The Lost Art of Taking Notes..

Taking a short break from this weekend’s task of preparing notes and problem sets for the Theoretical Physics module I’m teaching this term. In  the course of putting this stuff together I remembered an old post I did some time ago about  lecture notes.

I won’t repeat the entire content of my earlier discussion, but one of the main points I made in that was about how inefficient many students are at taking notes during lectures, so much so that the effort of copying things onto paper must surely prevent them absorbing the intellectual content of the lecture (assuming that there is any).

I dealt with this problem when I was an undergraduate by learning to write very quickly without looking at the paper as I did so. That way I didn’t waste time moving my head to and fro between paper and screen or blackboard. Of course, the notes I produced using this method weren’t exactly aesthetically pleasing, but my handwriting is awful at the best of times so that didn’t make much difference to me. I always wrote my notes up more neatly after the lecture anyway. But the great advantage was that I could write down everything in real time without this interfering with my ability to listen to what the lecturer was saying.

An alternative to this approach is to learn shorthand, or invent your own form of abbreviated language. This approach is, however, unlikely to help you take down mathematical equations quickly.

My experience nowadays is that students simply aren’t used to taking notes like this – I suppose because they get given so many powerpoint presentations or other kinds of handout –  so they struggle to cope with the old-fashioned chalk-and-talk style of teaching that some lecturers still prefer. That’s probably because they get much less practice at school than my generation. Most of my school education was done via the blackboard..

Nowadays,  most lecturers use more “modern” methods than this. Many lecturers using powerpoint, and often they give copies of the slides to students. Others give out complete sets of printed notes before, during, or after lectures. That’s all very well, I think, but what are the students supposed to be doing during the lecture if you do that? Listen, of course, but if there is to be a long-term benefit they should take notes too.

Even if I hand out copies of slides or other notes, I always encourage my students to make their own independent set of notes, as complete as possible. I don’t mean copying down what they see on the screen and what they may have on paper already, but trying to write down what I say as I say it. I don’t think many take that advice, which means much of the spoken illustrations and explanations I give don’t find their way into any long term record of the lecture.

And if the lecturer just reads out the printed notes, adding nothing by way of illustration or explanation, then the audience is bound to get bored very quickly.

My argument, then, is that regardless of what technology the lecturer uses, whether he/she gives out printed notes or not, then if the students can’t take notes accurately and efficiently then lecturing is a complete waste of time. In fact for the Theoretical Physics module I’m doing now I don’t hand out lecture notes at all during the lectures, although I do post lecture summaries and answers to the exercises online after they’ve been done.

As a further study aid, most lectures at Sussex University are recorded and made available to students to view shortly after the event. In most cases this is video as well as audio but in some smaller rooms only audio capture is available. I checked the attendance at my lecture last week (the third week of Term) and found over 95% of those enrolled were at the lectures. There’s no evidence that availability of recorded lectures has lowered the attendance. It appears that students use the recordings for revision and/or to clarify points raised in the notes they have taken.

I would actually like to put my lectures online, e.g. on YouTube, so they could be viewed freely by anyone who wanted but I am told this is against University policy as the campus trade union, UCU, had objected to the suggestion. I don’t know why.

I do like lecturing, because I like talking about physics and astronomy, but as I’ve got older I’ve become less convinced that lectures play a useful role in actually teaching anything. I think we should use lectures more sparingly, relying more on problem-based learning to instil proper understanding. When we do give lectures, they should focus much more on stimulating interest by being entertaining and thought-provoking. They should not be for the routine transmission of information, which is far too often the default.

I’m not saying we should scrap lectures altogether. At the very least they have the advantage of giving the students a shared experience, which is good for networking and building a group identity. Some students probably get a lot out of lectures anyway, perhaps more than I did when I was their age. But different people benefit from different styles of teaching, so we need to move away from lecturing as the default option and ensure that a range of teaching methods is available.

I don’t think I ever learned very much about physics from lectures – I found problem-based learning far more effective – but I’m nevertheless glad I learned out how to take notes the way I did because I find it useful in all kinds of situations. Effective note-taking is definitely a transferable skill, but it’s also in danger of becoming a dying art. If we’re going to carry on using lectures, we old fogeys need to stop assuming that students learnt it the way we did and start teaching it as a skill.

2 Responses to “The Lost Art of Taking Notes..”

  1. Chris Chaloner Says:

    I always found I had the choice of (a) taking notes or (b) understanding what the lecturer was saying. I could never do both, so I settled on listening to the lecturer and hoping that a combination of textbooks and memory would replace the notes. Mind you, we had some dreadful lecturers and I stopped going (as did everybody else; the low point was a lecture with a potential attendance of about 300 which was down to 4 when I left). I agree that I learnt relatively little from and most from problems – mind you, this was Oxford when dinosaurs ruled the Earth and photocopiers were not available to ordinary mortals. [Younger readers may not realise that such devices only came into use in the 1970s.] We had tutorials with 2 or 3 students, or in one case 6 of us for 3 solid hours work; we also often worked on some of the problems as a (non-tutored) group into the early hours of the morning so we could all benefit from shared understanding.

  2. If I go back to note-taking for education I’m planning to try the Cornell note-taking system (, in which you lay out each page so that you leave plenty of space to (post-lecture) write a summary at the bottom and keywords/questions in a left-hand column next to the notes.

    There’s a kind of related area I looked into last year: doodling. Did you know it helps memory recall (see Having read that research I now feel it’s fully acceptable and even a good thing to doodle in meetings! Sadly, however, it still doesn’t seem acceptable to knit in meetings….

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