February 20th, 2015

Why Students Should Be Taking Notes


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Students nowadays can be pretty demanding about wanting the teacher’s PowerPoints, lecture notes, and other written forms of the content presented in class. And a lot of teachers are supplying those, in part trying to be responsive to students but also because many students now lack note-taking skills. If they can’t take good notes, why not help them succeed by supplying them with notes?

The problem is that “the ability to take in information and make it one’s own by processing it, restructuring it, and then presenting it in a form so that it can be understood by others (or by oneself at a later point)” is one of those “basic skills” that is useful throughout life. (p. 95) If students don’t have that skill or have a feeble version of it and they never take notes, when does the skill get developed? “With PowerPoint summaries, students have the product—good notes—but skip the process—the actual taking and reconstructing of notes.” (p. 95)

There is also accumulating evidence (the article below references seven studies) that giving students teacher-prepared notes or PowerPoint slides does not improve their performance. Students need to take notes in ways that are meaningful to them. It also helps when notes are restructured. The material presented in class is usually ordered in a linear fashion. “It makes sense to return to one’s notes and organize them in a way that reflects the connections between ideas rather than simply the chronology of presentation.” (p. 95)

But how do we sell students on the value of taking notes for themselves? They might be persuaded if we had evidence that doing so may improve exam scores. And that’s exactly what this study showed.

The research design is clever—a good example of the kind of classroom research that teachers can conduct. Students (mostly juniors and seniors) in this large social psychology course attended a two-hour-per-week “chalk and talk” lecture. Using a random selection process, 20 percent of the class was required to submit (two days later) a note restructuring assignment that was graded. They also took a 55-question multiple-choice midterm. “The hypothesis was that students would score higher on weeks in which they were randomly assigned to complete a note re-structuring assignment (as opposed to weeks in which they were not).” (p. 97)

That hypotheses was confirmed and at an impressive level. “Students averaged 72 percent correct (SD = 25) on questions from the week they completed a note-restructuring assignment, whereas they averaged 61 percent correct (SD = 14) for other weeks.” (p. 97) That’s 11 raw percentage points, or the equivalent of a full grade.

Part of what explains these results is the creative design of the note restructuring assignment. It had three parts. First students had to submit typed copies of their notes that were restructured and reorganized. They were graded on the accuracy, comprehensiveness, clarity, and coherence of their notes. Second was the “foot” part of the assignment in which students had to summarize the main point of the lecture in 30 words or less. The “foot” here referred to a famous rabbi who was asked to summarize all of Judaism while standing on one foot. “Similarly, students were asked to summarize the main point of the lecture simply and briefly, ‘as if’ explaining it on one foot.” (p. 97) And finally, there was the “socks” part of the assignment. Here students were asked to select one important detail from the material presented in class and describe it in 150 words. Then they had to relate that detail to the most important point of the lecture. The “socks” moniker referred to UCLA basketball coach John Wooden, who during the first team meeting had players practice putting on their socks. He didn’t want any player getting slowed down by a blister, and he wanted to make the point that small details matter.

Students should find out in college (as they will in life) that they don’t always get what they want. They need to take their own notes and not think they are excused from doing so because they’ve got the teacher’s notes. Research results such as these don’t preclude teachers from supplying students with written materials, maybe an outline of the day’s topic or a diagram, but we do so needing to remember “that it is the process, the engagement with the material—the cognitive exercise involved in recollecting, summarizing, reorganizing and restructuring [the notes] that actually matters the most.” (p. 98)

Reference: Cohen, D.; Kim, E.; Tan, J.; and Winkelmes, M. (2013). A note-restructuring intervention increases students’ exam scores. College Teaching, 61 (Summer), 95-99.

Reprinted from The Teaching Professor, 27.10 (2013): 7. © Magna Publications. All rights reserved.

Add Comment

  • cherub_myrrh

    Currently, I do not give students my PowerPoint file (or even an outline) to my lectures. They have to write their own notes based on my lecture where I use a dry erase marker and a whiteboard to present essential information that they need to know about the assigned topics that week. After class, I provide students a recorded video lecture of the topic that was covered in class. So far, I've had two quizzes, and students are doing well in my class. Midterms won't be until March. I'm interested to see how they do.

    This is an interesting approach to note-taking. I like how the instructors/researchers are requiring the class to do a note restructuring assignment. I would do the same thing to determine the note-taking skills of students and their engagement with the content they've heard from me during the class lectures. Too bad our current exam-to-assignment point value policy within the department will not allow me to do this.

