Sunday, May 4, 2014

Note–taking Revisited

A recent article from the Atlantic is sure to reignite the debate about taking notes by hand or using electronic aids such as laptops, tablets, or phones.  While the article is certainly an engaging and enjoyable read, the research behind the article is not only suspect, it simply ignores the whole body of knowledge around note–taking and learning styles.

Note–taking needs to be taught just as reading, writing, and scientific investigation need to be taught.  Telling students to take notes is probably worse than not saying anything because at least if a lecturer says nothing, the students might remember something interesting from the talk.

In Mueller and Oppenheimer’s study, there is no mention of how students were instructed to take notes.  Teachers already know students try to take verbatim notes, even when hand-writing them.  Laptops by themselves aren’t distracting.  Checking email, having the device beep, chirp, and notify users of everything from dental appointments to when their next class begins is certainly distracting.  I teach middle school, so students don’t usually take notes while viewing Game of Thrones at the same time.  Taking notes without reviewing the material afterwards has already been proven useless in countless studies dating back to at least the mid-nineties.  Whether electronic or hand written, students need to interact with their notes.  They need to rearrange the information into outlines, mind maps, or highlight one side of an argument in red, the other in blue.

The good folks who run high school and college learning/tutoring centers have a whole body of research devoted to this topic.  Consider the guidelines at the University of Minnesota Center for Teaching and Learning or the Note–Taking in the 21st Century Tips for Instructors and Students from Texas Tech University.

Many, if not most, teachers are facile with writing notes and, if older than 25, probably developed some type of handwritten note taking system.  Today’s students learn differently, organize information differently, and store information differently than their teachers did as youngsters.  How many teachers teach note–taking differently?  Inspiration!, one of the early mind-mapping applications seems to have come and gone, yet the idea of teaching kids to clump information has been proven to be far more effective for later recall/studying than bullet points or just writing random thoughts.  Schools using Google Apps for Education have access to mind-mapping add-ons, yet most students are still trying to take electronic notes using only typing skills in empty Google Docs.  Since teachers have little skill using modern note-taking tools such as Notability or Evernote, they are unable to teach these tools to students.

Thanks to advanced brain research, teachers are aware of differently intelligences and different learning styles.  That knowledge should inform how note–taking is taught.  For example, students could focus on a presentation that filled a board with information, take a picture of the board with their phone, then, when given 5 minutes to share with a classmate the implications of the presentation, could summarize and insert the photo into Google, Word, Evernote, etc. for easy access while reviewing the material.

Mueller and Oppenheimer proved that note–taking needs to be taught.  Perhaps the Atlantic article will help focus the spotlight on teaching students not just how to take notes, but how to organize, categorize, and utilize those notes combined the accompanying pictures, diagrams, and color-highlighted text to more effectively learn and access new material.

Works Cited 
Boye, Allison. "NOTE-TAKING IN THE 21st CENTURY: TIPS FOR INSTRUCTORS AND STUDENTS." Texas Tech University Teaching Resources. Texas Tech University, n.d. Web. 4 May 2014. <>. 
"Effective Handouts: Using PowerPoint to Guide Study and Encourage Active Preparation." Effective Handouts: Using PowerPoint to Guide Study and Encourage Active Preparation. N.p., n.d. Web. 04 May 2014. <>. 
Meyer, Robinson. "To Remember a Lecture Better, Take Notes by Hand." The Atlantic. Atlantic Media Company, 01 May 2014. Web. 04 May 2014. <>. 

MindMeister-iPad. Digital image. N.p., n.d. Web. 4 May 2014. <>. 

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