Take note!

The handwriting of someone who doesn’t use a pen that often…

I find it difficult to imagine a psychology teacher who doesn’t think that students’ notes don’t matter. But we don’t often think about why they matter and how to help students to get the most out of making them. I’ve been asked to develop some CPLD materials on the subject of notes so I’ve been trying to distil my ideas about this recently. What follows may be stating the obvious but I don’t think that’s necessarily a bad thing, since the obvious is easy to overlook.

Why do notes matter?

Working memory capacity is limited, and the encoding of stable, long term memories is a slow and cumulative process. Effective note making strategies are therefore important for at least two reasons. First, notes are a holding area for material that has been presented to students but which has not yet been encoded (fully) into LTM. If note-making is effective, the ideas are recorded in ways that they can make sense of and encode later. Second, note making is a process which helps students learn. It gives them opportunities to identify what’s important, construct meaning from it and re-encode it in ways that require deep processing.  

What does research tell us about note making?

There’s a fair bit of research into the features of effective note-making, and relatively little of it will surprise anyone who has a basic familiarity with cognitive psychology. What follows is based principally on Beecher (1988), Marzano et al. (2001) and Marzano (2017).

  1. Verbatim note taking is relatively ineffective. Note making is most effective when the student is engaged in analysing and synthesising incoming information.
  2. Notes work best when student and teacher view them as a work in progress. Note making strategies should allow for the review and updating of notes, and teachers should plan for this as a distinct activity.
  3. Notes should be used as the basis for study for tests and examinations. This sounds obvious, but a surprising number of students don’t use their own notes in this way. This may be because it does not occur to them that their notes are for them (as opposed to for their teacher) or because the notes they have made are unsuitable for exam preparation.
  4. With note-making, less is NOT more. Students are sometimes instructed to keep notes as brief as possible. This is poor advice. Students who include more information in their notes tend to learn more and learn better.

Should notes be handwritten or typed?

It is becoming more common for students to create their notes using devices rather than writing them by hand. The evidence is against this. Although the typical student types faster than they write and therefore can record more (see point 4 above), students who type are typically focused on creating a verbatim record of what the teacher said and, therefore, are not particularly focused on making sense of the teacher’s messages (see point 1). Because hand writing is slower, students are forced to think harder about what matters and how best to encode it, which gives handwriting a significant cognitive edge over typing because information is processed more deeply (cf. Craik & Lockhart, 1972). In addition, the act of writing an idea down involves encoding a unique set of pen movements which may later act as a retrieval cue for the idea being encoded (cf. Tulving & Thompson, 1973; this might be familiar to any crossword solvers who have used the strategy of writing quickly unknown partial words to cue recall of candidate solutions). All keystrokes are roughly identical, so the same unique retrieval cues would not be available to those who type their notes. Clear empirical support for the idea that written note-making is superior to electronic comes from Mueller and Oppenheimer (2014), summarised usefully here by Cindi May.

How should we teach note making?

It is easy to assume that your students arrive with appropriate and effective skills and strategies already in place but, often, they don’t. Students can achieve a lot at GCSE with relatively poor note-making skills but then struggle at A – Level because their skills are inadequate for the volume of material they now encounter and the type and depth of thinking they are expected to do. Note making should therefore be taught explicitly as a skill. This means directly instructing students on how to do it, giving them opportunities to practice and giving them improvement-focused feedback on how they are doing. Although there is no automatic ‘best format’ for note-making (it depends on the subject, level and learners) I have no problem with being quite prescriptive about how students on my course are expected to make their notes. I generally set reading and note-making as advance preparation for class and I teach and expect my students to use a basic version of the Cornell system for their notes (example below).

Useful strategies for teaching note-making include:

  1. Giving examples of your own notes so that students have a clear idea of what they are expected to produce.
  2. Modelling the process of note-making for your students. Take a short text and give a copy to your students to read first. Then create notes ‘live’ either on the board or under a visualiser, ‘thinking aloud’ while you do it, so that students get access to your decision-making process. Saying things like, ‘I’m going to read the whole thing first, because I don’t know what really matters until I know what the whole text says’, or ‘This paragraph has a topic sentence, so I think this is important’, helps sensitise students to the key features of effective note-making.
  3. Scaffolding the note-making process. This could mean you modelling your note-making process for the first two paragraphs of a text and then telling students to continue on their own, while you circulate and give feedback. Or it could involve you creating a partial set of notes the students need to complete.
  4. Practising note-making as a regular task. Show you value it by setting it explicitly, checking it has been completed and offering feedback on what students have produced. This need not be time consuming. I regularly set note-making as a preparation task for class and my students are used to a routine whereby they start the class by ‘comparing notes’ while I circulate, check completion, ask the odd question about something that catches my eye and comment on features I like or dislike.
  5. Teaching explicitly the component processes of effective note making. First and foremost of these is summarising. The capacity to identify the critical ideas in a topic and describe the relationships between them is extraordinarily influential on subject learning, and so should be taught directly. Other useful skills include generating graphic or non-linguistic representations of ideas e.g. tables, spider diagrams, timelines, which can be used as part of note-making.

We introduced direct instruction in note-making several years ago when we rethought the design principles that underpin teaching in our department. It is part of our induction course and we insist on the Cornell system throughout the A – Level course. We have met remarkably little resistance from students. The overwhelming majority simply adopt our expectations as  ‘how we do things around here’ and it just becomes their default approach to note-making. I believe it contributes significantly to the quality of their learning, and I also believe that, by teaching note-making well, we equip our students with a skill set that will continue to serve them long after they have forgotten all the psychology they ever knew.


Beecher, J. (1988). Note-taking: What do we know about the benefits? ERIC Digest, EDO-CS, (37): 88-12.

Craik, F.I.M. & Lockhart, R.S. (1972). Levels of processing: A framework for memory research. Journal of Verbal Learning and Verbal Behavior, 11, 671-684.

Marzano, R.J. (2017). The New Art and Science of Teaching. Alexandria, VA: Solution Tree/ASCD.

Marzano, R.J., Pickering, D. & Pollock, J. (2001). Classroom Instruction that Works. Alexandria, VA: ASCD.

Mueller, P.A. & Oppenheimer, D.M. (2014). The pen is mightier than the keyboard: Advantages of longhand over laptop note making. Psychological Science,  25(6), 1159-1168.

Tulving, E. & Thompson, D.M. (1973). Encoding specificity and retrieval processes in episodic memory. Psychological Review, 80(5), 352-373.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *