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Research has shown that 99% of college students take notes during lectures, but university instructors rarely address note-taking as a skill.  Instructors often assume students have learned to take notes during high school and their competence will improve with time.  Given that university students typically capture only 30-40% of important lecture points in their notes, the topic deserves attention in the college classroom.

 

Why should students take notes?

With over a million terabytes of information at the click of a search button, students no longer have to rely on lecture notes as a primary source of factual information.  However, note-taking improves academic performance and learning in a variety of ways:

  • Students are significantly more likely to recall information in their notes than points not in their notes.
  • Taking notes can also assist in general recall of non-recorded points.
  • Reviewing notes effectively substantially improves recall.
  • Higher exam scores are correlated with the level of detail of student notes.
  • Personal notes allow students to synthesize information and relate incoming information to prior knowledge, promoting better performance on critical thinking tasks.

 

What are the challenges of note-taking?

  • Note-taking requires students to listen and process content nearly simultaneously. Students often record information verbatim, failing to reach higher levels of processing that reflect synthetic thinking.
  • Note-taking puts students under severe time-pressure: average rates of speech are 2-3 words per second, but average handwriting is only 0.2-0.3 words per second.
  • For students with lower information-processing abilities, taking-notes while listening to a lecture may hinder comprehension. However, if these students are able to review instructor notes after class, they have been shown to perform comparably with their peers.
  • Students report confusion about the variability of instructors’ policies regarding the availability of instructor-provided notes or slides.

 

What strategies can the instructor employ?

  • Discuss with students the purpose of note-taking in your specific course and explain your rationale for providing or withholding notes. Do notes primarily serve as the basis for reviewing information? Or is note-taking an exercise of synthesis and transformation of knowledge?
  • Give students a partial framework with blanks, such as a matrix or an outline. These frameworks can guide students to separate major points from details and can help them make connections between ideas.
  • Provide students with a complete set of instructor notes. Students who review instructor notes have been shown to score significantly better on factual questions than those who study from personal notes.
  • Distribute visual aids (e.g. powerpoint slides, graphs, etc.) to free up class time for active learning. Research has shown that the least successful students benefit the most from visual aids.
  • Teach students alternative styles for note-taking. Non-linear note-taking has been shown to increase comprehension by 20%.  Taking non-linear notes forces students to encode their ideas more effectively, and the need to visually connect points prompts synthetic thinking.
  • Insert brief pauses during lectures for students to catch up and clarify points discussed by the instructor. This strategy has been shown to increase recall, especially for students with learning disabilities.
  • Flip the classroom to help students process information at their own pace

 

Sources and further reading:

For resources to share with students, see Dartmouth Academic Skills Center, “Classes:  Notetaking, Listening, Participation.”

Academic Skills Center, Cal Poly Student Academic Services, “Note Taking Systems.”

Tamas Makany, Jonathan Kemp, and Itiel E. Dror, “Optimising the use of note-taking as an external cognitive aid for increasing learning,” in British Journal of Educational Technology, 40 (4), 2009, pp. 619-635.

Jacques van der Meer, “Students’ note-taking challenges in the twenty-first century: considerations for teachers and academic staff developers,” in Teaching in Higher Education, 17 (1), 2012, pp. 13-23.

Robert Williams and Alan Eggert, “Notetaking in College Classes: Student Patterns and Instructional Strategies,” in The Journal of General Education, 51 (3), 2002, pp. 173-199.

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