Effective note taking practices

I have been conducting study skills seminars for students recently and was discussing with students the need to take notes in class, when they are conducting research on a topic, preparing an assignment and studying for an exam.  Even with the advent and increasing use of technology, learning to make effective notes in an efficient manner is still regarded as a critical skill that all students need to develop and refine through regular use.  Note taking is an essential, basic skill that will be used throughout academic, professional and personal life.

There has been a lot of discussion among educators and academic researchers about the benefitsvisual-elements of taking notes and whether this should be done by pen or keyboard.  Pam Mueller at Princeton University and Daniel Oppenheimer at the University of California, Los Angeles, researched different methods of making notes. They reported that students who used laptops tended to transcribe notes verbatim; whereas students recording notes in longhand tended to process and reframe information in their own words before writing their notes.

The patterns observed appear to be partially related to the speed of typing and writing. Students who have the ability to type quickly are able to record more detail in their notes, in contrast to students who must summarise and synthesise information before they write because they are not able to write as quickly as the typists. Mueller and Oppenheimer’s research findings reversed the old adage, indicating ‘more is less’. The quantity of notes taken by students using keyboards showed shallower processing than writers who were utilising higher order cognitive processes in summarising and rewording information recorded in their notes.  When later tested on conceptual questions, those who had written notes by hand performed better than those who used a keyboard.

TypingDespite these findings, the issue here seems to be not the method used to take notes, but rather the structure of the notes themselves that facilitates or impedes learning, especially at higher levels of learning. It is essential that students learn how to take effective notes; how to structure and organise material; how to select and record so they can retrieve, use and learn relevant information; how to summarise, synthesise and support understanding of abstract, higher-order concepts.  It isn’t, as these researchers suggest, that ‘the pen is mightier than the keyboard’ but there could be benefit in adopting a ‘less is more’ approach to note taking.

The critical factor in effective note taking is not the implement or device used but rather how a pen, an electronic stylus, a keyboard, an i-pad/pod or other form of technology is used. Let’s not fall into the trap of suggesting that there is a problem with using technology, per se. There are students who, because of fine-motor coordination and/or learning disabilities, benefit enormously by using laptops and a range of assistive technology to make notes and aid their learning. There are students who use technology daily as a regular part of their education and those who have grown up with and prefer to use laptops, tablet devices and other forms of technology. Learning how to take effective notes is much more important than the selection of pen or keyboard.

© Michele Juratowitch