Note-taking’s Role in the Learning Process

This is a guest post from Hanna Lindstrom who contributes to the Website Educational Psychology. She saw that I sometimes write on education and offered a post that is timely not only for students in the university but for all of us who remain as students as we attend conferences and advanced education. It’s the first guest post I’ve used in years. So welcome Hanna.

Getting a doctorate in Educational Psychology means focusing on the social, ethical, and cognitive development of students, from early childhood to adulthood. It is the study of learning, and it deals with when, where, why, and how kids learn most effectively. “In the classroom, understanding and harnessing the nuanced interplay of disparate concepts like motivation and intelligence can contribute to a student’s long term scholastic (and life) success.” Educational psychologists look at individual differences in learning, studying both gifted and learning-disabled children. They are interested in ideas like the multiple intelligence theory, appropriate learning goals, and the motivation of students to learn. They use this research to build better curricula to improve the quality of education.

Note-taking is of interest to educational psychologists because it helps students learn and write. But even though methods for understanding and for writing are widely taught and practiced by students throughout their schooling, note-taking is a skill that is rarely taught, even at the most basic level. This is true despite the fact that note-taking is expected of students in all of their course-work. In postsecondary school education, where material is not often repeated, note-taking becomes even more integral to success. The practice is particularly important and useful for storing, digesting, and analyzing lecture content.

There is a minimalist view of the skill, which ignores the knowledge and skills that are necessary to produce valuable notes. From this perspective, the practice is seen as little more than transcription, necessitating a working knowledge of condensing techniques, like shortened words and symbols. This view sees notes as a written form of the material it aims to reproduce, which means that the material only becomes useful when referred back to at a future date.

Note-taking can be much more beneficial to student learning. When performed by a skilled student, taking notes not only aims to record information, it is designed to aid reflection and understanding. Building a stable, long-term memory of a topic often involves direct engagement with the material. In higher education institutions, the information transmitted by lectures and readings is only the beginning. It then becomes the student’s task to dissect that information after class. Note-taking can become an effective information-processing tool, which contributes to making judgments, resolving issues, and making decisions about the content. Taking notes can aid thought processes, such as the resolution of mathematical problems.

Though students take notes to record information they will need later, for an exam or to write a paper, the process of taking the notes is not passive. The act of taking notes is part of the memorization process, and it creates a form of “internal” storage. In addition, taking notes relieves working memory, freeing up the mind for comparison, application, and analysis.

There are at least three primary skills that a note-taking course would teach: comprehension through note-taking, producing notes, and how to manage and make decisions regarding the activity, as a whole. The first item can be rephrased as the art of summarization. Teaching students to produce notes by shortening words and changing syntax helps, but it is rarely done. A suggestion for the third item is a “metacognitive questionnaire on note-taking,” which invites students to examine their note-taking activity.

But perhaps the most important and fundamental benefit of note-taking is that it allows students to express themselves, which leads to greater satisfaction with their education. More work needs to be done, both inside and outside the classroom, to emphasize this important practice.

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