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Mid-class “Share and Compare” Activity Teaches Better Note-Taking Skills

Mon Sep 28, 2020 at 07:30 AM

When students are surveyed about note-taking, they frequently report that they wished they took better notes (Morehead, Dunlosky, Rawson, Blasiman, & Hollis, 2019). Students recognize the value of taking good notes, but few report having ever been taught how to take effective notes. Moreover, students who did receive formal instruction on how to take notes often got this instruction in middle school or high school, where the advice might not apply well to the needs of college students.

What is good note taking?

Good note-taking is a learning strategy that engages students with effortful processing of lecture content rather than passive listening. An effective note-taker evaluates, prioritizes, and organizes lecture content. Effective notes distinguish important ideas from less-important details, organize content, and articulate how ideas relate to each other.

Taking good notes is a complex cognitive skill. Although the mere act of writing things down can improve memory, skilled note-takers also listen actively, determine which content is important enough to record, and organize the new content in a meaningful, coherent way (Reed, Rimel, & Hallett, 2016). Unskilled note-takers take less complete notes. They may fail to record as much as half of the important information. Their notes are poorly organized or they may fail to reflect how main ideas relate to supporting details.

Paper versus laptop? Does the medium make a difference?

Students who use a laptop to take notes might create distractions (for other students as well as themselves) if they also use the laptop for off-task activities. However, providing students with multiple options for taking notes increases the accessibility of the classroom. Mueller & Oppenheimer (2014) suggest that taking notes on paper minimizes distraction. They argue that the slow process of writing forces a student to record notes selectively and engage more deeply with lecture content. In contrast, they suggest that skilled typists taking notes on a laptop might passively transcribe lecture content verbatim without thinking deeply (or thinking at all) about the meaning of the material presented. However, taking notes on a laptop does not prevent students from engaging deeply in lecture content (Morehead, Dunlosky, & Rawson, 2019). At present, the decision to use paper or a laptop to take notes is best determined by characteristics of the student (typing skill, quality and speed of handwriting) and characteristics of the content (e.g., should notes include drawings, graphs, diagrams, or complex equations).

Student misconceptions about class notes

Although students often report that they take notes in their face-to-face classes, more than half say that they do not take notes during online lectures (Morehead, Dunlosky, Rawson, Blaisman, & Hollis, 2019). Students may undervalue note-taking if they believe the purpose of notes is only to transcribe lecture content. Thus, students in a face-to-face class might not take notes if their notes would duplicate PowerPoint slides or other materials posted online. Similarly, students in online classes might believe that they do not need to take notes if they can always view the lecture again (the content is always available). However, Morehead et al. argue that reviewing online lectures is analogous to rereading the textbook, which is well-established as an ineffective study strategy (Dunlosky, et al., 2013).

Mid-Lecture Pause to Share and Compare Notes

Instructors can help students learn to take better notes if they introduce a note sharing activity midway through their lectures. Like other skills, note-taking improves when students have multiple opportunities to practice and receive feedback. Schedule a “share and compare” activity during several lectures throughout the term (Rice, 2018; Ruhl, Hughes, & Schloss, 1987). With repetition, students will learn about general principles of effective note-taking and not just correct their notes for a particular lecture.

Tell students at the start of class that you will take a short break in the middle of class for sharing class notes with a neighbor. Explain the rules for the activity the first time you use this activity in class.

  • Individual reflection on class notes. Take 2-3 minutes to review your notes. Fill in blanks or add ideas you did not have time to write down earlier.
  • Work in small groups (2-3 students). Turn to a neighbor and compare notes. Ask questions and clarify areas where notes differ. Identify gaps such as key ideas or supporting details you did not record but a classmate did. Correct errors or misunderstandings. Clarify which ideas are most important. Organize a coherent argument: explain how the main ideas are supported by evidence. NOTE: Some instructors walk around the room and listen in on the student conversations to identify common areas that need clarification.
  • Instructor clarification. At the end of three minutes, the class can ask questions to clarify their notes before resuming the lecture. If a frequent area of confusion emerges, use this time to discuss and clarify.

Additional Resources

Dunlosky, J., Rawson, K. A., Marsh, E. J., Nathan, M. J., & Willingham, D. T. (2013). Improving students’ learning with effective learning techniques: Promising directions from cognitive and educational psychology. Psychological Science in the Public Interest, 14, 4-58.

Morehead, K., Dunlosky, J., & Rawson, K. A. (2019). How much mightier is the pen than the keyboard for note-taking? A replication and extension of Mueller and Oppenheimer (2014). Educational Psychology Review, 1-28.

Morehead, K., Dunlosky, J., Rawson, K. A., Blasiman, R., & Hollis, R. B. (2019). Note-taking habits of 21st century college students: implications for student learning, memory, and achievement. Memory, 27, 807-819.

Mueller, P. A., & Oppenheimer, D. M. (2014). The pen is mightier than the keyboard: Advantages of longhand over laptop note taking. Psychological Science, 25, 1159-1168. 

Reed, D., K., Rimel, H., & Hallett, A. (2016). Note-taking interventions for college students: a synthesis and meta-analysis of the literature. Journal of Research on Educational Effectiveness, 9, 307-333.

Rice, G. T. (2018). Hitting pause: 65 lecture breaks to refresh and reinforce learning. Sterling, VA: Stylus.

Ruhl, K. L., Hughes, C. A., & Schloss, P. J. (1987). Using the pause procedure to enhance lecture recall. Teacher Education and Special Education, 10 (1), 14-18.

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About the Author

Claudia Stanny, Ph.D, is the director of the Center for University Teaching, Learning, and Assessment at the University of West Florida. She shared this teaching tip in the Teaching Messages Collection 2020-2021 edited by members of the POD Network, a professional organization of educational developers.

Edited by Christina Moore, Center for Excellence in Teaching and Learning at Oakland University. Photo by on UnsplashOthers may share and adapt under Creative Commons License CC BY-NC.

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