How to take higher quality notes in class: Top 7 strategies

In my practice as a professor, I have noticed an anecdotal difference between the notes that my A and C students take. According to one study [1], students who are taking higher quality notes  are doing so in an interactive fashion (versus merely recording verbatim) and are more likely to be engaged in metacognition (thinking and evaluating one’s thought processes and understanding) and self-regulation (managing one’s behaviors for optimal results), which are in turn more likely to lead to deeper processing. The good news is that teachers can teach their students how to take higher quality notes. Even better, note-taking activities which are designed to do so are themselves a learning process which can help students think metacognitively about their own studying, and also can improve their retention of course material [2]. A virtuous cycle!

Here are 7 strategies for taking higher quality notes, which you can teach your students today:

  • Draw a line down each sheet of paper to make two columns. One column should be 1/3 of the width of the paper, and the other column should be the other 2/3 Take notes on the side that has 2/3 of paper, leaving the other one-higher quality notesthird of the paper blank. After class is over, create questions or summaries about the material on the blank side that can be used to quiz yourself about the lecture notes.
  • There are many studies about how students should engage with their notes after class. One of them [3] found that the best use of the lecture notes was to create original summaries of those notes. The next best way to encode and process that notes was to create original questions about the material that had just been covered.

These questions should be at higher levels on Bloom’s taxonomy. You want questions that are not merely factual (e.g., What was Freud’s first book called?). You want questions that apply the material you are learning (e.g. How could I use Dr. Rich’s article to improve my teaching?) or integrate the material you are learning with something else that you learned from another source (e.g. How is metacognition similar to critical thinking?)

    • Set aside dedicated study time to review your higher quality notes, reread summaries, and answer the questions you created about those notes.
    • According to a recent study by Mueller and Oppenheimer (2014), the act of taking notes in long hand involves deeper processing than on a laptop or tablet. Typing on a device tends to be mere transcription, while long hand involves summarizing and interpreting.
    • As you have comments or questions about the material as it is being taught, write them on the edges of the paper, so that they don’t clog your working memory as you rehearse what you want to say. This allows you to focus on the content more fully.
    • When you reread notes and textbook, add additional comments about how those two sources can be integrated. E.g. when the textbook discusses a term, you can write in the margin a few words about the example the teacher used during class time. OR, when the notes provide a description of a concept, you can write a new note about a study that the textbook describes which illustrates that concept. This practice is requiring your brain to think about course concepts at a deeper level, which should lead to easier recall and better understanding.

In general, the more you study to understand the concepts and overall message of your course material, the more likely it is that you will perform well on exams. In a study by William Balch [4], two sections of the same course were approaching an exam. In one section, the professor informed the students that they would be receiving a multiple choice exam. In the other section, the students were told that they would be taking a short answer/essay exam. When they returned to class for the exam, they were all given a multiple choice exam. The students who studied for the “wrong” type of exam outperformed the students who studied for the multiple choice exam.

higher quality notes
A well-researched guide to notetaking

This is presumably because studying for long-form questions requires you to understand and process information at a higher, more conceptual level than merely studying to memorize facts and terms. Since the students who studied at that higher level understood the material for its meaning, they were able to decipher the answers to questions that required recall.

  • Learn/brainstorm abbreviations that you can use for recurring words, so that you won’t need as much time to write them down when you are taking notes in class. E.g., if you are a psychology major, you need to learn to write the Greek symbol for Psychology (I’ll have an image of it here). You will save a lot of time writing this symbol, which allows you to capture more of the content as it is delivered.







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