The poor quality of student notes may reflect not only a lack of skills necessary to take accurate and complete notes but also the complexity of the task. Note-taking involves listening to new and often unfamiliar information, transcribing that information quickly enough to keep pace with the lecture, and deciding how to organize the material to reflect the relationships stated by the speaker. Several studies indicate that students have difficulty organizing lecture material and identifying main points. Furthermore, students say they experience the most difficulty with lecturers who speak too quickly or inaudibly, fail to present a clear outline at the beginning of the lecture, or fail to signal important information. Consequently, how faculty lecture (organization, pace, affect, inflection) and what faculty do during lecture (give handouts, write on the board, emphasize and/or repeat important material, summarize complex information), strongly affect students' ability to take notes. Faculty can improve their students' note-taking ability by focusing on three areas: lecture strategies, the use of handouts, and strategies for engaging students.
Lecture Strategies to Support Note-taking
While the topic of effective lecturing is multifaceted, there are two factors that have a particularly strong impact on students' ability to take notes: 1) pacing, which includes both speed of delivery and the amount and difficulty of information delivered; and 2) "cueing," which involves verbal and visual signals of emphasis, structure, and relationships.
Pacing. The pace with which an instructor delivers a lecture has obvious implications for students' ability to keep up with the presentation and maintain attention. But how fast is too fast? Research indicates that a moderate speed of delivery, around 135 words per minute, best supports student note-taking. Faculty can evaluate their pace by asking a colleague to sit in on a lecture or by distributing a short survey to students, including items such as "The pace of today's lecture was a) Too slow, b) About right, c) Too fast." CRLT consultants can also observe or videotape instructors' classes to assist them in assessing the pace of their lectures.
Appropriate pacing is also affected by the complexity and familiarity of the material. When lectures contain complex or unfamiliar material (or a lot of technical information and terminology), instructors should move more slowly to allow students to record the relevant information. Instructors may also want to balance the amount of new vs. familiar and simple vs. complex material when possible. Conversely, when lecture material is easy to understand or reviews familiar ground, instructors can pick up the pace and expect that students will easily keep up.
Pausing. The simplest way to engage students and improve their notes is to build in short pauses (two to three minutes) a few times during the lecture when students can review and rework their notes. At the end of the lecture, instructors can ask students to take three minutes to do a "free recall," that is, write down everything they remember from lecture. Pausing uses relatively little class time and requires minimal effort from instructors. Pausing also significantly improves student comprehension and retention of material.
Verbal and Visual Cues. Students' ability to discern the structure of a lecture will also play a role in the quality of their notes. Although the problem-centered, chronological, or cause-and-effect organization of a lecture may be self evident to faculty, students may not be able to identify this structure. To help students, faculty can signal lecture structure and hierarchical relationships (e.g., key points versus detail, context versus cause) by verbal and visual cueing. Verbal cues provide clarity and emphasis as well as signal relationships (cause-and-effect, hierarchical, sequential, comparative, etc.). Verbal cues include phrases such as "The four main arguments are...," "A major development was ...," "Applying that concept...," "This story was an example of..."
Instructors can use visual cues to emphasize specific concepts and/or relationships among concepts. Visual cues include writing information or simple diagrams on the board, presenting graphs or complex charts on transparencies, or presenting a running outline of the lecture on slides. The most commonly used visual cue is a topic outline on the board, slide, or overhead at the beginning of class to signal what will be addressed in class that day. Instructors can refer back to the topic outline throughout the class to signal transitions from one topic to the next, to reinforce the relations among topics and to summarize what has been dis cussed at the close of class. Written cues are particularly important in light of students' tendency to record material from the blackboard. However, students often record complex information (such as long definitions, formulas, or labeled figures and diagrams) incorrectly. When it is important to record exact wording or an accurate diagram, student learning is better supported with a handout containing the complete information. While visual cues and handouts are particularly helpful to non-native speakers and students with several types of disabilities, they benefit most students and are well worth the time and effort to use them.
Faculty can support student note-taking by distributing handouts for students to use while taking notes or while reviewing their lecture notes. Students take better notes and review material more effectively if faculty provide a "scaffold," such as an outline, an overview, or other advance organizer for students to use while taking notes. The research on note-taking focuses on three kinds of handouts: outlines, graphic organizers, and copies (full or partial) of the instructor's lecture notes. Students benefit from outlines during lecture because outlines provide a framework for note-taking. Students benefit from graphic organizers during review because graphic organizers facilitate understanding of lecture material. Copies of the instructor's notes help students as supplements to their own notes during review.
Outlines. Outlines provide students with headings and subheadings (identifying major and minor topics of lecture material) and include space to fill in the relevant information in the order it will be delivered during the lecture. The advantage of providing outlines is that they pre-organize lecture material and (through headings and subheadings) make clear the distinction between main and supporting ideas. Studies comparing test performance of students taking notes on outlines provided by the instructor prior to lecture with students taking notes in their usual manner find that students given outlines take more complete notes and perform better on exams. This research suggests that outlines work best when used during lecture to record the material in the order it is presented. Additionally, an outline can enable students to identify gaps in their notes that can be corrected later through consultation with the instructor or peers.
