The Value of Taking Notes

Lesson 5: Note format should fit the learning material and memory requirement.

Posted Jul 13, 2020

If you have a serious need to memorize, you usually must take notes. Just what is it that I think is valuable about note taking? First and foremost is the requirement for engagement. Students must pay attention well enough to make decisions about the portion of the learning material that will need to be studied later. Paying attention is essential for encoding information, and nobody can remember anything that never registered in the first place.

Note taking requires thinking about the material to decide what needs to be captured for later study. This hopefully generates questions that can be raised and answered while working your way through the learning material. Sadly, in the last few years I notice that in my college classes, few students take notes. It is as if they think they can remember everything (they can’t). The cause may be that teachers tend to hand out prepackaged notes. I object to this practice, because it reduces the level of student engagement and thinking. If such notes are distributed, the notes should be in a skeleton form that just provides an organized framework for students to construct their own notes.

Handwritten notes have special advantages. If done in pencil, which I recommend, items can be erased or re-arranged. You can draw diagrams and pictures, which provide visual images to strengthen memorization and control spatial layouts. Using different layouts for every page gives each a visual uniqueness that facilitates memory. A well-established fact about memory is that spatial location is an important cue for encoding and recall. Where information is located provides important cues as to what the information is. The spatial layout of script and diagrams on a page allows the information to be visualized, creating an opportunity for a rudimentary form of photographic memory, where a learner can imagine in the mind's eye just where on the page certain information is, and that alone makes it easier to memorize and recall what the information is. This effect occurs because the hippocampus, which initiates memorization in the brain, also maps spatial location.

This brings me to another important point about visualization. Pictures are much easier to remember than words. Hand-written notes allow the student to represent verbalized ideas as drawings or diagrams. If you have ever had to learn the Kreb's cycle of cellular energy production, for example, you know how much easier it is to remember the cycle if it is drawn rather than described in paragraph form.

I will explain the several methods for note taking, as follows:

1.      Outline

2.      Table methods

a.      Charts

b.      Cornell method

c.      Matrix notes

The type of note format should vary with the nature of the learning material and the level of expected memorization of the content from reading material, videos, and lectures. All these forms can be produced with computers, but I don’t recommend using a computer. Researchers Pam Meuller and Daniel Oppenheimer provide clear evidence that handwritten notetaking produces better learning in college students. Remembering factoids was about the same in both groups, but memory for concepts was distinctly better in students who took handwritten notes. In their report of three studies, cited over 1,000 times, learning efficacy was scored in two groups of students, one taking notes on a laptop computer and the other by handwriting.

When tested on learning material, students who used handwritten notes that they studied scored significantly higher than students using laptops, including agile touch-typists who took vastly more copious notes. Handwriters took fewer notes overall with less verbatim recording. There are many possible explanations for the superiority of handwriting, beginning with the "less is more" idea in which too much information produces cognitive overload.

For touch typists, taking notes on a laptop is a relatively mindless process in which letters are banged out on autopilot. A good typist does not have to think. Notably, when the typing students were told to avoid verbatim notes, they still did it. This suggests that there is something about typing that leads to mindless processing. Handwritten notes involve more thought, re-framing, and re-organization, all of which promote better encoding, understanding and retention. The manual act of handwriting requires more engagement with the subject matter. Finally, handwritten notes capitalize on the use of drawings and of personalized spatial layout of the notes. Memorization involves not only what the information is, but where it is spatially located.

Outline


These notes are arranged in terms of topic, sub-topic, sub-subtopic, and so on. Each item is on a separate line and is indented. Each topic or sub-topic can be numbered and lettered. Here is an example for information on cell biology (Figure 1a):

The numbering and lettering can become distracting. I prefer to use headings, sub-headings, sub-subheadings. This is readily automated in a word processing by using a styles menu (Heading 1, Heading 2, Heading 3, and so on). (Figure 1b):

W. R. Klemm
Figure 1a. Outline note format
Source: W. R. Klemm
W. R. Klemm
Figure 1b. Outline, using heading styles
Source: W. R. Klemm

Outline notes are most useful when you must capture large amounts of information quickly. If you don’t have much time to think, outlines are usually easy to construct because that is the way most information is presented in lectures, videos, and textbooks. A presenter typically presents a main thought, then explains it with some detail, and then moves on to the next main idea.

For more understanding and to promote memory, it is important to think about the words that appear in an outline. Other note-taking methods may require reconstructing the initial outlined information in a different format, and this requires some thinking.

Charts

Here you create a table with separate columns for each topic (Figure 2). You typically have only one blank row in which you put the information you want to memorize. Depending on the subject matter, you might want to segregate facts and concepts.

W. R. Klemm
Figure 2. Charts format
Source: W. R. Klemm

Cornell Method

Here, you use a table that captures key facts or concepts in a different spatial layout (Figure 3).

W. R. Klemm
Figure 3. Cornell format
Source: W. R. Klemm

Matrix Notes

Matrix notes place information in a table, where the columns might be categories of information and the rows contain items within each category. The columns represent one category of information (such as topics and the rows another, such as items. Here is the basic idea (Figure 4):

W. R. Klemm
Figure 4. Matrix note format
Source: W. R. Klemm

Matrix notes promote an overall “bird’s eye” view of relationships among ideas. This requires more thinking and may not be possible in the real time of watching a video or lecture. However, the method is very powerful, in large part because it requires you to think deeply. Such thinking may also provide insights that would otherwise not occur. Matrix notes can be more comprehensive and force thinking about content in a wide range of contexts. Matrix notes are most useful when cross-cutting relationships need to be recognized and clarified.

The advantages for learning are that the learner conceptualizes the ideas in the process of constructing the matrix. Because ideas are presented in one view, preferably in units of one page at a time, it is easy to see cross-cutting relationships that otherwise are not so apparent. Such organization is an aid to stimulating insight. In addition, the fixed spatial layout is a memory aid.

The process might usually begin with outlined notes, because few people can think fast enough to construct a matrix in real time during a lecture or video.

Next lesson: Lesson 6. Mind Mapping

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To check out my four books on learning and memory, see my web site: WRKlemm.com

References

Klemm, W. R. (2012). Memory Power 101. New York: Skyhorse.

Mueller, Pam A. and Oppenheimer, Daniel M. (2014). The pen is mightier than the keyboard: Advantages of longhand over laptop note taking. Psychological Science.  https://doi.org/10.1177/0956797614524581