Posted by: Gregory Linton | 01/16/2017

Does note taking interfere with learning?

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


On October 6, 2016, Pew Research Center released a major report titled “The State of American Jobs: How the shifting economic landscape is reshaping work and society and affecting the way people think about the skills and training they need to get ahead.” The report is based on a national survey conducted May 25 to June 29, 2016, among 5,006 U.S. adults in association with the Markle Foundation. The report focuses on many topics related to the reshaping of U.S. workplaces as the economy advances into the knowledge-focused age, but I want to focus on the aspects of the report that deal with the role of higher education. The survey shows that the American public is deeply conflicted about the value and role of higher education in preparing graduates for the workplace.

Historical Background of the Debate

For a long time, Americans have debated whether a college education is primarily intended to prepare graduates to function as productive citizens in general or to prepare graduates to implement a specific set of skills in a particular job. For the first 200 years, American higher education sought to inculcate in students the personal qualities and character traits necessary for making positive contributions to their communities and society. Although many students came from more humble circumstances, the student population largely drew from the elite classes. Colleges offered a liberal arts education that provided an expansive knowledge of various fields of human knowledge from the perspective of the Enlightenment. According to R. Geiger, “the curriculum of the colleges in this era was little changed from that of the Middle Ages. Its aim was to provide students with a liberal education, which meant facility with classical languages, grounding in the three basic philosophies of Aristotle—ethics, metaphysics, and natural philosophy or science—and a smattering of general worldly knowledge” (Geiger, 1999, p. 40).  J. R. Thelin says that “the colleges, with their concentration of strong male adults—ministers, alumni, government officials, and tutors—were charged with transforming little boys into little men” (2004, p. 25).

Efforts in the 1820s to reform the college curriculum in a more practical direction resulted in a defense of the classical curriculum in the Yale Report of 1828, which described the typical curriculum as “a bachelor of arts curriculum that emphasized the study of classical languages, science, and mathematics with the aim of building character and promoting distinctive habits of thought” (Thelin, 2004, p. 64). But by the mid-1800s, colleges saw the need to prepare the future workforce with the skills needed to succeed in specific fields. According to Thelin, “curricula were from time to time extended beyond the liberal arts to include medicine, law, engineering, military science, commerce, theology, and agriculture” (2004, p. 42).

As higher education became more accessible to the wider population due to the Morrill Act of 1862 and the Morrill Act of 1890, colleges began developing programs of professional studies to assure prospective students that they would obtain a high-paying job to justify the expense of their education. The Morrill Acts of 1862 allotted federal lands to each state that could be sold for the purpose of funding collegiate programs in agriculture, mechanics, mining, and military training. The democratization of higher education led to greater diversification of the curriculum and specialization of programs. It contributed to the trend of moving the purpose of higher education away from shaping the character of future leaders to preparing graduates for jobs and careers. The Morrill Act of 1890 provided a direct annual infusion of federal cash into the land-grant colleges to bolster and accelerate the utilitarian approaches to education. In the early 1900s, universities continued to add popular programs in business, forestry, home economics, and social work.

For much of this period, professions such as law and medicine did not require college degrees, but beginning with innovations by the Johns Hopkins University in 1876, professional schools began to be incorporated into universities. Over time, these trends progressed to the point that the liberal arts were reduced to a segment of the four-year college curriculum called “general education,” and the focus of the four-year degree shifted to the professional “major.” Consequently, today the foremost question in the minds of many parents of prospective college students is, “How much will my child make when he or she graduates?,” rather than, “What kind of person will my child become?” And many college students complain about having to take general education courses, which they see as irrelevant for their future work.

This utilitarian view of higher education is promoted by the numerous studies of the benefits of higher education that emphasize the financial advantages provided by a college degree. This view is also promoted by the U.S. Department of Education whose College Scorecard focuses almost entirely on the financial benefits of a college degree. Concerns about the financial benefits of a college degree are also raised by the increasing expense.

Results of the Pew Research Center Survey

The survey by Pew Research Center shows that the American public is still divided over the main purpose of college but that most adopt the utilitarian view. Half of the respondents said that college should teach job-related skills, while only 35% said that college should help individuals grow personally and intellectually. The remaining 15% said college should do both.

For those who view college primarily as job preparation, this survey offers several disturbing findings. First, college graduates feel that their education was more effective at developing them personally and intellectually (62%) than providing them with specific job-related skills and knowledge (49%). Only 16% of all Americans think that a four-year degree prepares students very well for a well-paying job in today’s economy, while 51% say that they prepare students somewhat well.

