Two Ways to Take Better Notes

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If you ask ten people what the best way to take notes is, you’ll probably get ten different answers. Ultraorganized note-takers (a group to which I cannot claim membership) come up with all sorts of crazy schemes involving bullet points and different-colored pencils and diagrams connecting ideas and so on. Others, like me, just use a series of dashes followed by semi-coherent summaries of ideas. Which systems work best? It’s an open question, but one researchers are making progress on, and a new study in the Journal of Applied Research in Memory and Cognition lends some helpful insights.

Science of Us contributor Christian Jarrett has a helpful summary up over at the the British Psychological Society’s Research Digest website. The researchers, Dung Bui and Mark McDaniel of Washington University in Saint Louis, had a group of study participants take notes on a 12-minute lecture “about breaks and pumps” using “a skeletal outline,” “an illustrative diagram” showing how the systems being explained work, or just a blank sheet of paper. They were then, after a period of distraction, tested in a few different ways on their ability to recall what they had learned.

The results varied a bit depending on the participants’ organizational strengths:

Regardless of their own ability level, the students who received a lecture outline performed better at free recall of the lecture than the control participants. They also took more comprehensive notes. When it came to the specific questions on the lecture material, however, the lecture outlines helped high ability students but not those with low structure building ability. By contrast, both high and low-ability students who received annotated diagrams performed better at free recall than the controls and at answering the questions, despite actually taking fewer notes. The researchers said this is probably because diagrams help students see the major components of a system and how they work together.

The cynical response to this is to say, “Well, of course those students performed better — the notes were partly already taken for them!” Those sorts of outlines and diagrams, of course, are exactly the sorts of things effective note-takers create from scratch. But if the goal is to impart as much information as possible to students — rather than to make some sort of curmudgeonly point about students pulling themselves up by their own note-taking bootstraps — this research offers some pretty clear tips for educators.

As for the note-takers themselves, Bui and McDaniel’s finding ties into other research that suggests the more you can forge connections between related concepts, the better off you’ll be. And you don’t even need a dump truck’s worth of colored pencils.