the Quality of Student Notes
ERIC Clearinghouse on Assessment and Evaluation
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.
STUDENTS NEED HELP WITH THEIR NOTES?
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.
CAN INSTRUCTORS HELP?
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.
(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.
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.
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
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.
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.
(1978) offered three conclusions from naturalistic research with skeletal notes:
- 1. 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
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.
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
CAN STUDENTS' OWN NOTES BE IMPROVED?
(1985) 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 information density.
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.
G.O., Morris, J., & Smith, S. (1985). Note-taking, individual differences,
and memory for lecture information. Journal of Educational Psychology, 77, 522-532.
J. (1978). Note-taking: A critical review. Programmed Learning and Educational
Technology, 15, 207-224.
K.A. (1985). Providing the instructor's notes: An effective addition to student
notetaking. Educational Psychologist, 20, 33-39.
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,
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.
M. (1980). Effects of personal lecture notes and teacher-notes on recall of university
students. British Journal of Educational Psychology, 50, 289-294.
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,
publication was prepared (ED366645, October 1993) with funding from the U.S. Department
of Education under contract number RR93002002, and published by the Educational
Resources Information Center (ERIC).
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