The Latest Research on Note-Taking Strategies and Student Success

Compiled by Kaveh Farrokh (Ph.D.), Counsellor & Learning Specialist at Langara College Counselling Department.


Introduction: Objectives of Note-Taking

There are in general two objectives for taking notes (Morehead, Dunlosky & Rawson, 2019, p.2):

[1] Encoding Function: this is related to improving one’s learning of the content while one is taking notes. More specifically, this is the question of whether one’s way of taking notes will help us learn and remember the content better and more efficiently.

[2] Storage Function: this pertains to using one’s class notes as a tool for exam preparation.

It would appear that the majority of students prefer to self-regulate their styles of note-taking. Nevertheless, despite a plethora of self-help books and resources on the topic of note-taking, more focused academic research on this topic would be beneficial. In general decisions based on (non-research based) suggestions for note-talking often fails to match the actual academic (research based) evidence of what does (and does not) work with respect to note-taking (Bjork, Dunlosky, & Kornell, 2013).

In general, more instructors are offering students outlines of their notes to facilitate their note-taking. These can be in the form of powerpoint slides allowing students to write in their notes within the printed slides, or other instructors may simply provide a printout outlining the lecture.

Encoding Function and Note-Taking: Learning Better in the Classroom

An early yet useful study by Kiewra, DuBois, Christian and McShane (1988) has found that students who took notes using a deliberate form of organization such as outlining or matrix-type notes had significantly better recall than students who simply took notes in text form. While a number of methods for organizing notes may be suggested, one of these is the Cornell Method – a quick summary of this method is as follows:

  • Draw a margin on the left side of the page
  • Take your class notes to the right of that margin. After class: Find main ideas & sentences Write these as key words in the margin region
  • When reviewing later, consult margin areas for quick reference

For more detail regarding the Cornell Method, download the Handout for this here …

Another tendency in recent years has been for students to not take notes for courses that already post the information on-line. Often the impression is that as the information is provided on-line, it is thus unnecessary to take notes. Research however suggests that not taking notes for courses that have the content available on-line results in decreased learning performance (Morehead, Dunlosky, Rawson, Blasiman, & Hollis, 2019, p.13).

There are a number of strategies that enhance the effectiveness of in-class learning for learning and memory:

[1] Read up on the material before the class. This will organize your mental knowledge of the material before the class, allowing you to take better notes and even anticipate what points the instructor will be making during the lecture.

[2] Monitor your attitude during note-taking. Positive or negative attitudes towards our instructor and/or lecture has a significant impact on our note-taking effectiveness in the classroom.

[3] Understand the role of your instructor. The instructor’s primary role is to provide clear instruction of the course material as They outline this in Their learning objectives. In this endeavor, the instructor is to provide assistance for the student during office hours with respect to understanding concepts, learning objectives, and all other course-relevant content.

[4] Make Connections During the Lecture. Instead of just “listening to copy”, the learner is encouraged to make connections between the concepts present during the lecture and to also link their classroom learning with concepts/material covered in past readings and lectures.

[5] Test your understanding after the lecture. This is discussed below “Storage Function and Note-Taking: preparing for Exams”.

Storage Function and Note-Taking: Preparing for Exams

A common misconception with respect to “how” to use one’s notes is to simply read over these after class. Students in fact often “review” with respect to exam preparation by reading (or “glancing over”) their notes. This often can often lead to what is termed by Dunlosky, Rawson, Marsh, Mitchell and Willingham as the “re-reading” effect, which as the researchers report, is one of the least most effective strategies for learning and student success in general (2015, pp.3, 7).  Constant re-reading of one’s notes in hopes of the “info sinking in” can also lead to the cramming effect, which is also less effective for learning in comparison to distributed learning. Despite its lack of effectiveness, re-reading of notes as an exam-preparation strategy remains popular among the majority of students (Morehead et al., 2016) who often will not engage in self-testing (despite its efficacy) (Dunlosky, Rawson, Marsh, Nathan, & Willingham, 2013, pp. 4–58). For more on Self-Testing see the following:

Studies corroborating the effectiveness of self-testing can be traced as far back as the late 1980s. The aforementioned Kiewra, DuBois, Christian and McShane (1988) for example have found that students who review their notes in general tend to have better recall and performance.

Keyboard or the Pen … Which is Better for Class Note-Taking?  

