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N is for Note-taking

Dr. Ken Beatty By Dr. Ken Beatty Published on April 19, 2016

“Now, remember, don’t tip your hat to another witch unless she tips hers first—you’re still an apprentice. And if you should come across some fellweed, be sure to pick it, but only if it’s the four-leaf variety. The five-leaf kind will rot your fingers.”

“Yes, Grandma.”

Mason made a mental note not to touch anything with five leaves.

Cowel made a mental note not to touch anything. (Anderson, 2007)

I can’t remember the book in which I first read the term mental note, but I remember the author used it excessively. My 12-year-old self was following the adventures of some junior detective—perhaps Encyclopedia Brown—who frequently used these mental notes as a cheap plot device to foreshadow further adventures and drum up anticipation. I found the idea enchanting: my own brain could hide a secret vault brimming with my wild ideas.

Now that I am older, like all adults, I find my mental vault over-stuffed and increasingly less secure with short-term memories more susceptible to decay, and my ability to write and retrieve mental notes is sometimes akin to writing and reading words written in smoke. To compensate, I make lists, sometimes on paper and sometimes on my laptop. I flirt with phone apps that promise to organize my notes for me, but I generally find them unwieldy.

Students do all of these things, but in the face of tidal waves of information, they fail to take notes from their readings and lectures efficiently and effectively. This is particularly the case in the first year of college or university, when students attend long lectures after being coddled in shorter classes by secondary school teachers. One 17-year-old English student at the University of Toronto summarizes the dilemma:

It's a lot harder than I thought it would be. … High schools don't prepare you very well for lectures ’cause they really spoon-feed you. They speak very slowly and put everything on the board, and you copy it down and you know exactly what they want you to know, whereas here it's a lecture, and for an hour a guy's talking and you're like, “Oh My God I don't know what to write”. (Freeman, 2009, para. 3)

Ignorance of how to take proper notes and subsequently use them to study is a contributing factor to students becoming overwhelmed and dropping out. Weissmann (2014), reports, “55 percent of first-time (American) undergraduates who matriculated in the fall of 2008 finished a degree within six years” (para. 1). Dropout rates are generally highest among first-year students.

It’s not that there is a lack of advice about note-taking. Students are usually told to listen for main ideas and consider which among them are essential to commit to long-term learning or for use in short-term tasks. To discourage the habit of some to treat lectures as dictation exercises and write down every word, students are encouraged to use note-taking systems. These include:

• The Cornell System, which uses a page divided into sections, one large one to take notes, a column on the left for main ideas, questions, and other details, and a space at the bottom of the page for a summary;

• Mind Mapping, based on schema theory, which connects circled key points with lines and arrows to other ideas;

• The Outline System, which starts with a single idea and then nests progressively indented ideas with bullet points; a new idea starts over with its own nested points;

• The Charting Method, in which the student creates columns for expected types of related information, for example, one column for causes and another for effects, or a chart with columns for dates, events, and a wider column to describe their significance.

There are others, but which is best?

The answer depends on the organization of the information that students encounter. For example, the Cornell Method is appropriate when students are not sure of the topic, but if they expect a history lesson, then the Charting Method might be more appropriate. A lecture full of definitions might suit the Outline System, so that each term can be followed by a nested definition, then by examples, and then by exceptions. Mind Mapping is suited to lectures explaining processes, where each step can be contained in a bubble and linked to other steps/bubbles as in a flowchart.

Over time, it helps if students begin to recognize the variety of styles or genres of lectures. Many of these will follow the patterns students have learned through reading and writing essays. Lectures often use the same compare and contrast, cause and effect, and problem and solution formats, but others are organized differently. For example, some lectures are organized on chronological lines, or based on moving from simple ideas to complex ones, or from well-known ideas to little-known ones.

