If you’re like most teachers, you probably believe that the information you share in your lectures is good material that your students need to capture and learn in order to master your course’s content. It goes without saying, then, that anything that would help your students to capture your lecture’s content as close to word-for-word as possible would be a great benefit for learning, right?
Wrong! You do NOT want students capturing your words verbatim. The fact is, the closer they come to getting your words down word-for-word, the less they’re probably going to learn. Let’s take a look at the reasons for this.
Their Words are Better than Your Words
First of all, it’s important to keep in mind that their words for the content are always better than your words, assuming that their words accurately capture the key components of that content (and yes, I know that this may be a big assumption with some students–I’ll address this more later).
Now, don’t get me wrong. I’m not saying that you aren’t a good presenter, and that your words aren’t brilliant. In fact, I’m sure they are.
But the problem is that they’re your words. You thought about the content and formulated your explanation of that content in a particular way. To do so, you had to do some real thinking–analyzing the information to decide what was more and less important, organizing the information in a way that would make sense to others, making connections between the information and related information (perhaps even developing a simile or analogy through which to explain the information).
But we always have to keep in mind that, when we deliver this well-thought-out, well-structured content, our students haven’t had to do any of this thinking for themselves. They haven’t analyzed the material, they haven’t structured it, they haven’t made any connections. In other words, they haven’t processed the material, and one of the axioms of brain-compatible teaching is that “the one doing the processing is the one doing the learning.”
So, any form of note taking that your students do that preserves the material in a form very close to your words instead of forcing your students to reformulate the material into their own words is going to lead to less learning, since your students will have done less processing of the material.
A Picture is Worth a Thousand Words
At this point, I’d like to introduce another important variable to the discussion. So far, I’ve only talked about words. Words have power, no doubt. They’re one of the primary ways we process information and express that information to others. But they’re not the only way.
Another way to process and express information is through visuals–pictures, drawing, diagrams, charts, etc. In fact, a number of researchers, including Paivo (1990), LeDoux (1996), and Marzano (2004) have written about the power of imagery to encode information differently, and in some ways more successfully, than words. The best thinking on this topic at the moment is that information is best processed in “bi-modal packets” that include both linguistic representations and non-linguistic representations.
When we ask students to process the information we teach both ways–linguistically and non-linguistically–we facilitate the processing of the information in a way that the brain prefers. As a result, students form more rich “mental maps” of the material, the material is stored in multiple locations in the brain, and students are more likely to be able to recall the information when needed.
The Very Best Way for Students to Take Notes
Everything I’ve talked about to this point has been a preamble to my explanation for what I believe is the very best way for students to take notes. In light of what I’ve covered above, you won’t be surprised that I believe the most effective approach to note taking should include (1) students capturing the material in their own words in some way, along with (2) a visual representation of the material.
But exactly what form should this take? Before I give my answer, let me set it up by outlining a range of possibilities:
Option 1: The teacher lectures and students capture the material verbatim, or very nearly verbatim (most commonly, this means that students listen to the lecture and type on their computers what the teacher says as she talks, but it could also mean an audio recording of the lecture that students listen to again later).
Option 2: The teacher lectures and students take hand-written notes.
Option 3: Prior to the lecture, the teacher creates a graphic representation of the material (without words, or with minimal words such as headings) and passes this out to the students. As the teacher lectures, students are asked to listen and not take notes while the teacher is talking. The teacher pauses periodically and has the students record information in the graphic organizer by summarizing the material just covered and placing the key points in the correct areas of the organizer.
Option 4: Prior to the lecture, the teacher creates a graphic representation of the material, with all the key content already filled in (both headings and key points) and passes it out to students (or has it posted on the class website where students can look at it during the lecture). Students then take hand-written notes on another sheet of paper to augment the visual representation.
Option 5: Prior to the lecture, the teacher creates a complete “done-for-them” written and graphic represenation of the material and passes it out to students (or has it posted on the class website where students can access it during the lecture). Students are simply asked to listen to the lecture, since they already have the notes in hand to look back at later.
OK, of these five ways of transmitting information to students, which one will lead to the most learning? Let’s go through them one by one.
Students Take Notes Verbatim: Research has shown over and over again that, when students take notes verbatim, both their comprehension of the material and their ability to recall it at test time suffers (May, 2014). This is because they do very little processing during note taking. Most students in this situation probably think, “I’ll get it all down now, and I can think about it later when I go back over my notes.” The problem is, the research shows that this approach is unsuccessful for most students. So this clearly is not the best option.
