Posted by: Gregory Linton | 05/05/2010

Does note taking impede learning?

Does taking notes on lectures enhance or impede learning? For most educators, this seems like a no-brainer. The conventional wisdom has long been that taking notes keeps one’s mind engaged and focused on the material. The physical act of writing helps to fix the information in the long-term memory. Through the years, however, I have heard many students say that note taking actually distracts them from what is being said and prevents them from paying full attention to the lecture. Remarkably, recent research may actually back up this claim. It has called into question the conventional wisdom that note taking is essential for learning. Let’s compare the arguments on both sides.

Perhaps every book on college success promotes the virtues of note taking. As just one example, Beck and Clason (2006) devote an entire chapter (17 pp.) to the benefits and procedures of note taking. They begin by admitting that note taking is a distraction, but they conclude that “until someone discovers a better solution, the traditional practice of taking notes is still the most effective way to defeat the inevitable forgetting that occurs following a class session” (Beck & Clason, 2006, p. 95).  In support of this conclusion, they offer the standard observation that after two days most people can remember only 25 percent of what a speaker said. They cite no other research in support of note taking.

Standard books on college teaching also encourage professors to promote note taking, and they cite some research to back this up. For example, McKeachie (2002) suggests two values of note taking: (1) notes provide an external memory that can be reviewed later; and (2) “note taking involves elaboration and transformation of ideas, which aids memory” (pp. 4-5). The two articles that he cites in support of this statement were written in 1978. He does recognize, however, that note taking can take up working memory capacity and interfere with comprehension. To work around this, he suggests that students take fewer notes or that instructors provide a skeletal outline or framework that students can fill out during the lecture.

Likewise, Davis (1993) provides a paragraph in which she encourages professors to present material in a way that encourages students to take detailed notes.  Similarly, Nilson (1998) confidently asserts that research shows that students who take notes remember more than those who just listen. However, of the four sources that she cites, two of them are different editions of McKeachie’s Teaching Tips. She goes on to offer twenty-nine note-taking tips for students.

Clark, Nguyen, and Sweller (2006) argue that this is all bad advice. In fact, research suggests that note taking does distract the attention of the student so that less of the lecture is understood and retained. For example, Rickards, Fajen, Sullivan, and Gillespie (1997) found that taking notes becomes a distraction leading to cognitive overload unless the instructor provides a “signaled lecture,” one that contains emphatic words and phrases to help students notice key points.  They conclude that “recent research empirically demonstrates the extreme mental resource demands of note-taking during lectures,” requiring an effort more demanding than playing chess, reading a book, or memorizing a list of nonsense syllables (p. 91).

Note taking on lectures reduces learning because it results in split attention: “The cognitive effort required to take notes reduces mental capacity that could be devoted to processing the content in ways that lead to learning” (Clark, Nguyen, & Sweller, 2006, p. 93). Their advice is to minimize the need for note taking by providing content summaries. If it is necessary for students to take notes during lectures, the instructor should be sure to signal lectures so that the students note what is really important to record. I would add that students could read a written lecture before class, and then class time could be devoted to interacting with and discussing the material.

Clark, Nguyen, and Sweller do not discuss McKeachie’s idea of providing an outline that students could fill in. Many instructors provide fill-in-the-blank outlines that require less writing but still keep the learner engaged with some physical activity. In light of current research on cognitive load, however, educators should not expect students to take comprehensive notes on a blank sheet of paper. That approach, as traditional as it may be, may actually hinder understanding and retention of the material.

Sources:

Beck, J.A., & Clason, M.A. (2006). Light on the path: A Christian perspective on college success. Boston, MA: Thomson Wadsworth.

Clark, R.C., Nguyen, F., & Sweller, J. (2006). Efficiency in learning: Evidence-based guidelines to manage cognitive load. San Francisco: Pfeiffer.

Davis, B.G. (1993). Tools for teaching. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass.

Nilson, L.B. (1998). Teaching at its best: A research-based resource for college instructors. Bolton, MA: Anker.

Rickards, J.P., Fajen, B.R., Sullivan, J.F., & Gillespie, G. (1997). Signaling, note taking, and field independence-dependence in text comprehension and recall. Journal of Educational Psychology, 89(3), 408-417.

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Responses

  1. Good post. A lot of students won’t believe this though…

    • A lot of instructors won’t believe it, either. It’s a simple idea, though. If you listen to something and then try to write it down, how could you possibly hear the next thing that is said? The instructor could repeat what he or she has said or pause after each sentence, but that would be tedious and boring.

  2. […] Here is a nice summary of the research on this point. […]

  3. […] dangerous ideas going around right now is that note-taking is unnecessary in conference sessions. Note-taking is a distraction, proponents say, and less of what the speaker is saying is retained by those who are taking […]


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