Note Taking Strategies in the Computer Age

Shouldn't they use computer note taking strategies?One of the core ways we learn is by listening to lectures. We learn more when we take notes, especially when making use of good note taking strategies. Note taking affords you with an external record of what was said. Incomplete, by all means, but something you can look back at later.

Note taking also helps you learn directly. That is, you get more from a lecture when you’ve taken notes than when you haven’t, regardless of whether you ever look at those notes again. Note taking requires that you recall the information just heard, and translate it from sounds to written words. These aspects of the note taking process exercise your memory, helping you to learn during the lecture. Note taking strategies aim to help you get the best set of notes possible, working within the limits of your memory.

Note taking is good to do, however you go about it. But, do computers change our ideas about what are the best note taking strategies to use?

Young Bui, Joel Myerson, and Sandra Hale of Washington University in St. Louis, thought computers might make a difference in the ideal note taking strategies. They tested different note taking strategies with and without computers to find out. Their paper, Note-taking with computers: Exploring alternative strategies for improved recall, appears in the Journal of Educational Psychology.

Research on note taking strategies has mostly involved writing notes out by hand. Among the main note taking strategies resulting from this research is the idea to take organized notes. Paraphrase, be selective. Get the most important facts down. This is a challenging task, as you must juggle writing down the last batch of material, while still listening to new information coming in. Working memory can serve as a bottleneck in the process.

How might computers change things?

An important potential advantage of using a computer to take notes is that typing tends to be much faster than handwriting. This opens up the possibility that you don’t have to be so selective in what notes you get down. That is, it suggests that transcription might work better as a note taking strategy for computers.

Attempting to transcribe the lecture, that is, to record as much of it as possible, may increase the quantity of notes that can be taken. Past research has found that more notes leads to better test performance, so there is some reason to think this might be effective.

Computer note taking strategies that include transcribing should also relieve some of the pressure on working memory. It may be less of a factor for these note taking strategies.

There are some potential downsides to transcription-based note taking strategies, though. One is that you are not trying to judge what’s important, so you might wind up with more irrelevant information in your notes. The other is that you may not process the information as deeply, as you aren’t trying to interpret what’s being said as much as if you had to paraphrase.

Bui and colleagues tested computer and handwritten note taking strategies in three experiments. They had students listen to a short audio lecture about the Crimean War. Some students used computers, others used pen and paper. Some were instructed to use an organized note taking strategy, whereas others were told to transcribe.

The researchers used two types of test to measure memory for the passage, free recall and short answer. Some tests were given immediately, whereas others were given after a 24 hour delay.

Overall, Bui found that students learned the most when they used a computer, combined with the transcribe note taking strategy. These students took more notes than the others, and processing that extra information boosted their test scores. The transcribe strategy did not help when people were writing notes by hand, presumably because the physical writing process is much slower.

The one caveat to the computer transcription strategy was that the students’ performance after a delay dropped more than with the organized note taking strategy, unless they had an opportunity to study their notes after taking them.

This may have occurred because the students were not processing the material as deeply when using transcription, so their memory for it faded more quickly. When they had the opportunity to study their notes, though, the advantage of having a more detailed record kicked in, and they again scored higher than organized note takers.

Finally, Bui and his team found direct evidence that working memory was not as much of a factor when using the computer transcription method, as it was with more traditional approaches.

From this study, it appears that using a computer to transcribe lectures is an advantageous note taking strategy. It does seem even more important to revisit those notes and restudy the material when using this method, however. Also, because the main source of the benefit comes from typing speed, you are likely to be better off with pencil and paper for those subjects, such as math, that don’t lend themselves to quick keyboarding.

Image Credit:  Tulane Public Relations

Bui, D., Myerson, J., & Hale, S. (2013). Note-taking with computers: Exploring alternative strategies for improved recall. Journal of Educational Psychology, 105 (2), 299-309 DOI: 10.1037/a0030367


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About Winston Sieck

Dr. Winston Sieck is a cognitive psychologist. He serves as president of Global Cognition and director of Thinker Academy.

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