An illogical great idea – Tips for making study notes

Illogical my dear WatsonLogic is a process driven by reasoning. Here is a logical argument: Everything I need to know is in this book, if I read this book I will know everything.

And yet this is what most students do. Read the book, then begin the laborious and time consuming process of re writing some of it, which bits are chosen can at times be a little random.

On the face of it this, dare I say is illogical. If the book contains everything you need to know then why re write it, and why only parts?

The answer – because as every student knows, if they are to stand any chance of learning what’s in the book rewriting is essential. This is one of the arguments for taking notes. But notes are not just made from a book they are also used to capture what is said by the lecturer or teacher.

But first……

Here is a simple example borrowed from a colleague (thanks Gareth). Below are four opposites, can you find the missing letters?

  • Pa-s & Fail
  • Amate-r & -rofessional
  • -ccid-ntal & Intenti-na-
  • Co-p-ls-r- & V-lun-a- –

I will come back to this at the end.

Student own notes?

Making notesThere are two reasons for making notes, one because it helps with learning (Encoding) and secondly so that you have a copy for reference later (External storage). I will focus on the encoding in this blog.

Encoding – Three factors have an impact on the effectiveness of students making their own notes.

  • The amount of effort If you take notes but make very little effort to understand what is being said, simply recording the lecturer’s words, the value of taking your own notes is limited.  It is far better to identify and highlight the key points being made and add your views and inferences.
  • The nature of the input – If the lecturer is speaking quickly or giving little time to consolidate what is being said then the quality of the notes will be affected. The most effective rate for speaking is thought to be around 84 words per minute. A second factor is the density of facts to words, if the density is low, 106 facts to 2,000 words then student notes are far better than if the density is higher at say 206 facts to 2,000 words.
  • The learner’s purposes and goals – Of course each student will have an objective for being in the lecture in the first place; often this is to pass the exam.  Research shows that students will take down what the lecturer  says  and therefore learn more if, the topic is believed to be examinable, is written out by the lecturer, dictated or repeated.

Pre-prepared (lecturer) notes

What the above shows is that making your own notes is probably the most effective way of learning as long as you are not simply recording what is said without thought. The more you add and personalise the notes with your own views the better. However as can be seen taking notes in class has its problems, the quality is affected by the speed and density of delivery and the learner’s goals. So maybe the best notes are those prepared by the lecturer?

Although I was not able to find any definitive research on this very point, Fisher and Harris (1973) did conclude that students “who reviewed (used for revision) their own notes outperformed those who reviewed the lecturer’s notes.”

What we can say is that pre-prepared (lecturer notes) can help overcome some of the problems with students own notes. But they should not be complete; they should not contain everything the student needs to know. If they do not only will the notes become too large but they will leave the student with few opportunities to add their own thoughts and as a result learn.

And last…….

At the start of this blog I asked you to find the missing letters. I hope the task itself was not too onerous, it was meant to show that when you have to think and make an effort you are far more likely to remember at a later date. So tomorrow when you reflect back on this blog, ask yourself which ones do you remember – it should be the ones lower down the list.


I have written before on making notes and mind maps – click the links below

Mind Mapping unplugged – How to Mind Map from beginning to end

The De Vinci code – Mind Mapping to pass exams

Also to read more about the research used to write this blog click here

The answers just in case

Pass & Fail – Amateur & Professional – Accidental & Intentional – Compulsory & Voluntary

2 thoughts on “An illogical great idea – Tips for making study notes

  1. Pingback: Twas the night before ………..the exam – but what to do? | Pedleysmiths's Blog

  2. Hi Stuart

    Great article. Let me share a wee story…
    When I was an undergrad, doing a chemistry degree, I used to write everything the tutor said without thought. One day when I was revising for an exam, I realised that instead of writing NMR (nuclear magnetic resonance), I had actually written ‘enema’. And not just once, at least half a dozen times….

    Probably why I am not a scientist.


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