Teaching Thought — Note Taking as Critical Thinking

  • Recent research shows students who take written notes as opposed to on a laptop have higher retention of material. We ought to encourage quality note taking in our classes for learning and critical thinking.

A recent article in Scientific American is an excellent summary of research on how students take notes and how that method impacts their rendition of material. Simply put, students who take notes on their laptops retain and remember less than students who write their notes by hand. This is because, the researchers hypothesize, students who take notes by hand are forced to synthesize while writing. Those who type on the laptop can type faster than they write. Thus, they record more verbatim speech from the instructor.  In other words, They transcribe; they don’t really take notes. When students are forced to go slower due to the limitations of pen and paper, they must think more about the material as they prioritize what is being said in order to write down the vital bits. While laptop users took more notes, those who wrote out their notes by hand took better notes. “In each study, however, those who wrote out their notes by hand had a stronger conceptual understanding and were more successful in applying and integrating the material than those who used took notes with their laptops.”

We don’t often draw an immediate connection between note-taking in class and critical thinking. That connection seems more distant; taking notes in class becomes the foundation for critical thinking. Material gained from a lecture is just basic concepts, coming in on the lower level of Bloom’s taxonomy. The critical thinking happens later, when students take those notes and do something with them — use them to solve problems or construct an essay. Except that’s not what the research suggests. Students who are taking notes by hand are engaging in critical thinking as they take notes. This seems counter-intuitive until one reads why the reseachers think those pen and paper notetakers learn more: “[students] listen, digest, and summarize so that they can succinctly capture the essence of the information.  Thus, taking notes by hand forces the brain to engage in some heavy “mental lifting,” and these efforts foster comprehension and retention.” Summarizing and synthesizing are higher order thinking skills, a level up from sheer memorization. Note taking by hand makes students do that in the moment, while new information is coming at them.
What does this mean for classroom practice? Should we all ban laptops? Not necessarily. They certainly have utility as a research tool. I think the real take away for classroom practice comes in questions we can ask ourselves and our students about how they take notes, how we facilitate that note taking, and what happens afterwards. Do we share note taking strategies and research (like the Scientific American article) with our students? Do we pause when lecturing, taking a minute or two to let our students catch up, reflect on what they’ve written, and maybe even share it with a partner? Are we discouraging the critical thinking that happens when students take notes by hand by posting our own notes and/or presentations for students to access?
I have thoughts about all these questions, particularly that last one (which I think is the trickiest) that I hope to explore in the coming weeks. In the meantime, do you do anything to encourage a particular style of note taking in your students?
2 Responses to “Teaching Thought — Note Taking as Critical Thinking”
  1. Benjamin Miller says:

    The logic of hand writing notes is that one uses many brain faculties to synthesize the information (motor coordination, language, verbal understanding, hearing etc.).
    Typing on a computer uses less faculties. Thus, information is less likely to be synthesized into long term memory.
    Motor + information synthesis is key to memory.

  2. Nakia Pope says:

    Thanks, Ben! I’m beginning to discuss this a lot in ASE. Though most of them don’t take notes on computers anyway.

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