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Note Taking and Memory: Put Down the Pen!

notetaking.jpgNote-taking, once the activity de rigueur of learning and memorizing facts and new information, and an activity that certainly appears, well, active, is fast becoming replaced with newer forms of active engagement. Taking notes has long been lauded as a tried and true approach to memory and retention, as well as the best option for having recorded documents with which to refer after an initial discussion, but note-taking in and of itself might not be the best strategy available and can often become its own mindless, passive, or even distracting activity. Instead, active listening with a more strategic approach to obtaining information allows the brain to stay focused on the lecture while still capturing highlights and overarching ideas.

According to an article on Panopto, standard note-taking may be one of the worst options for understanding and retaining what occurred in classroom lecture; “not only do you miss the big picture, but you let your brain know it’s okay to forget the details too,” the article explains. Some, who take copious and ultra-organized notes, whether on the computer or by hand, often find that when they leave the classroom they cannot remember what was said. They cannot point out the big idea or essential question, let alone grasp the smaller components. While the hands were busy jotting down every word of the teacher, the brain was missing out on the big picture or overall theme of the lecturer, as well as the smaller facets thrown in that enrich the overall idea.

Bloomberg Business agrees. In an article titled “Taking Notes Kills Your Memory,” the online journal emphatically states “the brain assumes that since the information was written down, there’s no need to remember it.” A great metaphor for this sort of memory-lapse is what happens when we write someone’s number down or plug it into our phones - there’s just no way we are remembering it in our brains, since it remains stored in a notebook or our handy devices! And just as we are learning as a society that one cannot really talk on the phone and drive at the same time in a healthy and sufficient manner, note-taking actually detracts from the brain’s ability to completely focus and engage with the lecture, thus leaving gaps in comprehension and clarity.  

memory.jpgBut what about the necessity of having documents to refer to and use for studying outside of the classroom? What about those individuals who feel completely scattered and disorganized without a reference sheet to remind them of weekly lectures and discussions, or learners who fall on the spectrum of linguistic and visual more than active or kinesthetic? ( provides a great visual for determining what learning styles you most identify with.) As supported by TeacherVision, there is plenty of variety in how we learn, so how is this achieved, given the evidence that note-taking might detract from learning?

Many schools and universities today are utilizing technology to create reference documents that provide video or audio footage that students can regularly refer back to after the live lecture. Having this handy helps learners of all varieties apply their best practices to getting the most out of the lecture in multiple modes. A student might take some written notes while sitting at home re-watching a lecture, or he might utilize rewinding and re-playing certain portions to gain further clarity on a challenging problem or complex issue. Students who retain information best through audio can listen to the document several times, even while driving or exercising, in order to focus and catch pieces they might have missed the first go-round. Even the most focused and attentive of us can lose our attention span over the course of an hour, and so to have the document for post-referral is extremely helpful and a fantastic use of technology.

For those who do recognize in themselves that a certain degree of note-taking is beneficial, jotting down key insights or brief re-written summaries of lecture highlights is beneficial. This allows room for the mind to consider what the major takeaways are while still allowing one to fully engage and think deeply with professor, classmates, or coworkers. A quick article on Edudemic offers excellent tips for active note-taking that allow students to record the significant elements while remaining engaged. OneClass provides recommendations on how to create visually compelling and organized notes, complete with examples.

As the world of education and technology continue to evolve and grow, it’s wonderful that we can keep considering the best modalities for learning. Out with the old and in with the new certainly applies to note-taking and how, through modifications and improved practices, we can all benefit more greatly from lessons, lectures, meetings, and classroom discussions.

About the Author

Stephanie Ingraham is a former English teacher turned writer and tutor with a BA in English from UCLA and a Masters in Education from Pepperdine University in Los Angeles. She is deeply passionate about education, psychology, child and adolescent development, literature, and writing. She believes the education world can benefit greatly from the meditation world - mindfulness and self-compassion are key! In her free time she loves reading and writing, music, baking, yoga, dance, animals, and exploring new cities. She currently lives in Chicago, Illinois. For more information on tutors like Stephanie, click here