Monday, 22 September 2014

on note-taking

Maryellen Weimer has a short article on developing students' note-taking ability posted on the Teaching Professor website. It explains why note-taking is so important - it promotes learning. This is the primary reason why I do not make my own course notes completely available to students: I think that taking notes during class enables students' thinking of the material. Note that this is not the same as recording every word an instructor states during class. Good note-taking is a skill that requires judgement - a metacognitive skill. I resisted placing my lecture slides online for students until students informed me that they used them to write their notes on - they rarely simply relied on the text on the slide but rather embellished the text I had already typed. So that was great! students were engaging with the material in-class.

This blog post from the Chronicle of Higher Ed discusses a study that suggests that handwriting notes on paper is better than typing notes on a laptop during a lecture. This was measured in terms of learning/recall by the participants in the study. This article from the Atlantic discusses the same research. I think the important point from the research is to think while taking notes rather than simply recording verbatim what an instructor is lecturing.

My own personal experience is that typing is far more effective for me than writing: I cannot read my own handwriting after taking notes during a lecture or conference presentation. This is the reason why I started carrying around an iPad and using Evernote to jot down notes. In addition, it is way easier to search for notes when it is organized by something like Evernote. When I started to type to take notes I found that it improved the conversation within my own mind with the material being presented. Hand-writing notes I found I became too worried about the quality of my handwriting so that I could read it later!  :P

When I type my notes I am not transcribing what the speaker is saying. Rather, my typing is writing to think. And I think that is the important point to impress on students - note-taking is not transcribing. Note-taking is writing to think not thinking to write. My typing is my form of writing which is my way to think. I believe that this should be the take home message to students: Don't think about writing - write to facilitate your thinking. If approached this way it becomes clear that transcribing a lecture or presentation is not thinking, and this is the reason, I think, that many typists do not do well on subsequent quizzes - they haven't been thinking while they type on their laptop.

So I think one of the comments posted to The Chronicle blog-post is correct; it depends on the typing and handwriting skills of the particular student. And, of course it depends upon the level of engagement the student brings to the lecture.

I wonder if this issue will be moot in a few years when we are all using active learning strategies in our classrooms and rarely lecturing?


Meyer R. 2014. To Remember a Lecture Better, Take Notes by Hand: Students do worse on quizzes when they use keyboards in class. The Atlantic [online - May 1]. Available from

Perez-Hernandez D. 2014. Taking Notes by Hand Benefits Recall, Researchers Find. The Chronicle of Higher Education [online March 28]. Available from

Weimer M. 2013. How to Help Students Improve Their Note-Taking Skills. The Teaching Professor 27(6): 7. Available from