ERIC Identifier: ED366645
Publication Date: 1993-10-00
Author: Potts, Bonnie
Source: ERIC Clearinghouse on
Assessment and Evaluation Washington DC.
Improving the Quality of Student Notes. ERIC/AE Digest.
Much of classroom learning at the secondary and postsecondary levels depends
on understanding and retaining information from lectures. In most cases,
students are expected to take notes and to review them in preparation for
testing of lecture material. Such note-taking may serve a two-fold purpose: as a
means of encoding the incoming information in a way that is meaningful for the
listener, which serves to make the material more memorable from the outset
(encoding function); and as a means of simply storing the information until the
time of review (external storage function). Although these two purposes often
have been treated as though they were mutually exclusive, several studies (e.g.,
Maqsud, 1980; Knight & McKelvie, 1986) point to a more complex relationship
in which the two vary in their relative importance as a function of the
individual, the material, and the review and testing conditions.
DO STUDENTS NEED HELP WITH THEIR NOTES?
Based on several
recent investigations, the answer to this question is a resounding "Yes." Of
course, some students need more help than others do. Successful students' notes
consistently include more of the important propositions, and more propositions
overall (though not necessarily more words), than do less successful students'
notes (Einstein, Morris, & Smith, 1985). But Kiewra's (1985) summary of the
research in this area shows that even successful students generally fail to note
many of the important ideas communicated by the lecturer. The best note-takers
in these studies (third- year education majors in one study and "A" students in
another) included fewer than three quarters of the critical ideas in their
notes. First year students fared far worse: their notes contained only 11% of
critical lecture ideas.
HOW CAN INSTRUCTORS HELP?
Given that some of the most
important information from lectures never is incorporated into students' notes,
some means of helping students prioritize their note-taking certainly is in
order. A continuum of approaches exists, from providing full or partial lecture
notes to modifying one's lecturing style to facilitate students' own
note-taking. None of these is optimal in every case. The type of learning
(factual versus analytic or synthetic), the density of the information that must
be covered, and the instructor's teaching style all should be considered
carefully. The merits and drawbacks of each approach are discussed below.
PROVIDING FULL NOTES
Kiewra (1985) reported that students
who only review detailed notes provided by the instructor after the lecture
generally do better on subsequent fact-based tests of the lecture than do
students who only review their own notes. In fact, students who did not even
attend the lecture but reviewed the instructor's notes scored higher on such
tests than did students who attended the lecture and took and reviewed their own
notes. This should not be surprising, because unlike the students' notes, the
instructor's notes contain all the critical ideas of the lecture.
One might be tempted, however grudgingly, to conclude that providing students
with full transcripts of lectures is the best way to optimize their learning of
the material. After all, if the goal is to ensure that they don't miss the
important ideas, what better way than to hand each student a full text of the
lecture? But Kiewra cites evidence that students remember a greater proportion
of the information in their own notes than in provided notes, and that students
who take the same amount of time to review both their own and the instructor's
notes perform best of all on fact-based tests. Interestingly, the pattern of
superior performance with provided notes changes when the test involves
higher-order learning (e.g., analysis and synthesis of ideas). In such cases,
having the instructor's notes does not produce superior performance.
These results suggest that there is some value in having students participate
in the note-taking process, however incomplete their notes may be. A more
practical disadvantage to providing full notes is that they may defeat the
purpose of the lecture itself. Even if this is not the case (e.g., if lectures
serve as opportunities for discussion or other interactive forms of learning),
the availability of full notes may encourage absenteeism among students who fail
to recognize the additional benefits of attending lectures. These arguments,
together with many instructors' understandable objections to preparing and
providing full notes, make a compelling case for alternative approaches.
PROVIDING PARTIAL NOTES: THE HAPPY MEDIUM
independent investigations (see Russell, Caris, Harris, & Hendricson, 1983;
Kiewra, 1985; and Kiewra, DuBois, Christian, & McShane, 1988) have shown
that students are able to achieve the most on tests when they are provided with
only partial notes to review. Specifically, partial notes led to better
retention than did comprehensive (full) notes or no notes, despite the fact that
in Russell's study, students expressed an understandable preference for
receiving full notes.
