Thursday, February 3, 2022

"It ain't what you do it's the way that you do it" - note taking skills

Photo by Dollar Gill on Unsplash
One rather sad reflection on the world today is that we tend to believe what we want to believe and often disregard scientific evidence that goes against these beliefs. Sometimes it gets absurd - it may be a myth but it's such a good story so we're sticking with it. Even in education we have many myths that are simply too good to discard, despite considerable scientific evidence against them. Digital natives, learning styles, the benefits of open-plan offices are still going strong after all these years. 

Another fondly held belief is that learning was somehow better before computers came along. This appears in different guises such as the benefits of print books over e-books, classroom teaching versus online teaching, video meetings versus online meetings and so on. Another in this series is about handwritten notes being more beneficial to learning than typed notes on a digital device. A post by Donald ClarkIs handwriting better than typing for note taking? Surprisingly, it's not!, debunks this myth very well, though I suspect that it will still continue to thrive. Clark points out that the claim is based on one article from 2014 that showed better learning from handwritten notes. Subsequent studies have shown no significant difference between the note-taking methods but have received much less coverage than the original study. The problem is that it is not a simple contest between two methods but we need to look deeper to see that note-taking is a valuable learning tool, no matter how you do it, but also that it is one of many learning strategies. Learning happens when you make a conscious effort.

It would seem that writing notes in your own words, and studying your notes, matter more than the methods used to write your notes. This makes sense, as the cognitive effort involved in studying are likely to outweigh the initial method of capture. It is not note taking that matters but effortful learning.

There are far too many discussions today trying to prove which method/tool/medium is "best" as if it was a contest. Taking notes is a skill that all students need to develop but they need to find the format that works for them whether it be traditional handwritten notes, Word documents, collaborative notes in Google Drive, a writing tablet, a collaborative mindmap or even reflections recorded as voice notes. The active process of summarising, rephrasing and sorting is part of the learning process. 

This debate focuses on one issue, the method of note talking but the more important issue is to move beyond note taking to actual learning. Here we know that underlining, highlighting and rereading are not efficient learning strategies. One needs to move towards effortful, generative learning, deliberate, retrieval and spaced practice. Note taking is not an end in itself, merely the start of a learning journey. It is an important bridge to more effortful learning.

Note taking can also be used as an alternative to recording online meetings. Simply hitting the record button is convenient for students but why not ask them to take notes instead and collaborate in producing collective notes? They may need some guidelines at first, but if two students take notes during the session and at the end allow the rest of the class to fill in gaps and post comments and links the collective notes can be much more valuable than a simple recording.


  1. Hi Alastair, I confess that I initially also spread the myth about the superiority of hand writing, but I later repented and started to focus more about how you work with the material, instead of how the material was collected. Quite critical to get the students to understand this, especially those who come from non-academic background.
    Regards Ulf (educational developer at Medicine and Pharmacy, UU)

  2. I also spread this. It sounded so reassuring. I still take handwritten notes sometimes but the problem is that I simply can't read notes from a long time ago. Digital notes are at least legible :-)