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Education, Teaching and learning

What do today’s students get right and wrong in how they take lecture notes?

Do students take notes in an optimal fashion, in line with what psychology research identifies as best practice?

04 April 2019

By Christian Jarrett

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.

Further reading

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

About the author

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