What are these “note” things anyway?

I should start this by saying that I am all in favor of active learning. I think that lecturing at students is much less likely to result in learning than actively engaging them through discussion or tasks. However, as Robert Talbert says in his blog post “Four Things Lecture is Good For,” sometimes lecturing really is the best way to get the information across. No matter how dynamic and interesting a speaker you are, though, lecturing can cause problems.

I don’t mean problems with attention spans or distractions. Yes, students today have short attention spans, but no shorter than they were ten years ago, or fifty, or a thousand. And yes, students get distracted today, but they’ve always gotten distracted. It’s easier now with constant access to the internet, but it certainly happened before that.

The big problem I notice is with note-taking. Specifically, most students don’t know how to do it. So many times, I’ve seen students write in their notes exactly what the professor wrote on the board, but no more – none of the commentary that makes the subject understandable to them, personally. Or, even worse, I’ve seen students taking no notes at all, saying, “The professor will post the slides later, I don’t need to write anything down.” They’re missing most of the value that note-taking provides. It’s not just a way to remind yourself later what happened in class. It’s also an exercise that forces you to listen to a statement, try to understand it, decide what’s important, and write that down. Note-taking is a good tool to turn passive listening into understanding, memory, and learning. (See here for an interesting study on the value of taking notes with a pen vs. with a computer.)

I don’t remember ever being taught how to take notes, but I went through high school without a lot of the technology that’s ubiquitous today. PowerPoint was used, but not nearly to the same extent, and we were rarely given the slides afterwards. We owned laptops, but almost never brought them to class unless they were specifically needed that day. Note-taking wasn’t optional, and everyone seemed to pick it up themselves and develop their own style. Since that doesn’t seem to happen anymore, maybe note-taking is a skill that should be taught in freshman workshops. If lectures are sometimes inevitable, we need to make sure our students get something out of it, and part of that is knowing how to take good notes.

15 thoughts on “What are these “note” things anyway?”

  1. There seams to be a lot of emphasis on moving lectures online, so the interactive work can be done in class, and so students can replay the content. I wonder how a similar study would look doing the same types of tests that the pen vs computer study would did, if you were comparing online vs in person lectures. Do people take notes listening to online lectures? I know I don’t — I assume I already have the information on my computer, it’s already in a format that I can reference latter. But if processing information through note taking increases comprehension, how does that effect MOOCs?

    1. I don’t take notes when watching online lectures, and I often find myself having to back up and replay something because I’ve zoned out. I’m listening with my ears, but not my brain. That happens sometimes in in-person classes, but usually not when I’m taking notes.

  2. I am also a big fan of note-taking the old-fashioned way, with a pen/pencil and paper. I too have noticed that students seem less and less able to take good notes, especially when the need to do so lessens (slides being posted online, etc.), so maybe it is a skill we need to encourage. However, I have also read about research that actually discourages note-taking (as an avid note-taker, this sort of advice makes me nervous, and I will probably never fully be a convert). In any case, some scholars think that it’s more important to listen attentively to a lecture, without taking notes, and then jot down notes or reflections afterwards. While this may be true, I think note-taking is a good way to keep students minds focused and “present” during a lecture (as in, the assumption they will be attentive is unrealistic), and I think it is also doubtful that students will run home and jot down notes after a lecture has ended. Just interesting that there are other views on whether note-taking is good or bad. Thanks for the post!

    1. I’m with you – I’m a bit skeptical of that suggestion. First, like you said, the assumption that students are paying attention is most likely a bad one. Even if I try to pay attention, I often zone out unless I’m actively engaged in something like note-taking. Second, what if the lecture has a lot of information? How are you supposed to remember everything important from an hour-long lecture?

  3. Gosh, I never realized that I was on the fence about this topic (take notes vs. not taking notes). As a student, for the most part, I take notes. Lots of crazy notes about what the instructor says, things on the board, power point/other presentations, things from the books, things folks say in class, random ideas that pop into my mind as we go along, and I’ve even been known to draw a picture associated with what is going on. As a counselor, I may not always take notes. But when I do, I only jot down a few vital things to help jog my memory. In a session, I find it easier to listen and be present with my client when I do not take notes. They have my full attention. Taking notes sometimes distracts me, as I’m thinking about what I’m writing or what they said, then miss how they look or worse, what they may say next! I’ve not really thought about how these two intersect for me. Active listening is tough work. It engages your whole body, or it does for me. I guess I actively listen differently when in a classroom setting trying to absorb new information. Wow, your post really has me thinking now about notes in a whole different way!

