Are notes worth taking at all?
Sometimes it feels like taking notes is a total waste. The quick answer is that cognitive load impacts your ability to pay attention while taking notes and can make note-taking ineffective in certain scenarios.
The short answer is that your note-taking strategy should be optimized to minimize cognitive effort through basic strategies like taking fewer notes and focusing more on lecture comprehension. This can be done by taking notes by hand and avoiding transcription of lecture material.
Why cognitive load matters
The research is often mixed on the benefits of note-taking. A study by the Journal of Educational Research Review discusses that there are many studies both supporting and opposing the benefits of note-taking. It’s most likely that something called cognitive load is what actually determines if note-taking is worthwhile.1 Cognitive load can help us know when sometimes it’s better to just focus on listening to the lecture or take fewer notes.
Cognitive load is essentially your mental effort. When you take notes in class this takes up cognitive load because you are focusing both on comprehending the lecture and recording information.
On the other hand, if you don’t take any notes you will find it much easier to focus purely on the lecture because the cognitive load is lower. If the cognitive load is too high your retention will be worse.1
The research also talks about what affects cognitive load in a university lecture setting. Below are 5 factors that increase your cognitive load1.
5 factors that increase cognitive load
- Organized vs disorganized lecture
- Video vs audio/text lecture
- Faster lecture speed
- Handwriting notes vs Typing
- Organized or transcribed note-taking structure
It is important to note that cognitive load is not always a bad thing. As I will discuss later, writing non-transcribed hand-written notes over typing them does take more cognitive load. However, the expense can be worthwhile because it leads to higher encoding.
Is note-taking worthwhile for you?
Given what we know about cognitive load, how do we know if we should take notes or not? The research discusses that the tolerance for cognitive load varies from person to person.1 This makes it hard to give a general recommendation for when you should or should not take notes.
Despite this, I think we all know what a high cognitive load feels like and when it becomes too much. You need to self-assess if you are still able to understand the lecture and shift your strategy accordingly. If you realize that you were not paying attention because you were busy writing information you have a few choices.
What to do if you are cognitively overloaded (3 choices)
1. Stop taking notes entirely
If you feel like the cognitive load for what you are learning is very high it might just be better to focus entirely on the lecture.
2. Reduce the focus on writing notes
Devote more attention to understanding the lecture. Research indicates that taking fewer notes by using strategies like summarizing, paraphrasing and visually mapping more information (more on this later) leads to what is called the encoding effect. Using some cognitive effort on this (if you can) increases retention.2
3. Transcribe and review
You can just focus on getting everything written down so you can review it later. This is called the external storage effect and it has been shown that this is effective if the notes are reviewed later but little learning happens during the actual note-taking process.2
However, I would argue that focusing on transcription so you can review later is a waste of class time because you could likely gain the same benefit by just reading the textbook rather than your transcription after class.
The research recommends that you take advantage of both encoding and external storage. You can get retention from both encoding information at the time you take your notes and retrieval when you review.2
So if we choose to keep taking our notes during lectures, how can we best reduce our cognitive load when taking them?
How to take notes with a lower cognitive load
When you decide to take notes there are a few things to avoid that can help reduce your cognitive load and allow you to focus more on the lecture material.
Do not transcribe material
Do not transcribe material. Interestingly if you are going to be tested right away typing and transcribing your notes is likely more effective. But if you are being tested days later (like almost all university students) taking organized and more concise notes with fewer verbatim words generally improves retention.3
It’s very easy to just copy down everything when using a laptop and turn off your brain. However, simply transcribing notes is not an effective strategy. It distracts you from the lecture and doesn’t allow you to fully focus on actually understanding the material.
Try and be concise in your note-taking to free up your mental resources. Below are 4 quick tips to be concise in your note-taking.
How to be concise and avoid transcription: 4 quick tips
- Don’t write things you already know
- Use images to integrate ideas together
- Put information into your own words
- Summarize large parts into smaller ones
Take notes by hand
This ties into transcription as well but it is generally a bad idea to type your notes. This is because people naturally tend to transcribe and write more verbatim content when they type even if they are told not to explicitly. This leads to shallower processing of the information and worse test performance.2
Beyond this, there is actually evidence that handwritten notes increase retention for many types of information, especially when you are not tested right away after taking these notes.2
Specifically recall of conceptual information compared to factual information has been shown to be worse when typing your notes rather than writing them by hand2.
It is also easier to use imagery when you write by hand and this is been shown to boost retention4.
Note-taking requires mental effort. This can cause note-taking to be distracting depending on your tolerance for the cognitive load and several factors that affect it. If you cannot pay attention to the material you are taking notes on you should shift your note-taking strategy to allow for more focus on the content by taking fewer notes.
If you choose to continue taking notes, you can optimize your notes to use less cognitive load by avoiding transcription and writing by hand rather than typing on a laptop.
- 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(November 2017), 223–233. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.edurev.2017.10.001
- Mueller, P. A., & Oppenheimer, D. M. (2014). The Pen Is Mightier Than the Keyboard: Advantages of Longhand Over Laptop Note Taking. Psychological Science, 25(6), 1159–1168. https://doi.org/10.1177/0956797614524581
- Bui, D. C., Myerson, J., & Hale, S. (2013). Note-Taking With Computers: Exploring Alternative Strategies for Improved Recall. Journal of Educational Psychology, 105(2), 299–309. https://doi.org/10.1037/a0030367
- Wammes, J. D., Meade, M. E., & Fernandes, M. A. (2016). The drawing effect: Evidence for reliable and robust memory benefits in free recall. Quarterly Journal of Experimental Psychology (2006), 69(9), 1752–1776. https://doi.org/10.1080/17470218.2015.1094494
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