It’s a pretty simple question, but a big one. Here, we help to answer it with reference to history, current research… and groceries.
A quick hypothetical…
Picture this: you’re driving home from the grocery store. You’d been thinking about the trip throughout the day; the things you’d need for the coming week, what you have at home already, and what you could run out of in the near future. So you went down every aisle, scanning across each row, making sure you’d not missed anything.
But it’s only now, when you’re almost home, that you realise you’d forgotten about 3 or 4 items. You sigh and shake your head, knowing you’ll have to go back tomorrow.
Memory is unreliable. It shifts, changes and sometimes disappears. What you need next time is a record of all the things you’ll buy. In other words, you need to make a note of it.
This is one example of why note taking is important in our daily lives. But for many of us, the creation of a record (like a grocery list) is where note-taking begins and ends. We want to show you that notes are so much more than that.
Notes are hardwired into our DNA – they’ve been with us for as long as we’ve been able to write.
An early example of note-taking comes from the Sumerian dynasty in Mesopotamia c. 3,500 – 3,000 BCE. The language they developed, Cuneiform, is probably the first example of written language in human history. And in its least-developed form, it was mainly used to make simple notes.
So what is it about note-taking that makes it important beyond simple memory aids? Why else do we take them? Is there something more to note-taking?
The encoding function
Alongside note-taking’s production of an external store of information for review, the actual act itself is beneficial for learning. The taking of notes can aid recall, even if the notes made aren’t reviewed afterwards, and this is defined as its ‘encoding’ function.
This has also been described by researchers as ‘The Generation Effect’. In comparing individuals that took their own notes versus those that received notes, it was found that generating one’s own notes was better for retaining information. And it models how we learn.
We compare this to the digestive system.
Ingestion vs. digestion
In a way, we process information like food. Just like when we eat, when we take in new information we do more than simply ingest it. We need to allow the good stuff to be absorbed through an internal process. Our digestive system works because it makes use of what will nourish us but also filters out what won’t. And synthesizing information through note-taking does pretty much the same thing.
As we’re taking notes, we spot connections between what we know and what we’re hearing. In the act of noting this, we help to digest the information for later use.
Good notes aid learning
So when it comes to studying, note taking is hugely important for learning the information in front of you, and it goes beyond simply having the information to review later.
The various functions of note-taking have been subject to numerous studies over the past few decades. One such influential work from 1989 investigates the ‘encoding-storage paradigm’, asking how useful both functions of note-taking are for learning lecture material.
What emerges is an analysis that places importance on both encoding and storage, but with the caveat that retention really depends on the quality of notes produced.
They help us reflect
So other than encoding and storage, why else might taking notes be important? They’re made and used in all manner of contexts, and not every note has the same purpose.
Consider the personal diary or journal. It involves a type of note-taking that doesn’t fit neatly into either the encoding or storage functions, unless we wish to remember something from the day or to review our entries later. Rather, the diary is a tool of reflection – it can help us make emotional or rational sense of things that have happened, and provide an area where we can articulate our feelings and thoughts privately.
Perhaps after making an entry into our diary we come to a decision about a choice we’re facing. The act of noting our problem becomes a way of better understanding it and deciding what we’re going to do next. This is another function of note-taking that can fit alongside encoding and storage. For learning, this act of reflection – working out our relationship with the information we’re presented with – can be just as important as the information itself.
Problems with note-taking
But there’s a common problem with note-taking. And it’s related to the simple fact that most of us aren’t very good at it. A lack of note-taking instruction at K-12 might be to blame, but equally our understanding of what’s happening when we take notes is usually deficient. It leads to us persisting with bad habits and practices that don’t work. We’ll cover this in a separate post, but it’s worth mentioning that the functions of effective notes depend on skill. If a note-taker isn’t approaching their task efficiently or with the right idea about outcomes, their efforts will most likely have a less positive impact on retention.
A part of this problem is what we like to call the ‘note-taker’s dilemma’. It occurs when we’re taking notes during a presentation, lecture or any other spoken format. It’s the fundamental clash of objectives we feel when we take notes – the desire to capture as much material as possible versus the need to absorb this information through active listening. Many of us struggle with this dilemma and end up producing notes that fail to maximize learning, or even deliver on either of the objectives.
Help your students with note-taking
So now that we’ve explored why note-taking is important for learning, how can we improve it? We’ve put together a handy printable poster to help your students take notes effectively for exams. It shows how best to get the most from notes in that crucial review stage, and will hopefully provide an extra boost when those all-important finals are coming up.
You can download it by clicking the link below.