conclusion, the value of note taking is beneficial because it makes us retain information to apply it to test, ask questions and have discussions with others. I think the more we review our notes, the better we can understand new information.

    Thank You,
    Terrie Peterson

  6. Note Taking is crucial not only for the student, but also for the teacher. It reassures teachers that the students are taking in the information that is being presented. Not only that but with note taking, the brain is more likely to remember the information. Note taking forms great habits because you do not have to rely on just your memory to recall and remember the things being said. I think note taking organizes your thoughts and allows you to think critically and not just copy down words on a power point or from a text book. You are forced to interpret and take the key points from a lecture and make an effort to decide what you think is most important which allows students to be more independent.

    It is beneficial to students and there are many methods that work for some more than others. These methods can help students prepare for exams and most students would agree that studying is not as overwhelming if you take notes throughout the course. If you wait until the last minute to try to read a textbook than all the information is being memorized, but with note taking, the information is being retained and processed. When students take notes in a class, it is a representation to the professor that they are indulged and focused. When you write something down, it makes it easy to remember. They are an excellent reference for future work such as essays, reports, exams, etc.

    Amani Clark