Research Bites: Jot This Down – Note Taking, Learning, and TESOL

Apologies for the lack of posting lately. New students, new classes, and new demands – as well as reading all of the articles I summarize below – have prevented me from blogging as much as I usually do. That being said, I really enjoyed researching this Research Bites post, and I hope the lack of writing and my hard work pays off! This post was inspired by an advanced listening class I am currently teaching, as well as this article from Life Hacker.

My advanced listening class’ focus is on academic listening of the type normally encountered in university. Therefore, today’s topic – note taking – is an essential skill that my students need to learn. Instead of presenting the usual single article summary, I have decided to summarize a range of articles about note taking, some of which deal with native speakers, and some of which are based on English language learners. I will then piece together an overall analysis of these articles to see what is applicable to the classroom.

Twitter Summary

Research shows listening comp, metacog strats, writing speed, note organization, words:ideas important in note taking. #researchbites


Note taking is an important factor in learning and academic success. Effective note taking requires students to balance metacognitive and executive tasks while working within their short term memory. Handwriting speed, a high ratio of ideas recorded to words written, a high level of comprehension, and well organized notes are all important factors. Techniques such as highlighting, underlining, and summarization are considered of little benefit, while recording notes by computer may actually hinder the learning process. Efficient and quality notes, practice testing and distributed practice are more important factors for moving knowledge to long-term memory. To aid second language learners, explicit note taking skills, metacognitive strategies, and general listening comprehension should be focused on.

Lessons from Research on Native Speakers

Makany, T., Kemp, J., & Dror, I. E. (2009). Optimising the use of note‐taking as an external cognitive aid for increasing learning. British Journal of Educational Technology, 40(4), 619-635.

  • Normal lecture speech rate: 2-3 words per second
  • Normal handwriting rate: 0.2-0.3 words per second
  • Compared traditional linear (outline) notes to commercial SmartWisdom notes
  • While listening to a lecture, SmartWisdom note takers were slightly better in terms of accuracy and memory. They were much better at comprehension and employing metacognitive strategies.
  • While listening to a discussion, SmartWisdom note takers were better at memory, comprehension, and metacognitive strategies. There were no differences in accuracy.
  • Overall, SmartWisdom users were 20% better than traditional note takers
  • Caveat: SmartWisdom note takers had 2.5 years of training. Its not clear if these results would have been found if they had very little training.

Boyle, J. R., & Forchelli, G. A. (2014). Differences in the note-taking skills of students with high achievement, average achievement, and learning disabilities.Learning and Individual Differences, 35, 9-14.

  • Compared the note taking skills of high achieveing, average achieving, and students with learning disabilities.
  • Looked at quality and efficiency of notes
  • “…efficient notes have the maximum number of lecture points recorded using the minimum number of words”
  • High achievers recorded more lecture points (52%) than other students.
  • Vocabulary (key words) is also important. This study found that high achieving students recorded 71% of 19 key vocabulary words, whereas average students recorded 46%.
  • There were no differences in the average number of words written per lecture point
  • Implication to help students: offer more cued lecture points (cued by phrase [“Jot this down…”], intonation, etc.), provide model notes to show students what good notes look like

Mueller, P. A., & Oppenheimer, D. M. (2014). The Pen Is Mightier Than the Keyboard Advantages of Longhand Over Laptop Note Taking. Psychological Science.

  • Recording notes by hand is more effective, in terms of test-taking and learning, than recording notes by typing
  • Typing notes promotes verbatim recording and thus shallow processing
  • Writing notes by hand requires listeners to instantly process and pick out important information, therefore requiring a higher cognitive load. This higher cognitive load leads to deeper learning.

Peverly, S. T., Vekaria, P. C., Reddington, L. A., Sumowski, J. F., Johnson, K. R., & Ramsay, C. M. (2013). The Relationship of Handwriting Speed, Working Memory, Language Comprehension and Outlines to Lecture Note‐taking and Test‐taking among College Students. Applied Cognitive Psychology, 27(1), 115-126.

  • Participants completed a number of tasks, including:
    • watching a video and taking notes
      • they were broken in outline and no-outline groups
      • outline groups were given notes with headings corresponding to the major points of the lecture
    • taking a handwriting speed task (for measuring that particular skill)
    • wrote a summary about the lecture
    • completed a span task to test the capacity of verbal working memory
    • completed a Stroop task to measure attention and verbal working memory
    • completed a language comprehension task
  • The outline group was able to write and recall more information
  • Handwriting speed was determined to be important to note-taking, regardless of having an outline or no outline
  • Language comprehension has a significant effect on note quality
  • Surprisingly, working memory was found to not be significant to note taking
    • Although no relationship was found, the researchers still believe one exists, but has yet to be measured correctly (or, at least was not measured in the best way in this study)

Dunlosky, J., Rawson, K. A., Marsh, E. J., Nathan, M. J., & Willingham, D. T. (2013). Improving students’ learning with effective learning techniques promising directions from cognitive and educational psychology. Psychological Science in the Public Interest, 14(1), 4-58.