Second, 63% of adults with a bachelor’s degree or higher level of education say they will need to keep advancing their skills throughout their career. Consequently, workers with higher levels of education are more likely to engage in job training or acquire job certificates or licenses. These findings suggest that, rather than imparting to graduates specific skills that they need to fulfill a job for years to come, a college education provides a foundation on which lifelong learning can take place. As college speakers often stress at “Commencement” ceremonies, graduation is just the beginning of one’s learning that must continue throughout one’s life.

Third, many college graduates think that their credentials and qualifications do not match up well with their job. When working Americans with bachelor’s degrees were asked if they thought someone with less education could learn to do their job, 65% said “yes.” Only 50% of all workers think that they have the right amount of qualifications for their job, whereas 41% think they have more qualifications than their job requires.

A major emphasis of the Pew Research Center study is that “the fastest growth in employment is in jobs that typically require at least a four-year college degree and considerable to extensive training and experience” (p. 23). It also states that “the relationship between college education and skills suggests that the need for college-educated workers may continue to grow in the future” (p. 29). However, the findings of the study suggest that, if preparation for a job or career is the primary motivation for a college education, many graduates end up disappointed in the outcome.


Geiger, R. (1999). The ten generations of American higher education. In P. G. Altbach, R. O. Berdahl & P. J. Gumport (Eds.), American higher education in the twenty-first century: Social, political, and economic challenges (pp. 38-69). Baltimore: The Johns Hopkins University Press.

Pew Research Center. (2016, October). “The State of American Jobs: How the shifting economic landscape is reshaping work and society and affecting the way people think about the skills and training they need to get ahead.” Retrieved from

Thelin, J. R. (2004). A history of American education. Baltimore: The Johns Hopkins University Press.

Last week, the National Center for Education Statistics released its annual report that provides projections for the 11-year period from 2013 to 2024. 2013 is the latest year of actual data collected. I have listed below some of the key takeaways from these projections for postsecondary education. Note that actual statistics are based on the 14-year period from 1999-2013, but the projections are based on the 11-year period from 2013-2024.

High school graduates: During the 14-year period from 1999-2000 and 2011-12, the number of high school graduates grew by 22 percent. During the next 11 years, that rate will slow to only 3 percent. In the Midwest, the rate will actually decline 1 percent, but it will increase 13 percent in the South.

Total enrollment in degree-granting postsecondary institutions: Enrollment will increase 14 percent between fall 2013 and fall 2024. However, enrollment increased 37 percent from 1999 to 2013, so the rate of increase will slow down.

Enrollment by age of student:

1999-2013 2013-2024
18-24 years old +40% +13%
25-34 years old +41% +17%
35 years old and older +25% +10%


Enrollment by sex of student: The gender gap in higher education will continue to widen, as the following statistics reveal:

  • Enrollment of males will increase 11% between 2013 and 2024; enrollment of females will increase 16%.
  • The number of bachelor’s degrees awarded to males will increase 7% between 2013 and 2024; the number awarded to females will increase by 13%.
  • First-time freshmen fall enrollment of males will increase 9% between 2013 and 2024; enrollment of females will increase 15%.

However, males will have a slight advantage over females in graduate education:

  • The number of master’s degrees awarded to males will increase 38% between 2013 and 2024; the number awarded to females will increase by 34%.
  • The number of doctor’s degrees awarded to males will increase 20% between 2013 and 2024; the number awarded to females will increase by 18%.

Graduate degrees: The big growth area in the future will be graduate education, as the following statistics reveal:

  • Enrollment of undergraduate students will increase 12% from 2013 to 2024; enrollment of postbaccalaureate students will increase 20%.
  • The total number of bachelor’s degrees is projected to increase 10% from 2012-13 to 2014-25; master’s degrees will increase 36%; doctor’s degrees will increase 19%.

Enrollment by race/ethnicity: The greatest increases in enrollment will occur among minorities. Between 2013 and 2024, enrollment for students who are White will increase 7%. Enrollment for students who are Black will increase 28%, and enrollment for students who are Hispanic will increase 25%.

Enrollment in public and private institutions: Private institutions will experience a sharper decline in the increase of enrollment. From 1999 to 2013, enrollment in public institutions increased 30%; it will increase 13% between 2013 and 2024. From 1999 to 2013, enrollment in private institutions increased 62%, but it will increase only 14% between 2013 and 2024.

Achieve recently released a survey of parents of recent high school graduates that was conducted in August 2015. Of the 917 parents who participated in the survey, 568 were parents of children enrolled in a two- or four-year college, and 349 were parents of children not currently enrolled.

