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Journal of Nanzan Junior College. Vol. 28. Dec. 2000. (p. 59 - 78)

Creative Note Taking and Study Skills

by Tim Newfields

English Abstract Japanese Abstract Chinese Abstract
Note Taking and Academic Success
Common Problems Students Have Taking Notes
Popular Note Taking Systems
How to Help Students Take Notes

Note taking can be saidto fulfill three functions. First, it is a way of encoding information. Second, it is a way to consolidate and assess information. Third, notes also have an external storage function. Though it is useful to consider each of these functions separately, cognitive scientists such as Teslow, Carlson, and Miller (1994) suggest they are closely related.
This paper focuses on note taking in classroom lectures, since that is a context many students have difficulty with. Beasley (1990) also points out many students from Asia have difficulty adapting to university lectures overseas. There are probably a variety of reasons for this. One reason may be a lack of note taking skills.

Note Taking and Academic Success

How important is note taking for academic success? A review of the literature shows mixed results. One of the first studies on this topic by Crawford (1925) suggests a positive correlation between student lecture notes and grades. A 1985 study by Einstein, Morris, and Smith also points towards a clear correlation between academic performance and note taking skills. These researchers found successful learners take notes with more salient points than less successful ones. Effective notes, they emphasize, aren't necessarily lengthier, but are more comprehensive. Additional studies by Carrier (1983) and Hult et al. (1984) indicates proficient note takers tend to get higher grades.
Conversely, research by Carter and Van Matre (1975) as well as Henk and Stahl (1985) questions the impact of note taking on information recall. They stress that taking notes is of marginal utility, but reviewing notes regularly can enhance recall. Taking notes without reviewing them periodically may of limited long-term value. Fisher and Harris (1974) maintain students perform best academically when permitted to use their own preferred encoding strategies, which may or may not include taking notes. A 1995 study by Robinson and Kiewra also indicates some students benefit more from visually-based representations of ideas (graphic organizers) instead of textual notes. Visually oriented learners may, in their view, work better with graphic formats.
Though many issues about note taking remain unresolved, these points seem clear:
". . . note taking is best viewed as one aspect of academic literacy . . ."

  1. The Value of Training - Students who have received on-going training on how to take notes frequently become better note takers. This alone does not insure better academic performance, but it may be a component of success. Indeed, note taking is best viewed as one aspect of academic literacy (Nist, 1993). To be successful academically, students need to learn not only how to take notes, but also manage time, take tests, and read/write critically.

  2. The Value of Supplemental Notes - Since student notes often contain gaps and errors, if they are supplemented by course outlines, teacher notes, or notes from other sources, students may remember more. Notes from other sources should not replace personal notes. On this point, Prof. Roszkowski of the University of Illinois has remarked, "Ninety percent of what [students] learn in class is in the process of writing their own class notes." (2000). Kesselman-Turkel and Peterson echo, "The very act of note taking helps you remember the ideas you're taking down. It's much more efficient than just listening or reading . . ." (1982:3).

  3. The Value of Review - Much of the benefit of note taking appears to come from review. The value of periodic review should be stressed, since weak students in particular often lack effective review skills.

  4. The Value of Goals - Note taking is most effective if students have a clear idea of what they are taking notes for. Note taking is a flexible tool which can be used in many ways. The strategy for taking and reviewing notes to merely remember facts differs from that needed to master higher level concepts. According to the University of Toronto Office of Student Affairs, students take better notes if they have a clear idea of their learning goals.

Common Problems Students Have Taking Notes

"Although there is not a single correct way to take notes, some ways are less effective than others."

How well do most students take notes? A report by Palmatier and Bennett (1974) suggests most students are inefficient note takers. Moreover, even good students often fail to capture key information in some lectures. Few schools in Asia attempt to systematically teach note taking skills. Perhaps this is one of the reasons that Yorkey (1982) asserts many foreign students lack the necessary study skills to succeed at universities overseas.
Although there is not a single correct way to take notes, some ways are less effective than others. Eight ineffective note taking behaviors and strategies are listed below.
  1. Writing Too Much - Some over-zealous note takers attempt to record everything without considering the content. A 1979 study by Bretzing and Kulhary points out that verbatim notes are of less value than condensed ones. Perhaps we should remember that note taking is a critical thinking activity which involves a process of sifting and condensing information. Good note takers know what to ignore as well as what to write.

  2. Writing Too Little - Some students simply do not take notes. Others merely jot down a few phrases. Such students are either apathetic or believe they can remember an entire presentation from one listening. Kruger and Dunning (1999) note how poor students in particular tend to overrate their ability to remember information. One way teachers can help such students is to remind them to take notes. An even better way is to show them how to do so.

  3. Writing Incorrect Information - Foreign language students in particular tend to either mishear or record information incorrectly. As Doyon (2000) points out, many Asian students are too self-conscious to tell their instructors when they can't follow a lecture. One thing teachers can do to alleviate this is to encourage student peer mentoring (Murray, 1998). Also, writing down key points often helps. Though students may not bother to listen to a lecture if all of the information is written down, outline notes with information gaps and pre-listening questions can encourage task-based active listening (Ahmed, 1998).

