How to help students take better notes

Taking notes is a fundamental part of learning, particularly in secondary schools – but do your students really know how to do it well? John Dunlosky and Stephen T Peverly argue that the majority don’t. They outline what effective note taking looks like, busting numerous teaching myths along the way
15th November 2019, 12:05am
Students Need Help With Note Taking
John Dunlosky & Stephen T Peverly


How to help students take better notes

Despite the frequent ideological squalls of teaching, which throw teachers into new technological, philosophical and pedagogical directions, one thing tends to always stay the same: students still need to take notes.

This is because a great deal of what pupils are expected to learn is presented during class time and, whichever way the knowledge is transmitted, taking notes ensures that they grasp and begin the process of remembering the important points.

Unfortunately, in our experience, a significant number of students are not very good at note taking. Often, the notes don't contain what we, as teachers, have identified as the most important content - we had emphasised that content in class but for some reason it just did not make it into students' notes. And notes are frequently not well organised or easy to read, either, which in some cases may undermine students' efforts to effectively study their notes.

So in this article, we discuss answers to some common questions about quality note taking. Our answers rely as much as possible on evidence from experimental studies; for brevity, we do not always include citations to this work (for a recent review, see Peverly and Wolf, 2019). Sometimes relevant research was not available, and in those cases our recommendation was informed by cognitive principles and our general experience as instructors.

So, let's get started.

1. Why not just give pupils a script of the lesson?

One way to ensure that students have access to all of the most important content from a particular class is simply to give them that material - for example, by providing a transcript of your lesson in a handout or by providing all the key details on PowerPoint slides to share with students.

That's probably not a good idea.

You may think that is because having a student listen to your lecture, and then summarise it in notes, is better than their being given the notes - perhaps due to pupils "using" the content, rather than just reading it. However, although learning how to develop summaries is a great skill, the act of summarising doesn't promise to help initial learning that much - pupils only really learn the content when they go back to study their notes (as long as the notes are good).

The real reason you probably don't want to hand over prepared notes is because it would take considerable time to transform your lectures into effective notes for your students, and then, after you have given them those notes, they may not be as engaged when you are trying to expand on them.

If you use PowerPoint presentations that have already isolated the key facts, you might solve the workload issue, but you still risk students believing that all they need to know is captured by the content in the handouts and, hence, they may fail to write down critical details as you're discussing them.

So, if you don't want to simply give the students all the content, but you want to make sure they are taking quality notes, how can you help out?

2. Should I signal obviously when I am going to talk about critical information?

Yes, one straightforward approach to quality note taking is to signal the most important content while you lecture (Titsworth, 2001; Titsworth and Kiewra, 2004), such as by telling students that what you will be discussing next will likely be a focus of their revision, or simply by saying, "OK, what I'm going to say next is really important".

Of course, it would be ideal if all students were capable of independently identifying which content is most important versus which is less important. However, research on text comprehension has demonstrated that students (especially younger ones) have difficulties identifying the most important content while reading texts. Doing so may even be more demanding when students are listening to a lecture in real time.

Indeed, the subtle signals may not be enough, so if you want to be extra sure that the students are on the same note-taking page that you are on, then consider telling them that "you really should get this next point in your notes".

Perhaps this is a bit heavy handed, but it increases the chances that most (although perhaps not all) students will jot down the critical information.

3. Should I provide a scaffold for note taking?

It is probably a good idea to provide a skeletal outline that captures the most important themes. Students can then fill in the details as you lecture.

Although research does not provide definitive conclusions about exactly how much scaffolding is enough, in recent research by Bellinger and DeCaro (2019), the researchers had students listen to a brief lecture on human blood. One set of students was given a skeletal outline that included only the main key points; another group was given more complete notes wherein the key ideas were deleted and the students had to fill in the missing details. Both sets of students were then tested on the content.

Although students' memories of the lecture were about the same regardless of which group they were in, those who were given the skeletal notes and had to fill in the most details did perform better on a test that involved making inferences based on the content of the lecture.

So, giving students a rough outline of the key points of a lecture may help them to organise their notes and learn more.

Unfortunately, however, this investigation did not include a group of students who took notes without any scaffold. Perhaps they would have done even better. We're hoping research can explore the power of note taking when students are left to do so on their own versus when they are given a scaffold.

When students do take notes on their own, one recommendation is that when they are trying to jot down all the most important information, they do so in a way that could later best support effective ways to study those notes. For example, one effective way to study notes would involve having students cover up the key to-be-remembered content and attempt to retrieve the content from memory (for a review of the benefits of testing, see Roediger, Putnam and Smith, 2011). That is, they should test themselves on the content.

