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How to make note taking a cognitive activity

How to make note taking a cognitive activity

4 min read
  • Study skills & exam prep

Taking notes during lessons is a key part of student life. But how well do your students actually do it?

Beyond just keeping a record of what has been said, evidence suggests that the way students take notes can have a big impact on their learning. This blog explores exactly why that is the case, and what makes efficient note taking…

Don’t take notes down verbatim

Recent research found that students who merely transcribed every word their teacher said remembered less information afterwards. On the other hand, when students have to think carefully and selectively what to write down, it should lead to a learning gain, as they are assimilating the new information into their existing schema and framework. This helps them connect new information with previously learnt material, as well as think harder and more critically about the content.

The same study identified two main types of note taking. These are:

1. Shallow note taking

Shallow lecture note taking relies on passive and more automated activities. This may include copying the board, unconscious use of colour on notes, and writing as instructed by the teacher. 

2. Deep note taking

Deep lecture note taking is a highly resource-consuming activity, as it demands much more cognitive effort than shallow lecture note taking.

An example is selecting what to write down. Students can’t do this automatically – it requires executive functions to help them simultaneously comprehend, evaluate and write down the information that they think they need to record.

Another example is writing down explanations the teacher gives verbally, not on the board or textbook. This deals with time pressure as students’ transcription is often slower than the teacher’s speaking. At the same time, students are trying to comprehend what the teacher is saying – demanding resources from their central executive functions and working memory.

Why is deep lecture note taking important?

While deep lecture note taking requires more mental effort and energy, it can lead to significant learning gains. Let’s look at why that is…

Active rather than passive learning 

Deep lecture note taking forces students to adapt to an active method of learning. When they focus on writing down what the teacher says word for word, it suppresses their critical thinking, which can make them less engaged in their learning. Research has found that when students switched from a passive to an active mode of learning, it significantly increased their exam scores.

Improves their organisational skills

Because deep lecture note taking requires students to determine the key points to remember or research, making sense of complex and broader topics becomes much easier to manage. It prompts them to become more efficient at organising copious amounts of information, which makes learning less overwhelming. 

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What do students need to know to help them with deep note taking?

1. Teacher’s supplement

Encourage students to take notes about your verbal explanations. This information can often aid their understanding of the core material. Taking notes on non-examples can also help provide nuance and a flexible understanding of the taught material.

2. Simplify notes

A big challenge for students in class is keeping up with what the teacher is saying and not missing information. Accepting that a) it is impossible to take notes on everything and b) even if it were possible, it would probably be counter-productive, can take the pressure off students. Rephrasing difficult terms and concepts into simple words also means content becomes much easier to digest and review later on.

3. Choose what to write down 

Student should not view all the information taught indiscriminately. Instead, they should see it as an opportunity to try to selectively decide on what to note down. Thinking about the learning objectives and determining which concepts and examples are most important to the topic should help with this. Also, have them consider the information that they are unsure about and need clarification on – then write it down.

4. Distinguishing notes 

Some students like to use different colour pens according to the content of the notes. If done efficiently, this can work well. But with time constraints, may prove to be impractical. Arguably, a better suggestion would be to use the Cornell Note Taking Method, which requires students to split their page into three parts:

  • The note column – Where they make notes and summarise concepts
  • The cue column – Where they write down key words, questions they might need to ask the teacher, and prompts for studying later
  • The summary – Where they review their learning after the class

To find out more about using the Cornell Note Taking method, check out this blog.

How to use the Cornell note taking method effectively

Final thoughts

Taking good notes is more than just copying down exactly what has been said. Notes are a great vehicle to accelerate learning. This can be done by utilising deep note taking.

By being selective with what they write down and connecting it to their own ideas/understanding, students give themselves the best chance of remembering and learning the class material.

About the editor

Bradley Busch

Bradley Busch

Bradley Busch is a Chartered Psychologist and a leading expert on illuminating Cognitive Science research in education. As Director at InnerDrive, his work focuses on translating complex psychological research in a way that is accessible and helpful. He has delivered thousands of workshops for educators and students, helping improve how they think, learn and perform. Bradley is also a prolific writer: he co-authored four books including Teaching & Learning Illuminated and The Science of Learning, as well as regularly featuring in publications such as The Guardian and The Telegraph.

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