THE TEACHING ECONOMIST - William A. McEachern                 

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Issue 20, Spring 2001

William A. McEachern, Editor

Nota Bene

I have long been uncomfortable with anything that would discourage students from taking notes in class, such as commercial note-taking services. As I argued a half dozen years ago in these pages (Issue 6), I believe that students who take notes in class and review them later learn more and retain more than those who don't. More senses get in the act-not just sight and sound, but the cognitive process of summarizing the key points and the physical process of writing them down. Granted, some students may not be especially good at note-taking, but a surrogate note-taker could be worse.

That's just my opinion based on years of experience. But as it turns out, there have been dozens of studies examining the link between note-taking and student learning, published mostly in ed-psych journals. Even with no expertise in this field, one can get the flavor of the research and its relevance for teaching. Like most researchers, psychologists have not resolved all the issues, but they have sorted enough out to offer us some guidance.

Below are thumbnail findings from a dozen studies, most based on controlled experiments (names in parentheses refer to bibliographical entries on the back page).

  • Students who took notes processed information better than did students who didn't take notes (McIntyre).
  • Students were seven times more likely to recall information a week later if it had been recorded in their notes (Howe).
  • Students benefited when the classroom environment allowed time for processing information while taking notes (Anderson and Armbruster).
  • Note-taking itself "enhances organizational processing of lecture information" (Einstein, et al., p. 522).
  • Students learned better when they took notes in their own words using their own system for encoding information (Fisher).
  • Students who took notes verbatim scored lower on comprehensive tests than those who tried to integrate information in the process (Bretzing).
  • Students required to enter notes on every screen during computer-based instruction took longer but scored significantly higher on a post-test than did those in a control group that didn't take notes or in another group where note-taking was at each student's discretion (Armel and Shrock).
  • The process of taking notes itself did less to enhance recall than reviewing notes later (Henk and Stahl).
  • The benefits of note-taking flowed more from the review of those notes later than from the act of note-taking itself. Reviewing notes seemed to trigger for students relevant parts of the lecture (Carter and Van Matre).
  • Students who wrote brief summaries of lecture material during four-minute breaks within the lecture showed significant improvement in understanding compared to other groups of students (Davis and Hult).
  • Reorganizing notes while reviewing them led to higher test achievement (Kiewra).
  • Although there was no link between a student's academic background and the likelihood of using commercial note-taking services, using such services had a negative effect on academic performance, based on a sample of about 1,200 students at a Midwestern research university (Puttin and Coppola)

Let's face it, taking notes in class, particularly notes that add value through synthesis, is more work than not taking notes. Students, like the rest of us, would rather avoid this work, particularly if the cost of sitting back during class seems low. As instructors, we seem to be more caring and we become more popular when we offer our notes online or welcome note-taking services. It seems to be win-win.

Note-taking services argue, as does the UCLA bookstore, that "Our service encourages students to pay greater attention to lectures rather than worrying about taking down every detail." Another argument is that some students just aren't good at taking notes. But note-taking, like any skill, must be practiced to be developed. Letting students off the hook with commercial note-taking services or with lecture notes that we provide short-circuits an important learning step.

In the fall of 1999, there were a dozen online outfits that sold class notes. Operations such as Versity.com, StudentU.com, Allstudents.com, and Study24-7.com bought notes from students, paying about $200 and up for a term, then posted them on a Web site with the idea of making money from advertising. The process was expensive and subject to objections from some instructors, and even the threat of law suits about intellectual property. Most of these note-taking sites have now fallen victim to the dot-com flameout. What's more, last September California passed a law barring the sale of lecture notes without the instructor's consent. Still, many such services continue off-line, either operating through the campus bookstore or as separate enterprises, such as Class Notes at Penn State and the University of Colorado.

The late Paul Heyne at one time allowed a note-taking service in his principles class at the University of Washington. But he stopped it once he became convinced it was hurting the class as a whole.

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