  • cji3zf

    This approach works great because the students are not only reviewing their notes again, but also because they are deeply processing the ideas (which is much better than having them merely read over the notes, which can then lead to familiarity effect). Looking at their notes after a certain time re-exposes them to the material, so that they can practice it, while restructuring the notes allows students to look beyond the superficial surface information and to think about the more abstract concepts.
    This is a great way to approach note-taking, but how would we get students to do this on their own? Students already know that taking their own notes, and studying a certain way will help them learn better, but they still don’t do it. It is important to motivate students to want to do well and learn by using examples to make the material relevant.
    Teaching students how to take good notes seems like a problem that needs to be addressed over the course of multiple years.

  • furikakekid

    Did the study in question control for time on task? Could it be that the 20% of students who did the note-taking task got a better grade simply because they spent more time processing the information? What additional task were the other 80% of students doing to balance out the time the 20% spent on the note-taking task?

  • acy3ca

    As a university student, I completely agree with many of the points brought up in this blog post, as I regularly see students not taking notes, or skipping class altogether, for lectures in which a set of notes/PowerPoint slides are preemptively given. However, instructors in classes that do not provide notes are often asked for them, and if not given, students often claim the instructor is being unfair. Therefore, I think it is important to consider how students may react to the actions that may be done following empirical findings similar to those mentioned in the blog post. I think students may see the notions brought up in this post as problematic, claiming that instructor provided notes are critical and helpful, whether it be by following along with material the instructor may be going over very quickly and thus the student may have missed, providing a reference a student knows is correct and not subject to any writing error/logic error on the student’s part, or serving as a source for when class must be skipped due to illness or some other issue (which is inevitable at some point). However, and in support of the view described in the blog post (assisting in the "selling" of the empirical findings), I think it is important to consider some of the fallacies students, like all other people, have in terms of judging how much they know/have learned. More specifically, research has shown that individuals are often overconfident in their abilities. Consequently, it shouldn’t come as a surprise if students assume they know the material in teacher provided notes more than they actually do, thus 1) not recognizing how it is detrimentally impacting their knowledge/performance and 2) going against notions that support the limiting or the extinction of teacher provided notes. Without restructuring the information for themselves, overconfidence in abilities will probably lead students to believe they understand the material completely, when in reality they have just encountered the information rather passively and are therefore familiar with it at a surface level, though they have not actually interacted with the material and truly learned it.

  • Daniel

    I give my students learning objectives at the beginning of each set of PowerPoint lessons I give. They are expected to take notes over the PowerPoint, which is graded at the end of the semester, but each evening their homework is to use the notes to answer the objectives in short essays. It seems to be an effective way to show comprehension of material as well as helping with retention.

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  • Edwina

    The material I teach (anatomy) is highly pictorial, and most of my students are (like me) not great artists. So before each class I post a scaled down version of my Powerpoint, including just the pictures, which they can annotate as part of their notes, Interestingly, the most common complaint I get on course evaluations is that my PPs "do not have enough words." Although there is no way for me to verify this, I suspect that the students who make this complaint are the ones who miss class a lot and depend upon the PPs to make up what they missed.

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  • niransab

    Restructuring, rethinking, summarizing reformulate the notes I think were key to increase the students understanding. Was not important was listening to a live lecture. What study should've tested, with students listening to a live lecture versus students having to reformulate notes that were given to them. In that way, students would be undergoing the deep thought and processing of notes that are necessary for learning, without the confusing addition of a live lecture. I suspect it's the deep processing of the material, rather than the note taking that is key to learning. In my own long ago days of student, I did a great deal of note taking class and very little post processing. My lecture experience was mostly an exercise in transcription rather than understanding and learning.

  • Video Transcription

    its right to give on present lecture become be much effectual then to be learn with the help of visual.And for students i personal recommend that they use to prefer the way that they really understand the words.

  • April

    I think it all comes down to common sense. If teachers give you the resources to learn (powerpoint, lecture notes, etc) it is the student's job to take that information and study it. One cannot expect good results without putting in much effort. And as someone else mentioned, the study needs to take into consideration time allotted.

    But I have to disagree with others that if you don't take your own notes, you're lazy. While own notes are ideal, sometimes they cannot be taken be it because you are a slow writer or simply cannot make it to the class. I get a lot of my college class notes from AcademicWilds.com for free, and use them to add to my own notes and get a better study material.

  • Aisha Khaled

    providing PP to student or students should be taking notes, this issue will not help unless the student is interested with the course and it also depends on the students perception. Some students will come to class just to show up for attendance purposes without showing any interest in the subject given in the classroom

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  • Antonina Obalo

    note taking is essential since it allows one to focus on the points relevant to ones purpose

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  • Susan Farmer

    I give them the PPT files, and get “whinef at” on course evaluations for not having enough words.

    If you do NOT give them the PPT files, how do you keep them from insisting on writing down Every Single Word on the slides. In my experience it takes twice as long because they have to copy. And God forbid you don’t give them the time to do that — they head straight for the Dean’s office!