Note-taking tools and tips

This blog entry is part of a series of topical Practice-Oriented Literature Overviews written by the HILT Research Fellows.

by Michael C. Friedman

NotetakingNote-taking should be an obvious practice and an intuitive skill: pay attention in class, and scribble (or with the current generation of students, type) furiously as the instructor speaks and displays slides of information, right?

Good note-taking practices can potentially make the difference between efficient study behaviors, better course outcomes, and even retention of course content beyond a course’s conclusion. Unfortunately, many students are unaware of the benefits of effective note-taking on their learning and the importance of cultivating their note-taking skills over the course of their education.

Notes on note-taking: Review of research and insights for students and instructors reviews the existing research on note-taking and makes recommendations for both students and instructors:

For students:

  • Avoid transcribing notes (writing every word the instructor says) in favor of writing notes in your own words.
  • Review your notes the same day you created them and then on a regular basis, rather than cramming review into one long study session immediately prior to an exam.
  • Test yourself on the content of your notes either by using flashcards or using methodology from Cornell Notes. Testing yourself helps you identify what you do not yet know from your notes, and successful recall of tested information improves your ability to recall that information later (you will be less likely to forget it).
  • Carefully consider whether to take notes on pen and paper or with a laptop. There are costs and benefits to either option.
  • We are often misled to believe that we know lecture content better than we actually do, which can lead to poor study decisions. Avoid this misperception at all costs!

For instructors:

  • Explain your course policies regarding note-taking at the start of the semester (Do you allow laptops? Do you provide slides to students before or after class?). Point to the literature/research and your own experience to support your policies. 
  • Prior to lecture, provide students with materials so that they become familiar with main ideas or topics. This will help students identify the important concepts during class and take selective notes (however, avoid giving students so much material that they elect poor study behaviors such as relying on materials instead of attending class and taking notes). 
  • Encourage students to take notes in their own words rather than record every word you say in class. Doing so will lead to deeper understanding during lecture, more student engagement in class, and better retention of course content.
  • Make connections between current and previously discussed course concepts, and encourage students to make such connections on their own. Doing so will help students retrieve related ideas when they are needed (i.e., during an exam) and assist your students in identifying relationships they would have otherwise missed.