#remotework: Top 5 insights from note taking research

As we settle into an indefinite period of social distancing and remote working, the time we’re afforded gives us a real opportunity to brush up on our knowledge.

With this post, we want to help you gain some insights into note taking that you can put into practice.

Though your campus may be closed for the time being, many students will still be remotely attending classes, so these principles can still be applied while we await the resumption of normal contact at college.

We’ve also put together a brief reading list of key research, and some links to similar pieces on our blog for those of you who want to dive a little deeper into the subject.

5 Easy Takeaways

One of the things that really fascinates us about taking notes is the rich, complex relationship it has with how we learn. It’s been the subject of many foundational studies, which we want to distill for you into a list of takeaways that you can use personally, or bring to student support.

#1: Note taking creates neural pathways

When we encounter new information and translate it into a note, what we’re doing is attempting to encode that information for later use. The very effort of doing so helps to create new neural pathways, establishing a relationship between this information and what we already know and remember. Essentially, we’re creating another block on a grid system.

What can I do about it?

The main point here is that note taking as an activity aids memory. The effort that it requires and puts into action helps forge new connections in the brain. For you and your students, that means encouraging an active approach to recording information.

Being passive will not help you encode the information you want to store.

#2: A note is never a finished object

A big mistake is to think of a set of notes as being complete. By doing this, you’re restricting note taking to just capturing information, and that’s only part of the function of notes.

Studies have shown the importance of returning to notes, taking more, condensing the information or converting it into another format. Basically, by manipulating your notes, you’re helping to store the information within your long term memory.

Handing students a ‘complete’ set of notes not only deprives them of the ability to encode the information themselves, but also suggests that there’s no need to add to them.

What can I do about it?

If you’re introducing a student to note taking accommodations, be sure to emphasize that taking notes is a process. It’s not just about taking as much lecture material away from class as possible. To truly prepare for that big exam, you need to follow a routine with your notes.

#3: Note taking is an acquired skill

None of this information is remotely useful if you don’t know how to take notes in the first place. 

We talk a lot about the ‘note taker’s dilemma’. It’s a basic problem anyone sitting down in a lecture faces. The question is, ‘do I try and record everything I can? Or do I focus on listening and absorbing the information?’

The truth is, people really struggle to find the right balance between these polarized objectives. And you can’t blame them. For all students, regardless of disability, this dilemma is made manifest by a general lack of study skills instruction. We simply leave students to their own devices, hoping they’ll pick up note taking naturally.

Note taking is a cognitively demanding task. It requires a complex interplay between simultaneous processes in the brain.

And for students with note taking accommodations, we sometimes fail to give them the tools to do this independently.

What can I do about it?

Speak to your institution’s academic success department (or equivalent, if your institution has one). Find out what study skills resources are there for students and do your best to publicize these and create awareness. If there are no departments like this at your college, just start to speak to students about what specifically they find challenging about note taking.

#4: Multiple modalities help retention

One idea familiar to UDL practitioners and those working with neurodiverse students is that the more modalities of learning we have, the more equity we provide students. If we apply the same principle to note taking, we find that it largely still holds.

If students have access to visual information, audio, as well as text notes, their chances of recalling that information is generally better. It’s why professors will often make use of visual analogies or symbols to illuminate complex concepts.

What can I do about it?

When thinking about note taking support, think as well about how your students could apply their own preferred form of noting information through the tools and services you offer them.

Some students might like to represent important points visually. Others will benefit from listening to the same information. Make sure you’re giving your note takers a choice between styles.

#5: Decide on a pattern, and prep it before you need it

This point’s a straightforward but important one. You may already be familiar with certain  note taking templates like Cornell or the Outline method. They’re popular because they require note takers to create a rigid structure for their notes, and encourages them to fill in the gaps of their structure with useful content.

Evidence suggests having this kind of approach to note taking really helps with getting the right information from a lecture.

What can I do about it?

Encouraging students to view notes as being structured pieces of information, and emphasizing the importance of setting this structure before actually taking notes, will help create better organization of material. For example, students might want to request slides be sent over before a lecture, so they can structure learning questions around them. From here, their note taking in class can take on an added focus, because they’re just looking to get the information that answers their learning questions.

This is one way to put the principle into practice, but even telling students how helpful prior preparation is should make a difference by itself.

Learn more:

If you’d like to learn more about note-taking, its relation to learning and best practice advice, we’ve put together a short reading list of key research into the subject.

  • ‘The role of working memory abilities in lecture note-taking’ by Dung C Bui et al, in Learning and Individual Differences, 33 (2014) 12-22
  • A Review of Note-taking: The Encoding-Storage Paradigm and Beyond’ by Kenneth Kiewra, in Educational Psychology Review, Vol.1, No.2 (1989)
  • ‘An integrative review of the cognitive costs and benefits of note-taking’ by RS Jansen et al, Educational Research Review (2017)
  • ‘Cognitive effort during note taking’ by A. Piolat et al, in Applied Cognitive Psychology (2005)
  • ‘Notes on note-taking: Review of research and insights for students and instructors’ by MC Friedman, Harvard Initiative for Learning and Teaching (2014)

… And from our blog:

Why is note taking important?

How to take good notes

Why is working memory important in note-taking?

How we develop AT for students with Cognitive Impairments

Any thoughts on what you just read?