What Do Today’s Students Get Right And Wrong In How They Take Lecture Notes?

GettyImages-172195992.jpgBy Christian Jarrett

Do students take notes in an optimal fashion, in line with what psychology research identifies as best practice? It’s an important question given that modern surveys suggest that most students’ preferred approach to exam preparation is to memorise their notes. To find out, a team led by Kayla Morehead at Kent State University has quizzed hundreds of university students about their note-taking methods and preferences, and they’ve reported their findings in the journal Memory.

According to Morehead’s team, the evidence, though complex and mixed, suggests overall that it is better to take notes with pen and paper rather than typing on a laptop (laptops can distract the note-taker and those sat near them, and note-book notes tend to be more varied and less verbatim). Yet nearly half the sample reported that they took lectures notes on a laptop. However, around a third were flexible in their approach – for instance, they resorted to a laptop only when the lecturer spoke quickly. Whether the students’ flexible strategies were effective has not yet been tested by research, the authors said.

Another key finding in the psychology literature is that it’s better to use your notes to organise the information you’re learning about, rather than to simply record what you hear verbatim. Nearly 60 per cent of the sample said they organised their notes, meaning a sizeable minority were following a sub-optimal strategy.

When it comes to learning from one’s notes, passively re-reading is an extremely popular strategy, even though it’s more effective to use the notes to test yourself. Over 90 per cent of the current sample said they spent time re-reading while about half tested themselves.

An increasing proportion of students are today enrolled in online courses where they can, in theory, revisit recorded lectures as many times as they like. Perhaps it is this sense of constant availability that explains why only around half of the online-course students in the sample said that they took notes. This is a concerning finding, the researchers said, since the ability to revisit online lectures does not negate the benefit of taking organised notes from them, nor using those notes for self-testing.

This is just one sample, based in the US, and the findings could be different in other cultures and settings. Nonetheless, there no obvious reason to suppose the findings would be radically different elsewhere: the mundanity and apparent simplicity of taking notes belies the importance of this activity for learning, and anecdotally, it’s rare for students to receive formal advice or tuition on how to take notes.  Among the current sample, fewer than half of participants said they’d received any formal training and nearly 60 per cent said they would like to take better notes.

“Given the importance of effective note-taking to memory for and learning of course content, continuing to examine student note-taking behaviour as technologies change will be an important avenue for future research,” Morehead and her colleagues said.

Note-taking habits of 21st Century college students: implications for student learning, memory, and achievement

Christian Jarrett (@Psych_Writer) is Editor of BPS Research Digest

6 thoughts on “What Do Today’s Students Get Right And Wrong In How They Take Lecture Notes?”

  1. This is based on self-reported data which is a poor proxy of the note taking behaviours of students. A student could consider ‘organising their notes’ as using highlighting and colours, which has been shown to be an ineffective learning strategy. A more rigorous protocol would be to have trained instructors review the actual notes written by students and compare this with the lecture that was delivered to assess their actual note taking habits. For example, while the student survey in this study found that 96% of them reported they took notes, a third party observer in my lectures found that most students in my lectures do not. The margin of error is so great that throws suspicion about the generalisability of the results reported in this study. As students are now provided with notes from Powerpoint and videorecording of lectures, they are now less and less motivated to take notes.

  2. All through my undergraduate and grad school years, I was always willing to share my notes with friends who may have missed a lecture or two.
    Most would only ask once.

    My notes would include the date, topic, and whatever key words, phrases, names, dates, figures, and side comments I thought might be useful. Most fellow students were somewhat appalled that they would write several pages of almost verbatim lines from the lectures and I would sketch out a couple of pages of cryptic entries. Whatever it took to jog my memory or remind me to look up later.

    The bottom line is find out what works for you.

  3. This is all well and good but it takes for granted that there are some students that can not write down the important parts of a lecture by hand, therefore having to rely on a laptop in order to keep up with the rest of the class. This perspective, skewed as it is, falls heavily into an ableist point of view. What’s good for the goose is not always good for the gander. And for that matter, what’s IN the notes should be far more important than HOW they’re recorded.

    In my experience in psychology classes at my university, those students taking notes by hand had lower grades, less time to focus on what was being lectured on and more often than not were drawing in the margins rather than writing down the important bits because they got behind attempting to write down their notes and gave up. Not to mention if someone was to ask for their notes they had to decipher chicken scratch and short hand that makes little sense to someone that isn’t the original writer.

    This study was taken from a very limited pool and needs to be remembered as such.

    1. I agree with Trevis’s ableist comment. I have osteoarthritis and I can no longer sustain any handwriting for more than a minute or two. The key many articles and papers have pointed out is that hand written note takers write summaries rather than writing verbatim. That technique can also be done on a computer.

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