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I hear a lot about good note-taking strategies vs bad note-taking strategies, and I have seen a lot of research papers on different styles of note-taking. What I haven't seen though is any study that has asked if we should even be taking notes in the first place.

Specifically I would like to know the long-term effects of taking notes vs not taking notes. It is clear to me that if someone has taken notes their entire academic career, then immediately stops, their performance will probably plummet, but how do students who have never taken notes compare to students who have always taken notes?

I would guess certain learning styles would benefit from note-taking while other learning styles are hindered by note-taking, but I would like to see some actual data on this if anyone knows anything about it. A cursory Google search didn't return anything, so I hope there is someone on here that may be able to shed some light on this.

Edit: A lot of people have taken this question to solely be asking for research on this topic. While I would most like to see actual data, I did not intend this to solely be a literature search, and people can post their anecdotal evidence, as long as it is pointed at the long-term difference in note-taking vs not taking notes.

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    @101010111100 There is an entire reference-request tag for questions seeking research-based answers about academia. A good rule of thumb: if a question would be on topic if it didn't specify that answers should be based on research, not only experience, then asking for that higher standard of evidence in answers doesn't suddenly make it off topic. – ff524 Dec 18 '16 at 20:08
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    @emory There's a big difference between 'should you attend lectures?' and 'should you take notes in a lecture?' Either way, I believe there are good arguments for the answer 'yes'. – Jessica B Dec 19 '16 at 7:27
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    @emory My question was not at all about students attending lecture. First, the article you cite only talks about a strict lecture-only format, and that isn't the only format where one could effectively take notes. For example, when I teach, I switch between mini-lectures(5-10 minutes to present a concept or get everyone on the same page), discussion and group work. During the mini-lecture many of my students take notes, and during group work I encourage students to write their ideas out as they discuss them. This avoids the problem of the "pure lecture" while still having students take notes. – Sean English Dec 19 '16 at 13:00
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    @SeanEnglish I commend you for your active teaching style. Whether your students take notes or not, they are ahead of their lecture-only peers. I am not aware of research about note-taking wrt active teaching. I would guess that note-taking is not useful because it interferes with listening and doing, but maybe that is just me. – emory Dec 19 '16 at 13:39
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    Why would this question apply only to students, why should anyone take notes? – Herman Toothrot Dec 19 '16 at 14:00
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You said you're not looking for research on note-taking, so consider this a freebie.

That said, I'm not entirely sure what you are looking for here. There's a preponderance of research showing that (1) putting things in your own words and (2) recall exercises over time significantly improve memory. This pdf has some good overviews, and points to this academic publication (note: paywall) which contains a bunch of actual references.

Actually, the more I'm researching here, there does seem to be significant evidence that the act of note-taking itself is beneficial to recall and understanding. Two more recent examples relate to mock jurors watching a mock trial while either taking notes or not [1][2]. There's a paper which I can't seem to download but I've seen cited a few times that discusses the positive effect of note taking on student performance [3].

All this said, there's more to it than this. There are numerous note-taking methods, and they have a literature all of their own (e.g., [4]). The way you take notes definitely affects how effective the note-taking will be.

So yeah, it helps.


Edit based on comments: There is substantial evidence that note-taking, by itself, improves retention. That said, the OP seems to be curious whether the fact that we take notes at all is biasing our results; perhaps we should be focusing on comparing pure memory recall techniques to note-taking. Said differently, will someone with memory training outperform someone proficient at note-taking?

I still think that this question itself has issues. Specifically:

  1. There is a significant difference between someone who simply doesn't take notes and someone who has trained themselves to not need written notes. I know people who avoid writing anything (mostly psychiatrists who don't want everything written down and subpoena-able), and it took years of mental training to get there. That is different from the lazy kid who just says "I can remember everything."
  2. As with note-taking, there are many different techniques for remembering without notes, each with their own strengths and weaknesses. I think that ignoring the techniques ignores an important part of the question.
  3. I don't think this question is even answerable anymore. Most of the modern world takes notes in some form (source: I made this up), whereas a very minor percentage of people nowadays use purely memory-based techniques (source: I made this up too). As such, finding a representative sample from the second group for our comparison would be pretty doggone difficult.
  • I actually said the opposite, and would like to see research on note-taking... I looked through the things you cited((that weren't behind paywalls) and couldn't find anything pertaining to my question. Specifically the long-term effects of note-taking vs not taking notes. if a study takes students that have been taking notes their entire academic career, then tests their ability to not take notes, they are surely going to do poorly. As far as I have been able to find, it is unclear how a student who has gone their academic career without taking notes would fair against a note-taking student. – Sean English Dec 19 '16 at 18:01
  • @SeanEnglish - Thanks for clarifying. That's a very specific question, and I'm not entirely sure what the grounds for it are. The above links strongly suggest that note-taking improves performance relative to not doing so. As such, asking how well a life-long non-note-taker would perform against a note-taker would require some statistical consideration that the note-taker would do better regardless. Even so, I'm not sure what's being learned there... that's a VERY specific question. – eykanal Dec 19 '16 at 18:21
  • What would be learned is if we should actually be taking notes or not. Just as people need to develop good note-taking strategies over time(your average college student has practiced for a decade.), people need time to develop strategies for studying without notes. When taking notes, people store information in their brain by linking it to the notes. Each time they want to use that information, their thought process passes through the notes, rather than directly connecting related concepts. Could these indirect routes actually hinder long-term conceptual understanding? – Sean English Dec 19 '16 at 18:35
  • Maybe an example will help to illustrate my point. Look at calculator use for students studying math. If those students have been using a calculator for the past decade in their math classes, and you test them with and without a calculator, they will probably perform better with one(as long as the test requires some computation.), but someone who studied without ever using a calculator would probably have much better number sense than the calculator users, and thus may outperform the calculator users. Could a similar thing happen with note-taking? I don't know, and I am curious to see. – Sean English Dec 19 '16 at 18:58
  • @SeanEnglish - Thanks for explaining; I've amended my answer. – eykanal Dec 20 '16 at 14:01
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Anecdotally, not taking notes worked well for me in CS, but the optimal strategy depends on the particular style of instructor delivery.