One popular note-taking method, Cornell Notes, helps students to work in this way. It involves students structuring and revising their notes to support retrieval practice.

In general, students take notes as they normally do, but they leave a margin to the left of their notes, as well as some room at the bottom of each page. Soon after the lecture, they summarise each page of notes in the space at the bottom, but, most important, in the left-hand margin they develop key terms or questions that pertain to the important content in their notes. When students return to study their notes, they begin by using those terms and questions to test themselves.

The method has got a lot of attention among teachers, but the magic is not really in the Cornell Notes method; it is in the act of taking notes in a way that supports an effective strategy for learning. You could easily develop your own.

4. Should we review notes as a class?

We know that reviewing notes leads to better test performance. The better the notes, most likely the better the review.

So another way to help students to take good notes is to remind them to review their notes immediately after class to fill in missing or incomplete information, and to review them again before the next class to provide them with the opportunity to ask questions about information they did not understand.

Ideally, reserving some time at the end of a class to allow students to identify any gaps in their notes is best because you can immediately remedy the problem.

You can help them to identify the gaps: one way is to raise a few important points from the past lecture or two, and then ask your students to search for the content in their notes. If many of them can't find it, that's a chance to discuss the importance of taking good notes and to say that they should be listening attentively to the lecture, as well as for the signals you are providing about what content is most important. It also lets you identify and fill in gaps before misconceptions or incomplete information is memorised.

There is little good research on what the most effective note review processes should look like - it would be difficult to evidence impact - but, from what we know about learning, the above guided review process intuitively feels like it should work.

5. Should we be testing pupils on their notes?

It is useful to administer a brief quiz - perhaps just one question - at the beginning or end of each class that tests students' knowledge about a critical idea that you have previously discussed.

When you present the quiz questions, we would recommend using this approach:

  • First, have the students try to answer the questions from memory, without any help from you or their notes.
  • If students can correctly answer the question, then the great news is that doing so will increase their memory for the correct answer and improve their performance next time. Correctly answering test questions improves students' learning and retention of that content, which is a highly investigated effect referred to as test-enhanced learning (for a review focusing on classroom research, see McDaniel and Little, 2019).
  • If students do not correctly answer, then this failure serves to alert students that more study is needed to learn the correct answer.
  • Most relevant to note taking: when students answer incorrectly, have them take a moment to search their notes for the correct answer. If they cannot locate the correct answer in their notes, then it seems likely that they will not be able to learn it without more input from you. It also may be a sign that the students are not taking complete notes and you need to address it.

When using this technique a few years ago, the first author was shocked that not one student in a relatively large undergraduate course had jotted down the important information needed to answer a question. What had happened? Well, with just a little reflection and enthusiastic input from the students, he realised that he had accidentally skipped this important information in the prior lecture. So, incomplete notes can provide formative information about your lecturing as well as students' note taking.

6. Does the medium matter for note taking?

In the past 10 years, we've seen more students using laptops to take notes. In a recent survey, about 50 percent of college students from a large public university in the US reported using laptops to take notes (see Morehead et al, 2019).

But should your students do this, or should you insist that they use a pen and paper and leave their laptops turned off?

Before we consider the subtleties of answering this question, we will provide our best answer, which may be a bit disappointing for those who desire an authoritative recommendation. Namely, a sufficient amount of evidence is not available to make a definitive decision on whether laptops should be invited into the classroom or banned from it. Nevertheless, understanding current evidence can help you make an informed decision about what to do.

Consider an article by Mueller and Oppenheimer (2014), which is titled "The pen is mightier than the keyboard: advantages of longhand over laptop note taking", which has led some media outlets to make rather bold (and, as we realise now, premature) claims, such as: "Attention students: put your laptops away" (from National Public Radio: Education) and "To remember a lecture better, take notes by hand" (from The Atlantic).

When we closely scrutinise this research, it turns out not to be that relevant to making any strong claims about how best to take notes for real classes. To understand why, we offer a brief primer about how this research on note taking was conducted.

In a typical experiment on note taking, students will watch a lecture of some sort and take notes either by typing on a laptop or by longhand using a pen and paper. After the lecture, the students will perform other tasks for 15 minutes or so, and then will be tested on the content in the lecture.

In the case of Mueller and Oppenheimer, their test included questions that tapped students' memories for the content from the lectures as well as their comprehension (or understanding) of the content, and the researchers reported the following: test performance that measured comprehension was better after taking notes by longhand, compared with a laptop, whereas test performance that measured memory did not differ for the two groups.