Several formats for partial notes have been examined, from outlines, to
matrices, to skeletal guides. Of these, the skeletal format has gained the
widest support (Hartley, 1978; Russell et al., 1983; Kiewra, 1985). In this
format, the main ideas of the lecture are provided, usually including the
hierarchical relationships between them (e.g., by arranging them in outline or
schematic form), and spaces are left for students to fill in pertinent
information, such as definitions, elaborations, or other explicative material,
as they listen to the lecture. In Russell's study, students performed especially
well with skeletal notes when the test emphasized practical, rather than
factual, knowledge of the lecture material. They also remained more attentive
during the lecture than did those with other kinds of notes, as evidenced by
their higher scores on test-related items presented during each of the four
quarters of the lecture period.
Hartley (1978) offered three conclusions from naturalistic research with
Students who get skeletal kinds of notes take about half as many notes of their
own, compared to students who are not given notes; yet, students who are given
skeletal notes recall more.
The amount of space left for note-taking is a strong influence on the amount of
notes that students take (i.e., the more space provided, the more notes taken).
Although skeletal notes lead to better recall than either the student's own
notes or the instructor's notes, the best recall occurred when students received
skeletal notes before the lecture and the instructor's detailed notes afterward.
(Note the similarity between this finding and that in Kiewra's 1985 study.)
the opportunities for analysis and synthesis when one has access to both sets of
notes in this way, this result is to be expected.
Ideally, then, instructors would be advised to provide both skeletal notes
before the lecture and detailed notes afterward in order to afford their
students the maximum benefits. But the disadvantages associated with detailed
notes have been discussed above, and given these, it seems unlikely that many
educators would choose this option. Certainly, there are also those who would
disagree in principle with provision of notes as a remedy for students'
difficulties. Instead, it is entirely arguable that emphasis should be placed on
helping students improve the quality of their own notes.
HOW CAN STUDENTS' OWN NOTES BE IMPROVED?
offers several suggestions, based on his review of the literature. Some of these
call for alterations in the presentation of the lecture. Instructors not only
should speak slowly enough to allow students to note important ideas, but also
should consider "segmenting" their lectures. Segmenting involves allowing pauses
of three to four minutes for every six or seven minutes of lecture. This enables
students to devote their attention to listening during the lecture and then to
consolidate the important ideas and paraphrase them during the note-taking
pauses. During the lecture phase, students need to be given cues not only to the
importance of certain ideas, but also to the kinds of elaboration that they are
expected to do on these ideas. In certain kinds of classes (e.g., medical
school), where the amount of information that must be presented in a given time
is relatively great, it may not be possible to segment the lectures, even though
students stand to benefit most from segmenting in such cases. A suggested
compromise is to keep information density low whenever possible (limiting the
presentation of new ideas to 50% of the lecture time), and to provide skeletal
notes in increasing quantity as a function of the lecture's increasing
An additional suggestion by Kiewra (1985) is to encourage students to review
not only their own notes, but other sources, such as other students' notes and
outside texts. Exposure to a variety of renditions of the same material helps to
ensure that the material will be preserved in at least one of the presented
forms. It also increases the opportunities for more elaborative processing, as
the sources are searched and integrated.
Einstein, G.O., Morris, J., & Smith, S.
(1985). Note-taking, individual differences, and memory for lecture information.
Journal of Educational Psychology, 77, 522-532.
Hartley, J. (1978). Note-taking: A critical review. Programmed Learning and
Educational Technology, 15, 207-224.
Kiewra, K.A. (1985). Providing the instructor's notes: An effective addition
to student notetaking. Educational Psychologist, 20, 33-39.
Kiewra, K.A., DuBois, N.F., Christian, D., & McShane, A. (1988).
Providing study notes: Comparison of three types of notes for review. Journal of
Educational Psychology, 80, 595-597.
Knight, L.J., & McKelvie, S.J. (1986). Effects of attendance,
note-taking, and review on memory for a lecture: Encoding versus external
storage functions of notes. Canadian Journal of Behavioral Science, 18, 52-61.
Maqsud, M. (1980). Effects of personal lecture notes and teacher-notes on
recall of university students. British Journal of Educational Psychology, 50,
Russell, I.J., Caris, T.N., Harris, G.D., & Hendricson, W.D. (1983).
Effects of three types of lecture notes on medical student achievement. Journal
of Medical Education, 58, 627-636.