Lesson 5. Learning & Memory Course. Taking Notes

Taking notes improves learning efficiency.

Posted Apr 07, 2019

Despite a recurring stream of educational fads, lectures still dominate teaching approaches. In spite of such teaching reforms as "hands-on" learning, small group collaborations, project-based learning, and others, teachers generally can't resist the temptation to be a "sage of the stage," instead of a "guide on the side." And when they are not lecturing, teachers may assign instructional videos. Maybe that's a good thing, because many students are not temperamentally equipped to be active learners. Rather, they have been conditioned by television and movies to function as a passive audience. Even the way we test learning with multiple-choice questions conditions students to be passive by recognizing a provided correct answer among three or four incorrect ones.

Then there is the problem of alternatives, such as learning from reading. Too many students don't like to read academic material. They want somebody to spoon feed the information to them. Most lectures are just that—spoon feeding.

Given that the dominance of lecturing is not likely to change any time soon, shouldn't teachers focus more on showing students how to learn from lectures or from videos? It seems there is an implicit assumption that passive listening will suffice to understand and remember what is presented in lecture or video presentations. The problem is, however, that deep learning requires active, not passive, engagement. Students need to parse content to identify what they don't understand, don't know already, and can't figure out from what they do already know. This has to happen in real time, as different ideas and factoids come and go.

So how should students engage with presentations? Traditionally, this means taking notes. But I wonder if note-taking is a dying art. I don't see many students taking notes from lectures or web pages or U-tube videos. Or textbooks (highlighting is a poor substitute). My concern was reinforced the other day when I gave a lecture on improving learning and memory to college students. The lecture was jam packed with more information than anyone could remember without being actively engaged. Yet, I did not see a single one of the 58 students taking notes. Notably, the class's regular professor, who had invited me to give the lecture, was vigorously taking notes throughout.

Why don’t students take notes? Are they too conditioned for passive learning? Is it because they can’t write legibly in cursive, and printing is too slow and cumbersome? Whatever the cause, it can be traced to faulty teaching by previous teachers.

Just what is it that I think is valuable about note taking? First and foremost is the requirement for engagement. Students have to pay attention well enough to make decisions about the portion of the presentation that will need to be studied later. Paying attention is essential for encoding information. Nobody can remember anything that never registered in the first place.

Next, 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 during the presentation. In the college class I just mentioned, not one student asked a question, even though I interrupted the lecture four times to try and pry out questions. Notably, after the lecture, about a dozen students came to me to ask questions.

Notes should be taken by hand. This is a good place to mention note-taking with a laptop computer. Students are being encouraged to bring laptops to take notes. Two important consequences of typing notes should be recognized. One problem is that for touch typists, taking notes on a laptop is a relatively brain-dead process in which letters are banged out more or less on autopilot. A good typist does not have to think. And if you have not mastered the keyboard, paying attention to which keys to hit is a distraction from the content the learner should be thinking about. Hand-written notes inevitably engage thinking and decisions about what to write down, how to represent the information, and where on the page to put specific items. A formal experiment has been published showing that students remembered more when they took notes by hand than when they took notes by laptop typing.

A special benefit of hand-written note-taking is that students create a spatial layout of the information they think they will need to study. A well-established principle of learning is that where information is 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 study can imagine in the mind's eye just were on the page certain information is, and that alone makes it easier to memorize and recall what the information is.

This brings me to the important point of 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.

All learners take in information differently. There are at least five common types of note-taking. Learners should select the type that works best for them. The type selected may vary with the nature of the information source. After reading the different descriptions of note-taking styles below, it will be up to you to decide which style of notes you would prefer to utilize.

Styles of Note-Taking:

1. Outline

2. Charting Notes
3. Cornell Notes
4. Mind Mapping

5. Matrix Notes

Outline Notes

These notes are arranged in terms of topic, sub-topic, sub-sub topic, 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:

1. History

A. Initial discoveries

1). Robert Hooke

2). Early microscopes

3). Etc.

2, Cells

          A. Definition/cell theory

          B. Organelles

                     1) Mitochondria

                     2) ER

                     3) etc.

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

History (main heading)

Initial discoveries (subheading)

Robert Hooke (sub- sub-heading)

Early microscopes






Outline notes are most useful when you have to capture 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 nest 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 require reconstructing the initial information in a different format, and this requires some thinking. Thinking is the best way to improve understanding, and it also automatically promotes memory formation.

Charting Notes:

These notes are put in a table with column headings. Here is an illustration based on cell biology information:

Main Topic: Cell Biology


Learning Objective: understand that all organisms are composed of one or more cells and explain the three parts of cell theory.


Sorry, I can't illustration this because PT does not support tables. Basically, one creates columns with topic headings, and inserts notes into each cell of the chart.

Cornell Notes

There are 5 components of the Cornell notes: topic, learning objective/outcome, keywords/questions, notes, and summary.

Again, I am sorry, I can't illustration this because PT does not support tables. Basically, one creates three columns with  one of the left for ideas and issues, one on the right for key points for the issues, and one at the bottom for a summary or "take-home" message.

Mind Mapping

Ideas can be mapped in ways that show how they relate to each other. The map drawing should begin with outlined notes, because few people can think fast enough to construct a map in real time during a lecture or video. In simple mind mapping, basic ideas are stated within circles and arrows are drawn from “parent” to “daughter” circles. A useful addition is to write in brief text along the arrows that explain what the relationship is. When this addition is included, the map is called a concept map. Here is an example:

W. R. Klemm
Sample concept map on cell biology.
Source: W. R. Klemm

Each circle object in the map can be expanded to whatever level of detail is required. In the map above, for example, from “History” you could add a circle for “Hooke” with a labeled connecting arrow saying “the first pioneer was.” Maps like this are easily made with paper and pencil. If you want more formal maps, these can be done in a computer drawing program like Powerpoint or more automated concept mapping software that is available from multiple vendors.

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.

As with concept maps, the process should begin with outlined notes, because few people can think fast enough to construct a matrix in real time during a lecture or video. Also, as with concepts maps, the main advantage is that the learner has to think about the content. The best way to remember anything is to think about it. 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 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, because knowing where a given piece of information is located makes it easier to remember the information.

To conclude, learners will remember more if they take notes of the learning material. The reason is that note taking requires more attentiveness, engagement with the information, thinking about relationships and applications of the information. Notes also provide a condensed personal copy that can be filed for later reference.