It was this longhand-superiority effect on measures of comprehension that led the authors to conclude that "the pen is mightier than the laptop" and that drew media attention. However, we argue that this kind of research has little to no relevance to informing educational practices.

First, the longhand-superiority effect itself was small - those taking notes by longhand just did a little better than those taking notes by laptop, and unfortunately, recent attempts to replicate it have not succeeded (Morehead et al, 2019; Urry, Crittle, Floerke, Leonard, Perry et al, 2019).

Second, and more important, demonstrating an effect in cognitive research is important, and knowing when (and if) one mode of taking notes boosts students' memory or comprehension for a lecture content is interesting. Nevertheless, as instructors ourselves, we suspect that other instructors and students are interested in whether a given approach boosts learning (and test performance) to some absolute level.

For example, if experimental research demonstrates an effect whereby one group performs 10 per cent better than another group, yet both groups perform poorly and do not demonstrate a desired level of competence (eg, 80 per cent correct), then the extra boost enjoyed by the first group still isn't allowing instructors and students to meet their learning objectives.

This is exactly the case with laboratory research comparing laptop and longhand note taking - neither approach supports educationally relevant levels of performance, especially when students are not given a chance to study their notes before taking the exam.

And, even when students are given a chance to study their notes in these experiments, their study time is rather brief (5-10 minutes) and has at best a minor influence on performance, so educationally relevant levels of performance still are not obtained. For these reasons, our opinion is that the best approach to note taking will be the one that increases the chances that students' notes are complete. That is, students need to have the important content in their notes for when they are ready to study and learn it, which in most cases will take a meaningful amount of effort and time (ie, more than 5-10 minutes).

In some cases, it seems reasonable (but it needs to be scientifically investigated) that students will have a better chance of taking more complete notes if they use a laptop - such as, when an instructor speaks quickly if students cannot write quickly enough, or if they have a disability that may make writing difficult. In fact, the handful of experiments comparing laptop to longhand note taking have consistently shown that students take more notes when using a laptop (eg, Bui, Myerson and Hale, 2012; Luo, Kiewra, Flanigan and Peteranetz, 2018; Morehead et al, 2019; Mueller and Oppenheimer, 2014).

In other cases, longhand may be better, such as when a lecture involves symbols (eg, maths) or illustrations that are not readily recorded on a computer. And at least some college students already understand these issues: in the survey we mentioned above, many students who reported taking notes by laptop reported that they also took notes by longhand, and they chose a particular method based on how quickly instructors spoke or whether PowerPoint slides were available for note taking.

Beyond laboratory research, one reason why laptops may be detrimental in class is because they may cause distractions. If students using laptops are online and are spending time exploring their email or the web, they may have difficulties taking complete notes. And the "click-clacking" noise of the keyboard may be distracting to some students who are taking notes by longhand (Sana, Weston and Cepeda, 2013).

Not a great deal of research has examined these issues, and the available research provides mixed outcomes with respect to whether laptop use in the classroom is detrimental to the quality of students' notes or to classroom performance (eg, Elliott-Dorans, 2018; Patterson and Patterson, 2017).

That is, the evidence does not provide a definitive recommendation, so in the meantime, if you do allow laptops in your class, we'd recommend that you make sure no one is connected to the internet and try to ensure that any distractions caused by typing are reduced (eg, by asking students using laptops to sit at the back of the room).

A final word…

Although not a lot of research has explored how to improve students' note taking, the available evidence does provide some guidance, and we hope we have detailed that in a way that can be useful in your classroom. But, like in all good learning sessions, we thought we should provide a recap, so we end with this brief summary on how to proceed: signal important concepts as you lecture; the use of minimal scaffolding of notes may be beneficial; occasionally quiz your students with the goal of evaluating how well they are taking notes; and do not feel compelled to ban laptops yet, because in some classes they may end up being a super tool for note taking.

John Dunlosky is a professor in the department of psychological sciences and director of the Science of Learning and Education (Sole) Center at Kent State University. Stephen T Peverly is a professor of psychology and education, and a member (and former director) of the Program in School Psychology at Teachers College, Columbia University

This article originally appeared in the 15 November 2019 issue under the headline "Take note: students need help writing stuff down"

You need a Tes subscription to read this article

Subscribe now to read this article and get other subscriber-only content

  • Unlimited access to all Tes magazine content
  • Exclusive articles and email newletters

Already registered? Log in

You need a subscription to read this article

Subscribe now to read this article and get other subscriber-only content, including:

  • Unlimited access to all Tes magazine content
  • Exclusive articles and email newsletters

Read more