I have always been a believer in the idea that much of what you need to know is accessible, the answer is staring you in the face and yet you can’t always see it. Maybe because you’re not asking the right question or looking at it from the wrong perspective.
Figuring out how learning works and the best way to study can seem complicated and yet if you watch what people do when they are trying to learn and ask the right questions there is much to see.
For example, watch a group of students in class or a lecture, (remember that pre-Covid) what do they do? Where are they looking, what are they concentrating on and most importantly what activity are they engaged in? The answer to this last question is easy, they will all be making notes. Going forward these notes will become the single most important learning resource the student has.
Why is note making important
There are two basic reasons why you make notes, firstly it improves concentration and cognition, making notes gives you something to do that requires attention, you become more focussed. Secondly you will have created a permanent record of what was said to review later. Interestingly if you asked students, they probably think capturing the information is the sole reason for notes, when in reality it’s the effort involved in making them that mattes in terms of learning.
Its worth adding that making notes works just as well from a book as it does a lecture.
How to make notes?
Blank paper notes – The simplest form of note making is to start with a blank piece of paper. Unfortunately, research tells us that most students notes are incomplete, on average they only capture one third of what was deemed to be important. In addition, they are often inaccurate, in one study, Crawford (1925) found that only 53% of noted information was fully correct, 45% was vague, and 2% inaccurate.
Conclusion – making notes in class is a good idea but if you use those same notes afterwards, not only will you be missing some important information but some of what is there may well be wrong.
Full notes – An alternative to a blank piece of paper is to give students a full set of notes. In 1987 a study by Kiewra and Benton showed that students who reviewed full notes achieved 17% higher scores than students who reviewed their own. This of course may not be surprising given the lack of information captured by students in the first place. Interestingly there is even some evidence to show that reviewing a full set of notes is better than attending the lecture!
Just to be clear, the best way of learning is to attend the lecture, make notes but then review a full set of notes not your own. Unless of course there is another way….
Partial, Scaffolded, Skeletal and Gapped notes
Partial notes may offer the best solution, helping keep the student engaged when in class but providing them with a sufficiently complete set of notes from which to study later. Partial notes contain the main ideas but leave blank spaces for students to complete, for example producing or labelling a diagram, adding in key definitions, working calculations etc. More research in 1995 from Kiewra and Benton but this time in collaboration with Kim, Risch, and Christensen showed a marked increase in completeness from 38% for those who used a blank piece of paper to 56% for those that were given partial notes. What we don’t know from this research is the level of detail that was missing, but it proves the point.
Note taking cues – One tip for teachers, the more cuing or signposting that is deployed the better. This might involve pausing and telling students they must pay attention to a particular point or simply writing out a key phrase or definition on the whiteboard. In one study, students recorded 86% of the information written on a blackboard (Locke, 1977).
Handwritten or typed?
This is a difficult one to answer, with some research to support both forms. We know that most students can type more quickly than they can write and as a result they should have more comprehensive notes to study from. But in 2014 Mueller & Oppenheimer cast doubts on the viability of laptop note taking. They concluded that “whereas taking more notes can be beneficial, laptop note takers’ tendency to transcribe lectures verbatim rather than processing information and reframing it in their own words is detrimental to learning”. In addition, laptop users did not capture diagrams that well, this was thought to be the result of the difficulty of doing this digitally. Copying and pasting certainly captures information but is a relatively mindless activity and leads to a certain amount of unnecessary information being recorded which is off little value.
It would be wrong to conclude that making notes on a computer is worse than writing them out by hand. Its more that a computer makes it easier for students to disengage or become distracted, and if that happens, the learning is less effective. To a certain extent learning has to be difficult, it’s all about the effort, the more you try the more you learn.
We can however say that partial notes are a very good compromise, offering the best of both worlds, helping students capture sufficient information to review later but requiring them to concentrate whilst sitting in class.
I’m now off to — in the —— and have a cold —-
For more links to the research, here is an excellent summary, Note-taking: A Research Roundup by Jennifer Gonzalez – The cult of Pedagogy