  • The authors looked at research related to common learning techniques. For each technique, they described it, explored its general effects, looked at student characteristics, materials, tasks, issues and gave an overall assessment
  • They looked at the following


  • The findings were:


  • Note that highlighting and underlining are effective, but not necessarily that useful or strategically employed by students
  • Summarization is useful if you are a good summarizer
    • It would be interesting to see if summarizing an L2 lecture in L1 is useful


Lessons from Research on English Language Learners

Song, M. Y. (2011). Note-taking quality and performance on an L2 academic listening test. Language Testing.

  • In her lit review, she mentioned two important ideas that we have already established above:
    • researchers advocate guided, outline, or skeleton notes
    • effective notes:
      • have a high ratio of ideas to words
      • have a clear, hierarchical organization; typically:
        • Level 1 – main points
        • Level 2 – major topical idea
        • Level 3 – subtopic ideas
        • Level 4 – supporting details
        • Level 5 – minor details
      • have good information written in levels 2-3, as they are strongly correlated to better test performance
    • Song broke students into two groups: blank notes and outline notes
    • She looked at number of idea levels and measured overall organization
    • She found that note taking is an excellent measure of listening ability
    • She found that listening proficiency indirectly affects note quality
    • There were few differences between the outline and no-outline groups
    • She did mention one of her previous studies that found the outline format is better for higher level students, while lower level students may not know where to write the information they are hearing. Likewise, with blank notes, low proficiency listeners may write down everything they hear without regards to organization or concept relations
    • She suggests using note taking as a form of listening assessment or listening test and paying attention to organization and levels of information

Nasab, M. S. B., Araghi, S. M., & Tabrizi, A. R. N. (2013). The Effect of Metacognitive Awareness and Note-Taking Training on Iranian EFL Learners’ Listening Comprehension.

  • This research reproduces and expands on previous research that I have written about on Research Bites.
  • Students were divided into 3 groups: control, metacognitive, and note-taking. There were eight sessions for each group.
  • The metacognitive group focused on metacognitive listening strategies. The procedure was:
    • discuss the strategies
    • make predictions about a listening test
    • check their predictions and take notes while listening
    • discuss the initial round of note taking with a small group
    • listen a second time and take more notes
    • discuss the listening in a whole-class setting and reconstruct the text’s information on the board
    • listen a third time and pay attention to the reconstruction and information previously missed
    • write a reflection
  • The note taking group:
    • Took “T-style” notes – in other words, Cornell notes
    • Completed pre-listening activities, which included reminders of how to make predictions, listen for the main idea, and write keywords down
    • While listening, they simply took notes and paid attention to questions they would have to answer
    • The post-listening activity was to understand the entire listening text. The researcher read, line-by-line, the entire script and explained its meaning while students tried to figure out their problems in listening
  • A pretest-posttest showed that the megacognitive group did significantly better than the other two groups, while the note taking group and control group had no significant difference

Hayati, A. M., & Jalilifar, A. (2009). The impact of note-taking strategies on listening comprehension of EFL learners. English Language Teaching2(1).

  • The authors divided intermediate level students into three groups: non note takers, uninstructed note takes, Cornell note takers.
  • Students took notes during a listening comprehension test
  • On a listening comprehension post-test, the Cornell group scored significantly higher than the other two groups

Practical Applications

It’s clear that, if note taking will be important to your students’ academic success, it needs to be explicitly taught. This includes teaching not only how to recognize the different levels of information, but how to organize notes, when and why to underline or highlight, and how to summarize effectively (and perhaps in their L1). In addition, how to review, self-test, and space reviewing will be important skills. However, these skills are useless unless they are being taught alongside general listening comprehension skills, for listening comprehension is a major factor in successful note taking. This means teaching vocabulary, executive listening strategies, and bottom-up listening skills.

Other practical applications concern listening assessment. Song demonstrated that note taking may be an excellent assessment tool, so long as you are able to identify the necessary levels of information in an original lecture which can then be used as the criteria by which you compare student notes. Through their notes, you can identify their ability to listen for main ideas, subtopics, details, examples, and so on.

One final application would be to recommend that professors give outline or skeletal notes to assist non-native students. Sara Benesch has written much about critical English for academic purposes and often works with or suggests working with subject-matter professors as a sort of advocate for non-native speakers. Her work is highly interesting, and highly relevant.