In October 2016, a senior at Georgetown University contacted me to inquire about my views on the role of note taking in learning. He ran across a post about that topic that I had made earlier. I am including below his questions and my responses.
1. How did you become interested in the topics of experiential learning and note taking?
Two influences caused me to reexamine whether note taking was a useful aid to learning. One influence was my experience in the classroom. When I started teaching, I used the traditional method of lecturing with the expectation that students would take substantial notes on the lecture to refer to later. I quickly noticed that maybe half of the students took no notes at all and just stared at me or stared into space. In conversations with students, I found that many of them felt that note taking distracted them from paying attention to the lecture. Because they were too busy writing, they didn’t have time to ponder and digest the material.
I also got frustrated with the way that note taking slowed down the pace of the course. I found that I would have to pause between sentences and repeat sentences to allow time for students to take notes. This interrupted the rhythm of the class and reduced the amount of learning that could take place in a class session.
The second influence was my reading in cognitive load theory and the neuroscience of learning. When I came to realize just how easily the human brain becomes overloaded, I immediately saw the relevance of this for note taking. Taking notes on a lecture requires a number of cognitive processes that must happen instantaneously and repeatedly throughout a class session, and few students have brains that are able to perform these processes quickly and consistently.
First, the student must hear everything the professor says.
Second, the student must decode the language in order to comprehend its meaning. If the professor speaks on a level above the student’s comprehension or has an accent that hinders comprehension, the student’s brain must work extra hard to decipher the meaning.
Third, the student must select which statements are truly important enough to record and which can be passed over. Few students have the experience and knowledge to make these judgments, and even for those who do, this requires attention and time that detracts from the student’s ability to attend to the next part of the lecture.
Fourth, the student must decide how to revise and paraphrase the professor’s statements in order to recognize and comprehend the meaning at a later time.
Fifth, the student must physically transcribe this paraphrase, during which time it is impossible for the student to pay attention to anything the professor is saying.
All of these steps must be accomplished quickly enough to allow the student to direct attention to the next important statement of the professor. In each class, only a small percentage of students have the brain processing speed to accomplish all these steps quickly enough to comprehend most of the material presented in the class session. Even for those who do, their brain will be fatigued from all of this effort, but then they will have to run to their next class and start the process over again.
2. Do you believe that note taking can be counter-productive in the classroom?
I probably answered this above, but let me mention a couple of studies on other subjects that may support this. Some researchers at the University of Utah published a couple of studies that showed that speaking on a cell phone significantly interferes with driving ability. Listening to radio broadcasts or audiobooks and holding a cellphone or listening to it does not interference with one’s driving, but when one engages in conversation on a cell phone, one’s driving ability suffers. These studies suggest that the human brain is not capable of multitasking.
You can find one of these studies here. The other was published in Pyschological Science, 12(6) in November 2001. It is titled “Driven to distraction,” and the authors are David Strayer and William Johnston.
I think these studies apply to note taking. Word generation taxes the brain and interferes with its ability to do anything else. I have never seen many studies of note taking in order to corroborate this suspicion. There have been some recent studies that show that handwritten notes result in more learning than typewritten notes, perhaps because when students type, they try to dictate the lecture rather than trying to decide what really needs to be recorded. You can read about this here.
3. How do you believe students learn best?
Students learn best when they are challenged with new and engaging information that attracts their interest without overwhelming them with the difficulty, amount, or novelty of the information. One key to learning that is currently emphasized in all the literature is to make connections with prior learning. If the new information builds on or reinforces some prior learning, the brain is more likely to stabilize that information in its long-term memory.
To determine the appropriate amount of challenge to provide to the student, I have always found Lev Vygotsky’s concept of the “zone of proximal development” to be helpful. There is a helpful article about this on Wikipedia. I interpret this concept as meaning that teachers must find the right balance between difficulty and ease of material. If the material is too easy, students will not be engaged and will not expend the effort necessary for learning. But if the material is too difficult, anxiety will overwhelm the student and interfere with the brain’s ability to retain the information in its memory. This balance applies to assigned reading, lecture content, learning activities, and tests.
When I apply this to note taking, I have been persuaded that the right balance is achieved by providing fill-in-the-blank outlines for students. Over time, I have moved more and more of my class material to PowerPoint. I am able to turn those PowerPoint lessons into handouts with blanks in certain places that students must fill in from the PowerPoint slides. I have found that, in contrast to note taking, almost everyone in class will fill in the blanks. It is just enough to keep them engaged, it requires them to use some motor skills that can reinforce learning, and it allows them to focus on the professor’s presentation without too many additional distractions.
I have found that this procedure allows the class to proceed more smoothly and at a quicker pace, which then allows time for small-group discussions over the material to take place during class. It also ensures that the students will have the material that the professor thinks is important. The students no longer have to read the professor’s mind to figure out what the professor really wants students to know. And students take away from the class a complete and permanent set of notes that distill the learning and knowledge of the professor.
4. Is there anything else on the topic you think may be interesting to share?
The only thing I would add is the relevance of cognitive load theory for this issue. Here are a couple of good articles about this topic:
De Jong, T. (2010). Cognitive load theory, educational research, and instructional design: some food for thought. Instructional Science, 38(2), 105-134. doi:10.1007/s11251-009-9110-0
Sweller, J. (2015). In Academe, What Is Learned, and How Is It Learned? Current Directions in Psychological Science, 24(3), 190-194. doi:10.1177/0963721415569570