Learning and note taking: an introduction

In this new series, we’ll talk about note taking and the role it plays in creating deeper connections between students and their learning.

Clock6 min readCalendarPublished: 2 Jul 2021

What do we mean when we talk about learning? How do we define it, and how can we understand the process behind it better? Can we improve it?

In this series, we’ll set out what it means to be a modern learner. We’ll look at how the world surrounding the classroom is influencing how we learn, right down to the purpose behind learning itself.

Specifically, we’ll talk about note taking and the role it plays in creating deeper connections between learners and the information around them.

How to read this post

This article is all about our philosophy on learning and note taking.

But instead of producing a stream of text to explain our ideas and theories, we want to give you a choice.

You can consume this article in different ways.

  • If you’d like to listen to it, follow the clips at the start of each section.
  • If you’d like to read the text, follow the article as you would any other.
  • Or for the full view, take in everything.

Throughout the series we’ll also include diagrams and interactive elements to help you visualise the key concepts.

Learning isn’t just another word for remembering

Learning is an act of curiosity and transformation. It is the powerful lever between your current world and a new world where you have a new experience.”

- Charlotte Crowther, Learning Expert & Advocate

Simply remembering information isn’t the end-goal of learning. And in the connected digital age, it’s become less important than ever. With the ability to draw upon an unlimited library of information through the internet, we don’t need to absorb information as personal knowledge anymore; our smartphones can do that for us.

The faith we have in the internet as the source of all knowledge is increasing. In a paper published in 2012, it was found that 44% of students consult Google if they want help with coursework, versus only 36% seeking out a faculty member. In the years following, this gap has undoubtedly widened further.

The dominance of the internet can cause us to forget its presence (and power). As one researcher put it, ‘online practices have been part of young people’s lives since birth and, much like oxygen, water, or electricity, are assumed to be a basic condition of modern life’.

The train has left the station, leaving established attitudes about learning on the platform.

“‘With the development of technology, our access to knowledge is different, so the demand on our skill of learning is different’”

- Charlotte Crowther

What does this mean?

Modern learning has a new emphasis.

True learning in 2021 is a process of understanding and digesting content, making new, personal connections along the way, with the rote memorisation of info being only a small part of it.

In fact, modern learning is just as much about filtering out information as it is absorbing it. With endless streams of content facing learners, key to the development of an effective learning process is finding an antidote to information overload.

Learners must find the gems - the truly valuable pieces of insight - and use them to move from comprehension of the material to application beyond it.

In short, it’s about creating something new.

Creating new connections

By the time students leave college, we want them to be able to apply what they’ve learned to the outside world. That’s why understanding the learning process and helping students navigate it is so important.

To recap:

  • Learning is a journey; from comprehension to creation, a learner’s relationship with new material shifts and changes as their grasp of it strengthens.
  • Designing learning and note taking should account for this journey, especially given that...
  • Learning doesn’t just come from text on a page or words spoken in a class.

“‘Learning how to learn is a meta and super skill which applies to all aspects and stages of our life - from learning how to walk, to learning how to build friendships, to learning how to care for a child, to learning a new career. Students having the experience of the learning process, and the skills and approach best suited for each stage, will help them navigate the adventure of life!’”

- Charlotte Crowther

Information is fluid, and comes in many forms

If we want students to journey towards deep learning, we need to be aware of how to achieve it.

What can educators and support staff do to strengthen these connections between learner and class content?

Here are a few points to consider:

  • Learners access information in a variety of ways. A lot of this information is consumed in an ambient way, through social media, digital platforms and other means.
  • Great changes to education in 2020 has seen most students learn through video, live and recorded, for the first time.
  • Learners need to be able to make use of more dynamic approaches and tools to fit the climate.
  • This is where note taking has a huge impact on the learning process.

Enter: note taking

Despite everything that’s changed in teaching over the decades, one thing’s remained constant. Students still use notes to structure their learning.

But if you were to visualise a set of notes, you’d probably picture the same thing as someone asked to do so 30 years ago. The only difference might be the use of a laptop.

When thinking about modern learning, however, note taking is the missing piece of the puzzle.

Why all the fuss about note taking?

Good note taking is just like learning itself. To take good notes is to follow a process that leads to true, individual understanding.

A good note taker not only captures the information they need from a lecture or class, but works with those notes in a way that makes them incredibly effective study tools after the class.

In effect, they move through the learning process by taking notes.

But, as every student discovers, note taking is hard. Very hard. In fact, one study claims ‘note taking can be as cognitively demanding as expert chess playing’.

Part of the problem comes down to the live stream of information students receive in a lecture.

The problem with notes

You can’t pause a professor. You can’t immediately know what pieces of information to prioritize in your notes. And there’s always a trade-off between trying to get down as much as possible and focusing on absorbing the content in the moment.

But, as one student told us, ‘everything the professor says is essential’. Not necessarily because everything spoken in a classroom is going to be important for everyone in it, but because the need to select things to note down will necessarily involve having to choose things to leave out.

What taking effective notes means

The important thing to understand is that note taking has two core functions. One is the storage of information. This describes the act of preserving material for later.

The second is encoding. This function describes the immediate benefit of taking notes in the first place - the benefit that’s immediately gained from the act.

Effective note taking means getting the most from both of these functions in a way that aids the movement from understanding the content to applying it.

In a wide-ranging review of note taking research, 17 of 22 important studies found that reviewing notes resulted in higher test performance. The problem here is that if students aren’t recording enough material in class, they’re not leaving themselves enough information to review afterwards.

Having a structured approach to note taking is therefore crucial.

And that’s what we want to talk about next.

Next up: how note taking improves learning

Next in our series on modern learning, we’ll be looking at how note taking can be used to foster deep personal connections between students and their course content.

We’ll also sketch out how note taking technology can help scaffold the learning process and make student independence more accessible than ever.

Time for a simpler, smarter note taking accommodation?

Glean is the online note taking tool that makes compliance simple, reduces cost and admin burden, and improves student outcomes.

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