Factors Of Effective Note-Taking: Application Of Cognitive Load Theory
By Carolina Kuepper-Tetzel
In the past we have featured a couple of blog posts looking at note-taking and the best methods to take notes during class (see here, here, and here). Effective note-taking has fascinated me for a while now and I was pleased to a) read a recent blog post on Note-Taking: A Research Roundup by Jennifer Gonzalez (@cultofpedagogy) and b) to come across a recent review paper on factors that make note-taking effective (1). In today’s post, I would like to highlight the key points of that review paper because they provide a basis for when note-taking is conducive to and when it may hinder learning and later test performance.
Generally, the functions of note-taking are two-fold: First, taking notes can have a positive effect on the intake and processing of information (encoding effect). The idea of this is that while we take notes, we engage actively with the content of a lecture or class, which leads to better comprehension of the presented material. The second function is that notes allow learners to go back to them and use them to study the material (external storage effect).
The empirical basis of the effects of note-taking on memory performance is – to use the authors’ words – quite “fragmented”. The reason for this is that most research around the effects of note-taking and memory seem to have been conducted in a theoretical vacuum. Without a theoretical framework, it can be quite difficult to make sense of seemingly contradicting results. For that reason, the authors propose a theoretical framework, the cognitive load theory, that allows aligning different findings and that creates a platform on which to plan new research on.
The authors start with the premise that taking notes is cognitively demanding. Thus, cognitive resources need to be made available in order to produce notes. Whenever we are listening to the instructor during class, we need to take in what we hear, extract key point from what was said, make connections between notes that we already have written down, paraphrase or summarize these key aspects, and engage in actually writing the points down. As you can see, when we break down the act of note-taking into its approximate cognitive components things don’t look so simple anymore. If we accept the premise that note-taking is an effortful task, we can apply the cognitive load theory and start thinking about conditions under which we can expect note-taking to foster memory performance and under which it hinders learning instead because adding note-taking to our cognitive load may strain our processing capacity – leading to a decrease in performance.
Based on the assumptions of the cognitive load theory about human information processing, the review paper discusses factors that should affect note-taking effectiveness. Keep in mind that these are tentative suggestions at this point based on theoretical deliberations and a few empirical findings. The authors repeatedly state that much more research is needed in this area to draw stronger conclusions. Nevertheless, I agree that providing the theoretical framework of the cognitive load theory when investigating the effectiveness of note-taking is a step in the right direction. So, let’s extract the key take home messages, shall we?
Lectures and classes that are well structured and that provide students with organizational pointers (e.g., mentioning the number of points that will be elaborated on, “I will be presenting three pieces of evidence against theory X.”) reduces cognitive load in students and frees up processing capacity to engage in effective note-taking.
The format of a lecture could play a role. In live lectures, for instance, note-taking will lead to a higher cognitive load because it needs to happen simultaneously, whereas when viewing lecture recordings students have the option to stop the recording to take notes. Consequently, they will miss fewer details when they are engaging in note-taking and the notes are probably going to be of higher quality.
There is an ongoing debate whether it is more beneficial to take notes by hand or with the laptop. In fact, there is empirical evidence for both positions: There are studies that have revealed a benefit of laptop notes over longhand notes arguing that the reason for this is that we can type faster than we can write, which means that we can direct our attention back to the instructor quicker, missing fewer details. In contrast, studies that have revealed clear benefits of longhand notes over laptop notes argue that this may be due to characteristics of the notes: With longhand notes being less verbatim and more paraphrased than laptop notes – leading to deeper processing of the material during note-taking. Cognitive load theory would suggest that other conditions, for example, lecture complexity could play a moderating role in the effectiveness of different note-taking methods – with more complex material benefitting from quicker note-taking on the laptop, so that attention can be quickly redirected to the teacher.
Often it is suggested that paraphrasing when taking notes is the gold standard. However, paraphrasing takes cognitive effort and the danger is that if a lecture is overly complex or fast-paced, students – particularly ones with lower prior knowledge or lower cognitive abilities – will very quickly reach their processing limit leading to a collapse of comprehension altogether. Thus, in such cases it can actually be more beneficial to take more verbatim notes instead and maybe postpone paraphrasing and organization of notes until after the lecture. Simply because more notes are better than no notes.
Taken together, reflecting about note-taking within the cognitive load framework shows us that we must consider different parts of the puzzle, e.g., lecture features, learner characteristics, note-taking methods, and the interplay between them in order to make note-taking effective. Only then can promising recommendations be made that create successful learning experiences during lectures and classes.
(1) Jansen, R. S., Lakens, D., & IJsselsteijn, W. A. (2017). An integrative review of the cognitive costs and benefits of note-taking. Educational Research Review, 22, 223-233.