You May Take Notes

You May Take Notes October 5, 2014

Times have changed. Technologies change. It isn't clear that just listening intently, and then photographing the board, helps you process the information as well as writing with your own hand. But it also isn't clear how much of our weaker processing when we don't take notes by hand is due to adapting to a new way of doing things, rather than something inherent.

Have you ever taken notes like this? Have you had a chance to compare your own learning, comprehension, and recall when taking notes by hand versus other methods?


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  • First post on your site, please excuse the length, but its something i have been investigating for a while given my background in CogPsych before turning to Theology.

    The claim of better memory retention from handwritten versus typed comes from the level of cognitive engagement in the memory task. If you are cognitively engaged, such as you are when synthesising material for a paper, then the mode of recording has little consequence (so long as you record something to be able to find it again several months down the track). There have been some studies done with low- and high-cog load tasks, along with possible low-cog distraction tasks (flipping coin etc) which show its the load of the task that affects retention.
    If you are cognitively disengaged, such as writing notes for a lecture, then the ‘harder’ cognitive task of handwriting will generally yield better results. (Cf. Piolat et al, 2012; Makany et al, 2008 for cog load; and Schoen, 2012 for contra Mueller & Oppenheimer)

    I generally recommend my students take notes in a ‘cognitively difficult’ fashion. For some that does mean typing and then taking a photo of the board later for accuracy of transcription. Especially with those for whom English is a second language.

    Personally, from sharing a lab for a few years with a couple of memory oriented Cog Psychs, my own retention is best when i associate with concrete primes. This means that if im doing a cognitively engaged task, say writing a paper, then I will usually remember the material, and even more so when associated with a prime. This doesn’t help however when you cant remember who said it for a citation. Hence a mix of cognitively challenging processing (acquiring information, sorting, processing, disseminating, synthesising etc) along with simple textual note taking (usually just copy and paste for digital documents, or digital highlighting of PDFs where the journal allows) suffices. I can remember the prime, or enough of the quote to be able to use DevonThink or similar to search for it in the material.

    Cliff notes: its not method of note taking but cognitive engagement/difficulty of the task. Higher cognitive difficulty higher retention. But remember to take accurate notes for accurate citations.

    P.s. Ironically i was looking though your site for a quote I thought i saw a while ago which relates to a paper im writing now. (should have taken better notes)

    • Bethany

      Speaking as a cognitive psychologist, I endorse this post.

      Just taking pictures of the board (or downloading and reading Powerpoints) doesn’t replace the cognitive processing involved in actually taking notes.

  • I have once had students taking pictures of the blackboard at the end of class (before I erased it). I do wonder whether they will be able to make sense of it when they later look at the picture, having lost the context.