    1. I think part of the difference is that in a counseling session, you’re a part of a conversation that you have to participate in. In a lecture, you’re generally not expected to participate, just sit there and try not to fall asleep. Like you said, active listening is tough work, but lectures don’t always require it.

  4. Thanks for this post. I strongly believe that a lot of students need to figure out how to take notes. I am also a huge supporter of old-fashion note taking. I don’t like note taking on computers. I remember in undergrad, folks would watch videos or look at comics, and it would be so distracting. At the same time, it’s necessary to leave info for students to fill in on their slides in class to maintain their attention span.

    1. When I have to present with slides (I prefer to go slide-less if I can), I generally have as few words as possible written on them. If I write everything I plan to say on the slides, what’s the point of saying it? (You’d be surprised how unpopular this opinion is in industry.) Therefore, even if I do post slides, my students still have to take notes, which, like you said, hopefully keeps their attention focused on the class.

  5. In one of my course, I remember that the instructor considered some blanks in her slides and then show the students when she wanted to talk about it. I think that this way may be helpful to involve the students in the course more while they are using their own laptops during the class.

    1. That’s how the professor I TA for runs her classes. She has pages of notes with blanks, and everyone fills in the blanks together during class. It seems to work pretty well at keeping people focused, though the 8am section has problems sometimes.

  6. Thanks for the post! I, too, am a big fan of taking notes. I like to color code my notes, reference other sections, and organize the ideas. But I hardly ever did that with courses. I started each semester, with my four-colored pen in hand, ready to learn. But all of the classes moved so quickly (at least for me) that I never had any time to process the information during class. So I just frantically copied down what was on the board and what the professor said with the hopes that I could make sense of it later. I wonder if one thing that instructors can do is give students the time to listen, understand, and decide for themselves what is important. Thanks for sharing!

    1. I had a bunch of classes like that in college, and it was so frustrating. I understand that some classes have a lot of material to cover, but you have to ask which is better: covering 5 chapters and understanding none of it, or only covering 4 chapters but understanding it well? I think my view of note-taking is the ideal situation when you really do have time to think about and synthesize the information.

      When I had classes like that, I generally reorganized and recopied my notes when studying for the tests (often in multiple colors). It helped me review the material (which hopefully I understood better by then) and figure out how to organize it in my head and how it’s connected to everything else in the course.

  7. What a great point! A class on note-taking would have been so helpful to me as a freshman. At the pace at which my professors roll through lectures, I can do one of two things: take notes or learn. The process of taking notes during a lecture has rarely improved my learning experience. On the other hand, re-writing my notes in my own words when I get home is extremely helpful. Maybe it’s a personal problem, but every time I try to process the information given during lecture AND write it down, I miss about a minute or two of lecture. So, unfortunately, most of what I learn comes from re-reading my notes, not the actual lecture (unless the instructor utilizes active learning techniques).

    Does anyone else still have this problem?

    1. I used to encourage my students to bring their notes in and talk to me about their note taking process, because early in my teaching career (before computers were ubiquitous) I realized that just because I was an accomplished and devoted note taker, many of them were not. Learning how to take notes is a skill and it requires practice and the realization that there’s room for improvement. So many students who struggled in my class had terrible notes. It was pretty easy to get them to see that connection, but more challenging to help them level up. And then PowerPoint arrived and everyone got used to that — decided the slides WERE the notes…..There’s more, but I’ll just close with confessing that I’ve seen my own practice evolve considerably — and still myself (and my notetaking) as works in progress. Just today I’ve taken notes in Word, by hand, in OneNote, and on the margins of a printed copy. Not sure if this indicates sophistication or confusion….

  8. I definitely think that note-taking is important and necessary, especially in more lecture-oriented classes. No matter how active and engaged a student is, there’s no guarantee that they’ll remember every part of a class, so the notes are there as external memory storage. I certainly prefer hand-writing my notes instead of typing, because the physical act helps to reinforce the memory and it allows me the freedom to draw diagrams, arrows connecting different concepts together, etc. in order to help me remember things better. As a teacher, knowing students’ propensity to not take notes if they know the slides are online has definitely affected my teaching style. I try to minimize the amount of words on a slide and instead use them as talking points to elaborate on during the lecture.

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