One of the key findings was that, compared to employer and educators, parents feel that their high school did a better job of preparing their child for college or the workplace. The survey found that 84% of parents are at least somewhat satisfied with the job their child’s high school did preparing them for success after high school, but only 35% of college instructors are satisfied with the job U.S. high schools are doing preparing recent graduates for work/college after high school.

This finding is similar to the ACT National Curriculum Survey 2012, which found that 89 percent of high school teachers reported that their students were “well” or “very well” prepared for college work in their content area. In contrast, only 26 percent of college instructors viewed their incoming students as well or very well prepared for first-year credit-bearing courses in their content area. These differences suggest that parents and high school educators are not totally aware of the higher expectations of college instructors.

Another interesting finding that seems to contradict the earlier one is that only 1 in 3 parents agreed that their child’s high school set high expectations so that their child was academically challenged. If only 33 percent think that their child had a rigorous education, one wonders why 84 percent feel that their high school has prepared their child for success. Perhaps this is similar to the phenomenon where voters rate their own congressman highly but rate congressmen in general very low. In the same way, parents may have a low opinion of American high schools in general, but they feel that their own high school is an exception.

Source: Achieve, “Rising to the Challenge: Are Recent High School Graduates Prepared for College and Work?”

Posted by: Gregory Linton | 10/21/2015

NCES releases data on nontraditional students

In September, the National Center for Education Statistics released demographic information on nontraditional undergraduates as part of their Web Tables series. The data were culled from students who applied for financial aid in 2011-12, so we should recognize that the data does not reflect the college student population as a whole.

As the report notes, nontraditional students are generally thought to have the following characteristics: being independent for financial aid purposes, having one or more dependents, being a single caregiver, not having a traditional high school diploma, delaying postsecondary enrollment, attending school part-time, and being employed full-time. However, the term “nontraditional” is a misnomer because 74 percent of 2011-12 undergraduates possessed at least one of these characteristics. Actually, the nontraditional student now is the student high school graduate who enters college full-time the fall semester after graduation, is dependent on his or her parents, has no dependents of his or her own, and works part-time or less.

Meris Stansbury of eCampus News has provided a helpful summary of key findings in this report. These findings show that nontraditional students differ from traditional students in significant ways. These differences should be considered by those academic leaders who are seeking to expand their offerings to a segment of the population that will keep increasing in the future. For example, online courses are more appealing to nontraditional students than to traditional students.

Source: NCES, “Demographic and Enrollment Characteristics of Nontraditional Undergraduates: 2011–12”

What key experiences in college prepare graduates for successful engagement in the workplace? The Gallup-Purdue Index, a study of 30,000 college students, has identified six key experiences (“the Big Six”) that contribute to success in the workplace. Four of the six highlight the key role that professors play in the development and future success of students. Perhaps, this evidence supports the higher quality of education at smaller colleges where that kind of faculty-student interaction is more likely to occur. Unfortunately, the study found that 25% of all college graduates did not experience any of the Big Six while they were in college. It would be interesting to see how many of them attended a large university versus a small school.

Source: Many College Graduates Not Equipped for Workplace Success

Posted by: Gregory Linton | 09/15/2015

Gender Gap

This story from Community College Week provides more distressing data about the widening gap between men and women in higher education. Their analysis shows that, in 2013-2014, 61% of associate degrees were earned by women.

Source: Gender Gap

Posted by: Gregory Linton | 08/13/2015

Students learn from failure

This Mindshift article by Holly Korbey offers interesting insights into the role that failure plays in the development of students.

What do Students Lose by Being Perfect? Valuable Failure | MindShift | KQED News.

Gallup’s survey of 140,000 adults found that college students do not answer “yes” to the question “do you learn something new or interesting every day?” any more frequently than non-graduates. Hmm, then all that time on Facebook and Instagram must be a total waste!

Busteed, “No Evidence That Bachelor’s Degrees Lead to Lifelong Learning”

Posted by: Gregory Linton | 08/13/2015

Lukianoff & Haidt, “The Coddling of the American Mind”

In a lengthy and insightful article in the The Atlantic, Greg Lukianoff and Jonathan Haidt analyze the increasing sensitivity of college students to words and ideas they don’t like. This trend is captured by the rise in popularity of the terms “microaggression” and “trigger warnings.” They show why these trends are harmful to the intellectual and personal development of students.

Mindshift reports on a study by Harvard researchers in Oakland, California, to test the theory that kids learn best when they’re actively engaged in designing and creating projects to explore concepts. The article does not mention whether the study will investigate differences between boys and girls, but I hope they include that in their study. This could confirm those who propose that boys would be more engaged in learning if they were given hands-on projects to complete.

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