Note-Taking: Key to Learning or Waste of Time?

I read an interesting and thought-provoking blog post by a colleague on the subject of note-taking recently. In discussing the piece at our occasional Tech Think Tank meeting subsequently, many of my own questions about the role of note-taking in the classroom resurfaced. In fact, I have had several conversations with colleagues about the value and purpose of note-taking recently and I will admit to being somewhat ambivalent on the subject. An activity replicated from when I was a student myself seems oddly anachronistic in a world full of alternatives. On balance, if I were forced to choose and had the power to do so, I would eliminate the traditional act of note-taking from schools. I am conscious, however, that I am not in the classroom trenches on a daily basis, trying to manage the deluge of information that our teachers and students are required to. On reflection, this is not such a simple question and a simplistic position is probably unwise.

In a recent blog post of my own, I questioned the value of note-taking. Among my wishes for schools in 2015, I suggested we should no longer “dedicate significant vital learning time on the passive transaction of note-taking. Why would 20 students consume time and energy in attempts to take notes when teachers have the technology at their disposal to share their own notes while an entire class – even grade – can collaborate on one set of notes? Yes, note-taking is a valuable skill in a world in which knowledge is transmitted by a single individual to a group. It is an outmoded use of scarce time in a world with smartphones, Google Docs, and other collaboration tools.”

I think Ben’s blog post raises some great questions. Like many people, my approach to studying when I was in school and college involved the physical process of writing and rewriting notes on paper. This is how I retained information, but I do not believe it was a methodology that helped me deepen my understanding of what I was learning or enabled me to retain that knowledge beyond the exams I was preparing for. I had no alternative then. But it served its purpose, I suppose. Today, I prefer to take notes digitally, but there are times, especially when grappling with something complex, when I need a pen and paper to organise my ideas. Like the ongoing and futile debate about e-books versus the printed word, this is not necessarily an either/or topic.

My colleague ends his post with some specific questions:

  • Should we have kids take notes on paper instead of using their tablets? What is the value of taking notes in each medium? Under what conditions?
  • What strategies could we use to help teach kids to take notes on tablets?
  • How can we teach kids to monitor their own attention when taking notes on tablets?

I don’t know with any degree of certainty the answers to these questions, but I do wonder sometimes about whether: (1) As educators, we unwittingly impose our own learning styles and beliefs on a different generation that learn differently and have different learning needs?; (2) We are clear on what the purpose of note-taking is in 2015? (3) There is a single answer to the question about whether students should take notes on paper or a computer?

I think the following considerations are critical to our approaches to note-taking in schools today:

  • What do we actually mean when we talk about note-taking? Are we talking about the passive recording of information transmitted by the teacher or are we talking about the selective synthesis of information in an active, collaborative environment? When note-taking is a structured learning activity that connects to a clearly articulated learning goal or forthcoming assessment in the latter context, its value must be significant, but how do we assure this with consistency?
  • What is the purpose? Is it clear to students why it is important to document the information concerned? If the purpose is to highlight and record valuable knowledge, who decides what this is? How do we engage students in this process in a world in which they have access to so much information, information that they frequently struggle to manage? Is note-taking an effective way to develop writing or language skills and should it be used for this purpose? Do we share a common understanding of what the purpose of note-taking is?
  • Do we systematically teach students how to take notes? What is the best way for students to take notes? Would it be good to implement a common approach to note-taking, such as the Cornell model, or is note-taking also about personal learning style and the need to provide several models? Do we also teach students how to use their notes subsequently in order to prepare effectively for major assessments?
  • Is note-taking a routine part of instructional practice? I can only imagine that if students are regularly sitting at their desks transcribing information that is being delivered to them to write down, no matter how important … that the effectiveness of the learning will be limited. Teachers will say, with a degree of validity, that this is the practice that will confront students before school external exams and university. I don’t completely agree.
  • Should we use pen and paper or a computer? There is much research to suggest that taking notes by hand enhances conceptual understanding and retention of information. A lot of this research is based on college studies where there is something of a revolt against laptops in lecture halls. It is interesting that there is little research into the correlation between student distraction and teacher engagement. If I attend a mundane meeting with my laptop, I will periodically choose to check my email. That is not a distraction. It’s a choice. When I am fully engaged, this is a choice I am not going to make. Kids are different, I know. But not a lot.
  • What is the role of differentiation when it comes to note-taking? Should we not respect different learning styles when it comes to this activity? How effective is the process of note-taking for different students? Do some prefer to take notes alone? For some, is the collaborative approach best? Surely some take notes more efficiently on a computer than on paper and vice-versa?