  4. Not Storing Notes Well - Slate et al. (1998) has mentioned how many students simply take notes on loose scraps of paper instead of on notebooks. Such papers are easily misplaced. Many students also have problems locating information in their notebooks because their entries are not properly dated or arranged by subject. Several note taking approaches emphasize the importance of dating entries and placing them in clearly categorized sections of a notebook.

  5. Misquoting, Plagiarizing, or Not Citing References - Students preparing notes for reports need to understand how direct quotes, indirect quotes, and paraphrases differ. Many students do not understand how to cite references correctly. As Boehm (2000) has pointed out, Asian and African students in particular need to be educated about intellectual property rights and what constitutes plagiarism. Copying is rampant in Asia, and some students do not seem to understand plagiarism is unacceptable.

  6. Relying on Other Notes - As a supplement to regular classes and readings, notes from other sources can be beneficial. Kanaoka (1999) suggests that having several information sources can foster critical thinking skills for some students. However, students unaccustomed to sifting through several information sources may become confused by the abundance of contrasting data. The main problem with notes from multiple sources is that all too often mediocre students do not bother to read the original texts or attend the original lecture - they just count on prepared notes to make it through exams.

  7. Over reliance on Technology - As audio and video technology becomes increasingly compact, the temptation to depend on tape recorders or video cameras take notes increases. It should be stressed that recording information is merely one function of note taking. Condensing and reviewing information are also essential. These functions cannot be done by external technologies. Relying on mechanic devices to "catch everything" does not promote cognitive processing. People with tape recorders or video cameras often pay more attention to their microphones or camera lens than what is being said. Moreover, they need to relisten to a presentation to digest it. This is often an inefficient use of time.

  8. Not Reviewing Adequately - The importance of review has already been mentioned. Instead of reviewing frantically just before an exam, students are likely to gain more value by reviewing once or twice a week throughout a semester.

In addition to these problems, foreign language students may find it more comfortable to take notes in their native language. Is that counterproductive? That depends on the learning goals. If the goal is foreign language mastery, it may be worth taking notes in the target language. However, if the goal is to write things down quickly, code-switching might be an efficient strategy.

Popular Note Taking Systems

Dozens of different note taking systems exist. This paper described five which are currently popular. After outlining each system, key features are briefly compared.
  1. Pauk's System - In 1974 Pauk devised a note taking method using loose leaf notes with two columns. Often referred to as the "Cornell System", he suggests the main column be devoted to recording key ideas in paragraph form and the left-hand column be devoted to providing cues. After a lecture or reading, the main column should be checked and memory cues are added. Fig. 1 depicts some notes according to the Pauk system for a literature class.

    Fig. 1

    Figure 1. Sample notes for Act I, Scene 1 of Richard II according to the Pauk system (1974).

    When reviewing, the main column is covered. While reading the cues on the left-hand column, as much information as possible is recalled out loud. Sub-vocalizing the information, in Pauk's view, reinforces it. Persons reviewing their notes should actually try to say the information being recalled out loud.

  2. Fry's System - Fry (1994) emphasizes the role of active listening in classroom note taking. He recommends students try to understand an instructor's preferred teaching style and gauge their verbal and nonverbal cues. For example, whereas some instructors tend to present key information early in a class, others do so at the end.
    Salient characteristics of Fry's system include extensive abbreviations - vowels are eliminated in most words. Often, he suggests mapping out ideas graphically for notes. Fig. 2 offers notes from the first scene of Richard II according to a format recommended by Fry.

    Fig. 2

    Figure 2. Graphic-mapping notes by the author for Act 1, Scene 1 of Richard II based on a system by Fry (1994).

  3. Van Blerkom's System - Van Blerkom (1997) emphasizes that there are many different ways to take notes, and suggests that students gain experience with block-paragraph, graphic-mapping, timeline, and outline style notes.
    She recommends adding recall and/or question columns to most notes after a lecture is over. Though she recommends using extensive abbreviations, she doesn't go as far as Fry in advocating vowel elimination.
    Fig. 1 has already shown what paragraph style notes look like. Fig. 2 has offered an example of graphic-mapping notes. A glimpse of outline notes based on a format recommended by Van Blerkom appears in Fig 3.
    Notice how main ideas and sub-ideas are indented differently. In this format, it is necessary to consider how new ideas relate hierarchically to previous ideas. For well-organized lectures, such hierarchical outline notes can be of value. With presentations which jump around, however, other note taking formats might be more apt. One option is to use block-paragraph style notes for recording presentations, then graphic-mapping notes when reviewing them. Taking notes of notes is, in fact, often an effective review process.

    Fig. 3

    Figure 3. Abridged outline notes for Act I, Scene 1 of Richard II based on a model by Van Blerkom (1997).
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