Graphic Organizers. Graphic organizers show relations across categories, concepts, or ideas by organizing information in a two-dimensional format. A common graphic organizer is the matrix, which shows relations by using rows and columns to represent a concept, its subordinate concepts, and corresponding information. The advantage of graphic organizers is that they offer students a meaningful way to think through the information in their notes. As students enter information into the cells of the matrix, they construct a visual representation of the relationships between ideas or concepts presented in a given lecture. Research suggests that providing students with a matrix to complete during review facilitates learning, particularly the ability to transfer the material to new applications and/or synthesize the material.
Distributing Instructor Notes. Instructors might also consider handing out partial to full copies of their own lecture notes. Instructor notes can effectively supplement students' notes by ensuring their accuracy and comprehensiveness. One study found that students who reviewed instructor notes (and did not take their own) performed better on recall tests than students who took and reviewed their own notes. However, most researchers suggest that instructor notes should be used only as a supplement to students' own notes, since the act of note-taking itself helps students learn lecture material and because students claim that their own notes are personally meaningful and represent their personal selection of important points.
Attendance and Dependence
Handing out the instructors' notes raises concerns about student attendance and students' potential dependence on external aids that may hinder mastery of listening and note taking skills. Instructors concerned about attendance have several options:
- make handouts skeletal enough that students need to be present in class for the notes to be useful
- use class time for activities and interactions that will enhance learning and cannot be reflected in simple written summary or outline form
- document the impact of attendance on exam performance and convey that information to students;
- require when students receive instructor notes, in the short-run, students may perform better on tests of mastery of factual material, but in the long run, students may not learn to organize ideas because of a dependence on external aids
Additional Strategies to Support Student Note-taking
Faculty might also consider supporting students' active engagement with their notes through short focused activities during lecture or in office hours. These instructional strategies engage students actively and can help them remember and understand more of the lecture material.
Instruction on Notetaking and Tips Sheets. Instructors, particularly those who teach first-and second-year students, can take time in class to talk about how to take notes for their courses. Instructors can also distribute or post online tips sheets, adding their own suggestions that reflect the discipline they teach and their priorities for the types of materials they expect students to retain and master.
Providing models. Another option is to show students a sample of complete and correct notes, either provided by the instructor or borrowed from students in the class. By examining exemplary notes, students can see what they can do to improve their own notes. Instructors can point out that good notes:
- are correct (or have been corrected)
- identify all main points and selectively include subsidiary points or support
- connect supporting materials to the appropriate main point
- connect examples or stories to the concepts they demonstrate
- summarize the main points of class discussions
- describe interactive experiences in the classroom
- include student comments
- use abbreviations
Peer learning. Faculty can go a step further and allow time for students to compare their notes with those of a peer in the class, offering each other corrections or missing information. After three to four minutes of comparison, students can ask the instructor for clarification and elaboration. The process of peer discussion can also help students identify and articulate questions about the material.
Writing summaries and questions. Asking students to summarize their notes or write discussion questions engages students in the active use of lecture material. Both activities are easily integrated into lecture and significantly improve student comprehension and retention of material. Instructors can collect summaries and select some common problems and particularly good examples to discuss with the class. Faculty can help students formulate questions by offering "question stems" that lead students to ask the kinds of questions that generate improved comprehension (e.g., How is ... related to ...? What is the difference between...and...? In your opinion, what is the best way to...?). Additionally, student summaries and discussion questions provide evidence of how well students understand the lecture material. To further motivate students, instructors can include several questions designed by students on their quizzes and exams.
Office hours. During office hours faculty can suggest to students ways to improve their notes and help students identify gaps in note-taking that did (or will) impact test performance and learning. The importance of review can also be demonstrated to students when the correct information needed for a specific exam question is found in their own notes.
Supporting Students with Disabilities
Students with disabilities often experience difficulty taking notes in lectures. Students overcome these unique challenges by using various support technologies, such as tape recorders, or relying on sign language interpreters.
Notetaking Services for Students with Disabilities. Note-taking services are often used by students with disabilities, particularly when a sign interpreter is used, a student cannot see the lecturer or visual aids (the board, transparencies or PowerPoint slides), or a student cannot keep up with the pace of the lecture. Faculty can help students who have trouble with note-taking by:
- providing complete notes as a supplement
- providing study guides for exams
- giving assignments in written and oral form
- encouraging students and their note-takers to sit together, close to the instructor
Interpreters. Interpreters make it possible for hearing impaired students to learn from lectures. However, classroom interactions and discussions can be fast-paced. Faculty can help hearing-impaired students by repeating questions raised by students before replying to the question, identifying speakers so that the student knows who is speaking, and by regulating cross-talk among students (e.g., students can be asked to raise their hands so that the hearing-impaired student can identify the speaker).
Classroom Management to Support Students with Disabilities. Communicating with disabled students requires sensitivity and flexibility, particularly with seating arrangements. For example, lip reading depends upon a clear view of the speaker. Hard-of-hearing or learning disabled students who use a tape recorder may need to sit close to the instructor. Sight-impaired students may need larger type and an uncluttered format to be able to read handouts. Faculty can prepare and share handouts of the material they will present on the board.
Deborah DeZure, Matthew Kaplan and Martha A. Deerman. 2001. Research on Student Notetaking: Implications for Faculty and Graduate Student Instructors. University of Michigan. Retrieved from http://www.crlt.umich.edu/sites/default/files/resource_files/CRLT_no16.pdf