Prior to the advent of the PC computer followed by the laptop, it was given fact that if one was to take notes in class, one used either a pen or pencil. Now, more and more students will utilize their laptops to take notes in class. The question of “which is better” (pen/longhand or keyboard/laptop) was first addressed in landmark study by Mueller and Oppenheimer (2014, pp.1159–1168). The latter researchers compared two groups of note-takers (pen-paper vs. laptop) with respect to their performance on factual and conceptual questions which was tested after the students had taken notes. The results of the study were remarkable and can be summarized as follows:

[1] Conceptual Questions: students who used pen and paper (or “longhand”), had noticeably greater (or superior) performance than students who had used a lap. Put simply writing notes the “old fashioned” way proved to be a superior method for the Encoding Function of note-taking.

[2] Factual Questions: no noticeable difference in recall performance of rote factual information was found between pen-paper vs. laptop note takers.

The primary reason was mainly due to the fact that laptops provide the user with opportunities for several distractions, notably social media, e-mail, computer games, etc. These same distractions in turn drastically reduce the learner’s performance, especially in note-taking. The “brain impact” of these “electronic distractions” is the constant interruption of our short-term and long-term memory capacities – this process essentially degrades our memory forming capacity. Studies reported in 2019 report of 22% percent of students spending their in-class time engaged in texting, and checking Social media (FB, Instagram, etc.) and the playing of on-line games (Morehead, Dunlosky, Rawson, Blasiman, & Hollis, 2019, p.8). Interestingly a study by Ragan et al. has found that students engaged with laptops in the classroom were on-task (on average) just 37 % of the time (Ragan, Jennings, Massey & Doolittle, 2014, pp.78–86). This is because for the main part (63% of the time) students are engaging with the typical distractions of e-mail, gaming, social media, etc. instead of paying attention in class. Learning problems would simply be amplified when the student is being exposed to new material and/or facing challenges learning new and/or unfamiliar content. Note that problems such as checking e-mail, social media, etc. will simply not occur when the student is engaged in pen-paper note-taking. In lieu of these results it is not surprising that Patterson and Patterson have discovered that higher test performance is strongly associated with classrooms where laptops are not allowed (Patterson & Patterson, 2017, pp.66–79).

Nevertheless, there may be an exception at least when it comes to electronic devices for note-taking. Morehead, Dunlosky and Rawson investigated the impact of eWriters for note-taking and found these to be equivalent in effectiveness to long-hand (or pen-paper) methods of note-taking (2019, pp.1-28). The eWriter is equipped with a stylus allowing students to electronically” draw” symbols and allow for the same type of writing flexibility one has when writing with a pen on paper. This also can finally address the problem of slow writing as well as poor handwriting, finally allowing students to both write faster but also neatly, allowing for better recording and reference for after-class learning. While further research is required to investigate the factors that facilitate eWriter effectiveness, this medium’s elimination of potential distractors (esp. social media, e-mail, on-line gaming, web accessibility, etc.) is most possibly an adaptive function.


Bjork, R. A., Dunlosky, J., & Kornell, N. (2013). Self-regulated learning: Beliefs, techniques, and illusions. Annual Review of Psychology, 64, pp.417–444.

Bloom, K.C., & Shuell, T.J. (1981). Effects of massed and distributed practice on the learning and retention of second-language vocabulary. Journal of Educational Research, Vol. 74, no.4, pp.245-248.

Dunlosky, J., Rawson, K.A., Marsh, E.J., Mitchell, J.N., & Willingham, D.T. (2015). What works, what doesn’t: some study techniques accelerate learning, whereas others are just a waste of time – but which ones are which? An unprecedented review maps out the best pathways to follow. Scientific American Mind: Behavior-Brain Science-Insights (Special Collector’s Edition), Volume 23, Number 4, Winter, pp.41-47.

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, pp. 4–58.

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, pp.595-597.

Morehead, K., Rhodes, M. G., & DeLozier, S. (2016). Instructor and student knowledge of study strategies. Memory, 24, pp. 257–271.

Morehead, K., Dunlosky, J., & Rawson, K.A. (2019). How Much Mightier Is the Pen than the Keyboard for Note-Taking? A Replication and Extension of Mueller and Oppenheimer (2014). Educational Psychology Review, pp.1-28.

Morehead, K., Dunlosky, J., Rawson, K.A., Blasiman, R. & Hollis, R.B. (2019). Note-taking habits of 21st Century college students: implications for student learning, memory, and achievement. Memory, pp.1-13.

Mueller, P.A., & Oppenheimer, D.M. (2014). The pen is mightier than the keyboard: advantages of longhand over laptop note taking. Psychological Science, 25, pp.1159–1168.

Patterson, R.W., & Patterson, R.M. (2017). Computers and productivity: evidence from laptop use in the college classroom. Economics of Education Review, 57, pp.66–79.

Ragan, E.D., Jennings, S.R., Massey, J.D., & Doolittle, P.E. (2014). Unregulated use of laptops over time in large lecture classes. Computers & Education, 78, pp.78–86.

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