But how can a student know the genre of a lecture before it starts? The title may help, as will knowledge of the lecturer’s general style of presentation. Lecture formats often depend on the subject matter; a science lecture is almost certain to include definitions and likely to explain processes. A history lecture is likely to be chronological. But, in other cases, a rambling lecturer who weaves in and out of several genres may confound students.

Many students today try to solve the problem of note-taking with technology. Teachers increasingly gaze out from their lecterns not to a sea of eager faces, but to the video cameras and microphones of phones, tablets and laptops. But simply recording a lecture is not note-taking. Do the students watch the videos again? Do they do so repeatedly until the content is memorized? Do they transcribe the lectures, or turn them into notes in some way? Or are such recordings just another form of digital hoarding, keeping endless hours of one’s education for some questionable just in case scenario?

The answer isn’t clear, but the practice is one that should be addressed by teachers to ensure that students are making effective use of not just their technology but also their time.

When listening to a lecture, students should be engaged with the material and not treating it like a television program. A live lecture should be interactive, and students should be formulating questions and arguments and, preferably, be provided a portion of class time to pose and debate them.

Even in cases where there is not time for student interaction during a lecture, good teachers read not just their notes, but also their students, assessing comprehension by smiles, nods, grimaces, and looks of panicked confusion. These visual cues give opportunities for a teacher to modify a lecture’s content and pace.

Recently, I received a curious request related to note-taking. In a series of books, Learning English for Academic Purposes, published by Pearson, there are Reading and Writing books as well as Listening and Speaking books. For one of the latter that I’ve written, teachers wondered if I could supply computer slide presentations for the listening passages.

“But there aren’t any,” I explained.

“Yes, but you could create them.”

The rationale was that students increasingly download their teachers’ PowerPoint slides before a lecture and use them to take notes while they listen. These slides inevitably have gaps, where details are not included, sometimes because the teacher diverges from his notes and adds peripheral comments. The teacher who asked for my help explained that each of my slides should summarize most of the lecture but leave out at least a few key words and ideas.

I complied and delivered the PowerPoints for the teachers to use and followed up in a meeting two months later. The slides were a great success with students, but one teacher had an additional request. “Could you please use abbreviations, ellipses, numerals, ampersands, and other note-taking symbols in your presentations?”

“No!” I cried. “That’s not the point. I’m not writing the notes for the students; it’s the students who are supposed to write the notes from the content they see and hear in their lectures!”

I’m not sure if she accepted the answer, but it seemed symptomatic of an increasing shift in focus to expecting students to only learn collections of facts. Some teachers abrogate their key responsibility: to help students learn to think critically about what they are learning.

This is not a new idea. More than 2,000 years ago, the Greek philosopher Socrates criticized the idea of the written word for the simple reason that you could never engage a book as a debating partner. Socrates believed that only struggling with ideas could lead to true knowledge. Malki (2014) summarizes the idea as the difference between learning to swim by looking at a lake compared to actually entering it.

Books are here to stay, and so too are recording devices in lectures. But unless students use note-taking as a stepping stone to further engage with what they read and see and hear, they are unlikely to learn, and even more unlikely to remember what they learn.

Make a mental note of that.


Anderson, J.D. (2007) Standard Hero Behavior. New York: Clarion Books

Freeman, S. (2009, September 20) 1 in 6 first-year university students won't make the grade. The Star. Retrieved from: http://www.thestar.com/news/canada/2009/09/20/1_in_6_firstyear_university_students_wont_make_the_grade.html

Malki. D. (2014, January 27). True stuff: Socrates vs. the written word. Wondermark. Retrieved from: http://wondermark.com/socrates-vs-writing/

Weissmann, J. (2014, November 19). America’s awful college dropout rates in four charts. Slate. Retrieved from: http://www.slate.com/blogs/moneybox/2014/11/19/u_s_college_dropouts_rates_explained_in_4_charts.html

Author of 130 books in the areas of language teaching and learning and computer-assisted language learning, Ken has lectured in 25 countries giving more than 400 presentations to teachers from ... Show More