Students Take Hand-Written Notes: Hand-written notes are clearly better than verbatim typed notes. This is because students are unable to keep up with the teacher and are therefore forced to analyze the material to sift out the less important material from the more important material and are forced to summarize that key material in their own words. For most students, however, the resulting notes are still in words. While some students learn somewhere along the way how to create and incorporate visual representations of content into their notes, these students are few and far between. Plus, it’s hard to create an appropriate visual representation of material on the fly, as you don’t know what the teacher is going to cover until she does so. Bottom line, hand-written notes force more processing and are therefore better than typed notes, but they still leave much to be desired.
Students Listen to the Teacher and Fill In a Nearly-Blank Visual Organizer as Directed: This option offers several advantages that typed or hand-written notes do not. First of all, the teacher in this option has thought about the content she will be presenting and has created a graphic representation that matches the content. For example, a flow chart would be a good choice for representing a series of cause-and-effect events, or several arrows traveling in a circle might be a good choice for representing a cyclical process. The fact that there are just enough words on the graphic to make it clear to students where certain information fits is also important. They know where to place the information, but the information will have to be in their own words. Another advantage of this approach is that students can listen with their whole attentional focus and truly think about what the teacher is saying because they know that they won’t miss any key points–the teacher will pause and let them know when they need to capture something in the organizer. When the lecture is through, students have a representation of the material captured both in visual form and in their own words.
Students Take Notes With a Filled-Out Organizer in Hand: In this approach, the teacher has done a little more up-front work. Not only has she created a visual organizer that represents the content, but she has filled in in advance all the key information. Students can relax and know that if they miss something while taking notes, it will be in the organizer. The drawback with this approach is that, while students are getting some benefit from putting information from the lecture into their own words by taking hand-written notes, some of the thinking has already been done for them by the teacher. This may encourage some students to check out mentally, knowing that the teacher’s notes will still be there, whether they take good notes themselves or not.
The Teacher Provides Students with a Complete “Done-For-Them” Version of the Lecture, Both in Words and a Visual Representation: In this version, the teacher does the most work. The idea is to make sure that students can’t possibly miss any of the key information, as they are being provided that information both in words and a visual(s). The problem is, the students aren’t required to do any thinking for themselves in order to capture the information. Sure, they’re freed up from having to take notes, as the notes are already done for them, and this should allow them to give good attention to the teacher while she speaks, but this advantage would hardly make up for the lack of student processing in this approach.
And the Winner Is…
I’m sure it’s already clear from my explanations above, but I’ll spell it out, just to be sure. Of all the different options for note taking in a class, option number three above is (at least in my opinion) far superior to the others. This is the note-taking approach suggested by Harvey Silver and Matthew Perini in their book, The Interactive Lecture (2010), which I highly recommend to all teachers. This approach still requires students to put key points in their own words, and it takes advantage of the dual-coding principle by giving students a visual representation of the material, as well. Students are freed up to listen to the teacher, but they’re also “encouraged” to do so by the fact that they know they will soon have to put the material into their own words and enter it into the organizer. This approach offers the best balance of attention, teacher scaffolding, and student processing of all the options covered.
Any lecture situation is challenging for the brain. It’s difficult to sit and listen to someone else talk, think about what is being said, and come away from it with a good record of the key information to use for study purposes later. But you can make the challenge much more manageable by having students take notes in a way that allows them to think about what’s being presented and capture it in both their own words and in a visual form. If you use this approach, your students will walk away from your lectures having done some great initial processing of the material, and they will have in hand a solid, dual-coded representation of that material from which to refresh their memories later. As a result, you will see your students’ test scores go through the roof! If you haven’t tried this approach before, give it a shot. I think you’ll be very happy with the results.
LeDoux, J. E. (1996). The emotional brain: The mysterious underpinnings of emotional life. New York: Simon & Schuster.
Marzano, R. J. (2004). Buiding background knowledge for academic achievement: Research on what works in schools. Alexandria, VA: ASCD.
May, C. (2014, June 3). A learning secret: Don’t take notes with a laptop. Scientific American Mind. Retrieved from https://www.scientificamerican.com/article/a-learning-secret-don-t-take-notes-with-a-laptop/
Paivio, A. (1990). Mental representations: A dual coding approach. New York: Oxford University Press.
Silver, H. F. and Perini, M. J. (2010). The interactive lecture: How to engage students, build memory, and deepen comprehension. Alexandria, VA: ASCD.