If tests covers content directly from the texts, it's often beneficial to not to take notes, and give 100% focus to the lectures and engaging in discussion. This approach maximizes real time absorption, giving your brain precious extra seconds to consider the implications of each concept you hear, and to ask clarifying questions. Notes are replaced with the text or course materials for later review.

Alternatively, some instructors will test on concepts from lectures that are not part of course text or materials. In these cases, there is not really much choice other than to take notes (or use recordings) to make sure you have what's needed for exam review.

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I'm addressing different points in my response.

Should you take notes? (Short answer is yes for most subjects especially if you're new to the material and/or have terrible memory)

The long answer is it depends on the subject, individual, and level of expertise in the subject. As an example of the first, it's not uncommon in music to learn by listening so note-taking benefits are limited. For the second, some people can capture information without the need for notes but there is plenty of literature (and this has also been joked as the "Lake Wobegon" effect) that most people feel they can capture information without note-taking but when actually tested their performance was weaker. But recognize most of these studies were for people studying new subjects, which brings me to the final point. If you've been practicing the field for awhile, then the knowledge is embedded in your head so your need for note-taking is less. From experience, you know what you need to pay attention to so you may not write it down. As an example, I've worked with two world leaders in their respective domains. I rarely saw them taking notes when it came down to their own fields but for new materials they did: one was biochemical engineering (expertise thermodynamics) and the other was statistics (expertise biochemical engineering).

What does the science say about note-taking?

It's actually quite complicated for a variety of reasons but here's a short synopsis. First, most people don't know how to take notes and there have been studies on people learning from their own notes vs. those provided by the professors. People did better with the latter but considering that doesn't happen most of the time I consider it a moot point. But if you can get lecture notes from the source use them.

Second, science has actually looked at listening vs. taking notes (and not reviewing- called encoding) vs. storage (which is reviewing notes either you've taken or provided by the expert) and there are many papers that talk about it but one pretty good review paper is by Kenneth Kiewra (1989) Review of Note-Taking: The Encoding-Storage Paradigm and Beyond). Below is a relevant excerpt

From Kiewra's paper: "In 61 studies reviewed by Hartley (1983) and/or Kiewra (1985a), 35 found facilitative encoding effects, 23 indicated that note-takers and listeners did not differ significantly on performance tests, and three studies reported that listening without note-taking led to better performance than note-taking. Among studies comparing the storage and encoding functions, the storage function has proven more beneficial (e.g., Carter and Van Matre, 1975; Fisher and Harris, 1973; Kiewra, 1985b; Rickards and Friedman, 1978)." [Complication was that testing immediately after lecture revealed in many cases no difference but after waiting a week or longer after the lecture the note-takers/reviewers often did better. So, for most realistic settings either take or review your notes. Cramming is not recommended]

What's the best note-taking technique?

People state Cornell but the reality is unless you review, reflect, and synthesize your notes it doesn't matter which approach you take. Cornell just makes it easier to do those steps but the others can be modified to do the same.

Now in the words of one of my professors, "You are not asking the right question."

If the objective is to learn, then note-taking is one way to do that and is the preferred route for most topics and beginners (aka students). But it is not the only way, deliberate practice which may or may not include note-taking is a more general strategy for acquiring expertise. K. Anders Ericsson published a layman's book on it called Peak: Secrets from the New Science of Expertise if you want to learn more. (But even his research has its critics)

  • I understand it's very easy to overestimate abilities, but individual differences are real and can be quite significant in finding your best style. It's not even that some people have "better" memories than others. I didn't realize until later in life that I seem to recall academic lectures better than others, but at the same time seem to be at best average in other situations. Not sure if this is purely due to interest because it happens across subjects. The net of it is, it doesn't cost much to try multiple styles and see what works best. – whitneyland May 25 '17 at 0:27
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I think it is important to distinguish two kinds of note-takers.

The first kind of note taker takes notes because they can't understand the material in real-time. This group of note-takers plan to learn by poring over the notes later, perhaps in several iterations. Such note-takers are, of course, not the creme of the crop academically.

The second kind of note taker takes notes because writing things down is their way of memorizing things. Members of this group of note-takers rarely, if ever, refer back to their notes. Their notes may be distinctly less organized than those of the first group of note-takers. They may also have poor memory when it comes to anything non-academic that they wouldn't necessarily think of writing down.

It's also important to distinguish two kinds of non-note-takers: Students who don't take notes because they plan to barely pass the course versus students why are exceptionally capable of memorizing things without aids.

As you can see, overall, both "good" and "bad" students span the entire spectrum of note-taking, making it difficult to make accurate judgements based on observing note-taking behavior alone.

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    "Such note-takers are, of course, not the creme of the crop academically." Er, how do you make this leap, except by redefining your mixed metaphor to mean "the best people are those who (think they can) digest everything in real time"? – Yemon Choi Dec 19 '16 at 5:12
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    Moreover: on what basis are you making these analyses/judgments/taxonomies of note-takers? Observation of peers? Observation as a teacher or lecturer? – Yemon Choi Dec 19 '16 at 5:14
  • I personally alternate between these two supposed types of note-takers - sometimes in the same class, sometimes in the same lecture. – LShaver Dec 19 '16 at 5:21
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    (The question asks for judgments based on research, not "judgments based on observing note-taking behavior alone".) – ff524 Dec 19 '16 at 5:39

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