Like many of my colleagues who are raising similar questions, I don’t know all the answers, but I do know that my colleagues consider similar questions in their daily practice. I also stated the following in my blog post: “There is a lot to be said for the process of annotating important information and transcribing it in summary form, whether digitally or in handwritten format (depending on the individual learning style). This is a skill we should intentionally teach as part of our methodology in teaching students how to learn. Having students sit in rows while they passively transcribe the words of a teacher on a regular basis is not learning. Like all learning, the purpose of note-taking must be made explicit to students in those instances where it is critical. It should never be a routine “instructional” tool.”

In summary, I would suggest we:

  • Define what we mean by note-taking
  • Ensure that we always make the learning purpose clear when we ask students to take notes
  • Limit the number of times we ask students to record notes as a learning activity
  • Use various types of approaches to note-taking (shared, visual, collaborative, teacher-provided, etc)
  • Explicitly teach students how to take notes
  • Help students develop their own note-taking style or system
  • Teach students how to use their notes subsequently
  • Start with paper as the note-taking system
  • Provide students with a choice between paper and computer subsequently
  • Trust students (and help them) to handle the distractions of technology
  • Consider alternative methodologies where appropriate (inquiry-based)

I think there will always be issues of distraction if the topic being studied is not engaging to students or is simply difficult, and while we are not in the entertainment business, I know we are all conscious that extended periods of note-taking will inevitably lead to distraction and will not enhance learning in the long run. One advantage we have at our school is that – because we give our students laptops with tablet technology – we can actually have students use hybrid technology to record important information … the pen on the screen.

I would still eliminate the traditional act of note-taking from schools. That is, the passive transmittance model. Note-taking in a structured, constructivist setting that contributes to approaches to inquiry and deep, conceptual and content understanding is of huge benefit to students when thoughtfully planned, used judiciously, and with respect to the individual learning styles of students (and this is what the teachers in my school generally mean when they refer to “note-taking”). Thoughtfully constructed note taking is critical to the learning process and, if approached systematically, as a skill we teach, is an important life skill. Whatever we believe about note-taking, I think the potential of collaboration tools like Google Docs and Evernote are too powerful to limit students to a legacy approach to recording and sharing important information exclusively on paper.

Ultimately, perhaps we need a new term to describe what we currently call “note-taking”, one that describes more explicitly what it is we expect students to do when we ask them to “take notes”. Anyone got any good suggestions?

SUGGESTED RESOURCES

Note-Taking in the 21st Century: Tips for Instructors and Students
Summary: It is clear that note-taking remains an integral part of the learning process, even on our high-tech campuses and for our digital native students. While some strategies might have changed over time, students will always need help in fine-tuning their skills, and if we want our students to be successful learners, it can’t hurt for us to offer a little guidance.

10 Brilliant Examples Of Sketch Notes: Notetaking For The 21st Century
Summary: Sketch notes–or graphic notes, or whatever other term you like–are one of the single most important developments in note-taking history. The point of notes, it seems, is to capture important ideas for future reference. While it’s nothing new to take notes that combine images with words and phrases, sketch notes are actually an evolution of this idea.

Collaborative Note-Taking with Google Docs
Summary: The integration of Google Docs has endless possibilities for students and teachers. Collaboration allows us to be stronger and wiser together.

The Best Apps for Taking Notes
Summary: There have never been so many options for note-taking and most of these apps are free. We have Google Docs, Google Keep, SimpleNote, etc. One of the most interesting options seems to be EverNote as it allows for a multi-media approach to the collation of ideas and information. When used in conjunction with Penultimate, it also allows for the recording of notes with a stylus that are automatically stored in EverNote.