How Active Note Taking Improves Test Scores

Have you ever done the following?

  • Asked your teacher to go back to the previous slide because you are still copying notes down.
  • Didn’t write notes because you knew the PowerPoint was going to be available.
  • Took a photo of the notes on the board because it was easier than to write them down.
  • Read a text and highlighted four out of every five words.

If so, you lack effective note taking skills. Either that, or your teacher is behind schedule and is cramming a lot of content into a short amount of time.

 

Effective note taking is a skill that promotes active study – the manipulation of words and concepts to better understand and remember information. As with any skill, good note taking can be learned and will improve with guided practice. Without good note taking skills, you will likely resort to verbatim note taking methods. This is a passive method of note taking. 

Verbatim note taking – the second worst type of note taking

Verbatim means “word for word”. Verbatim note takers try to write down everything the teacher says and writes. The only thing worse than verbatim note taking is no note taking at all.

Why is it verbatim note taking bad? You do not need to think. My 6 year old son could copy Year 12 Physics notes on the reason time dilates at fast velocities. But he won’t understand them. Verbatim note taking puts too much emphasis on transcribing ALL the words at the expense of cognitive (thinking) time to understand the meaning behind the words. As a result the notes are less meaningful to the note taker.

That is to say, if you struggle to write your notes down at the same pace as the teaching, you could be writing down too much.

Active note taking

In comparison, an active note taker only writes down important bits into their notes. How do you know what is important? That is the challenge but becomes easier with practice. Listen to your teacher. They will be emphasising some parts over others through gestures and manipulating their vocal delivery. Some of the obvious content to look out for include key terms/definitions, a formula, lists, numbered steps/sequence of events and anything that addresses the syllabus focus of the lesson. If you are listening with the intent to understand, you are more likely to identify the important bits.

Listening for important concepts while note taking is referred to as “encoding” the information in the lesson. It is active, and hence, a powerful note taking strategy that promotes understanding and remembering the information over the long term. 

The impact of active note taking

A 2012 study by Khan and colleagues split twenty-seven students into three groups. Each group had a similar spread of low and high performing students based on semester 1 results.

  • The teacher gave a detailed PowerPoint to Group one.
  • The teacher gave a detailed PowerPoint to Group two and showed them an instructional video.
  • The teacher did not share the detailed PowerPoint with Group three. These students were told to take their own notes. The teacher used a blackboard as well.

Group three – forced to take their own notes – scored highest in the multiple choice test. They scored an 17.5 % higher on average than Group two. There are holes in the study – I question why was a video was added to Group 2 and a blackboard added to Group 3. However, I am confident that a substantial portion of the higher marks can be attributed to active note taking.

Katayama and Robinson’s 2000 paper assessed 117 students.  Students were given a chapter-length text to study with either complete notes (all information already provided), partial notes (fill in the blanks) or skeletal notes (headings only).

Students took a post test which showed that students with partial notes outperformed other groups – by as much as 27%. The skeletal notes group scored in the middle of the three groups. These students were not given instructions on effective note taking. In other words, the partial notes group had the benefit of seeing examples of what the teacher considered as important information. 

Use an active approach to note taking

To summarise, note taking is important but the approach to taking notes is more important than the notes themselves. Studies show listening and reading with the intent to record the most important bits to review later is better than verbatim note taking or being given completed notes from an external source. 

You can’t control what your teacher does but you can control how actively you take notes. So setup that special notebook, digital file or section in a folder and focus on limiting your notes to the most important parts. As a result, this will help with your understanding of concepts, how concepts link together and will boost your test performance.

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