Why is note taking so challenging?

Despite its importance for learning, many learners struggle with note taking. Why is that?

Clock5 min readCalendarPublished: 5 Jul 2021

Anyone who’s attempted it knows it - good note taking is a real skill.

There’s often the feeling that, no matter how hard you try, you’ll never be able to get everything down. Do you attempt to capture it all, despite the odds? Or do you focus more on listening and engaging with the speaker? It’s a real problem facing anyone trying to take notes. We call it the Note Taker’s Dilemma.

Capturing everything is impossible

On average, students record just ⅓ of important lecture points. Faster note takers might capture up to 80% (we’re thinking professional note takers) but research points to one stark fact - whether they use a laptop or pen and paper, students will never get everything down.

For students that find note taking difficult, that leaves an awful lot behind in the classroom.

The important thing about note taking

The more complete a set of notes are, the better they are. And having a full set of notes is one of the best study tools a learner can have.

This doesn’t mean that copying everything down from class is the be-all, end-all. In fact, it’s been shown that students taking this approach often don’t process what they’re hearing as well as those who pause to reflect or digest the material.

Information overload is a real problem, too. The swirl of information coming from a lecture can be too quick for many, causing stress and a whole heap of material left behind when the lesson is over.

As you might have guessed, there’s a major problem with this right off the bat - it’s a very delicate balance.

The long and short of it? Good note taking isn’t easy

The cards are stacked against note takers. Not only must they select the most important information to take away from a class and get it down in note form, they have to do so against immediate time pressure.

Meanwhile, they also have to filter out unimportant or irrelevant info and ward off distractions in the environment.

This is ignoring the fact that the material itself needs to be digested and understood properly.

What is it that hinders students, and especially disabled students, from working their way through this process?

Let’s take 2 common scenarios, both on opposite sides of a fundamental issue confronting note takers.

Learner one

  • ‘I try to keep up with the professor but they speak too quickly’
  • ‘Sometimes when I’m writing the notes my mind draws a blank. I try to remember what I wanted to write, meanwhile the professor moves on to another important point’
  • ‘I wonder what the point is in note taking if I can’t capture what I need’

Learner two

  • ‘I’m studying at home, and I feel like I can never really focus. There are just too many distractions’
  • ‘It’s hard because I feel like I really need to engage with the class to get anything out of it’
  • ‘All our classes are recorded, so I feel like I don’t really need to take notes.’

What do these stories tell us?

These learners are experiencing two common problems with note taking.

The first is describing an inability to take notes fast enough while processing the information. The second is describing issues with concentration and attention provoked by home learning - they’ve abandoned note taking because the information is available to view later.

Let’s look at the root causes of these issues to better understand the frustrations of both students.

It’s all in the mind

Note taking is so hard not just because handwriting is slower than live speech, but because the mental processes that allow students to take effective notes are so demanding.

Working memory

One of the most challenging aspects of note taking is the toll it takes on working memory.

‘First, the storage capacity of working memory is limited, and second, working memory functions consist of not just temporary storage, but also the manipulation and/or transformation of what is stored, and the maintenance of temporarily stored information when attention is shifted to performance of other tasks.' - ‘The role of working memory abilities in lecture note taking’, Bui & Myerson, 2014

Working memory’s capacity is limited, and information held in working memory slips away in real time. The challenge is to convert as much of the material being processed into long term memory, which itself draws upon working memory.

But ultimately, this is note taking’s core function, whether you’re taking notes in a live lecture, or jotting down thoughts when reading a book.

For cognitively impaired students, working memory capacity is limited. This makes traditional note taking problematic, hence why many students are eligible for accommodations.

Executive function

Right in the heart of the cognitive processes used during note taking is the central executive;

‘a processing component that performs a wide range of functions, including directing attention to relevant information, inhibiting irrelevant information [...] and coordinating cognitive processes when one or more task must be done at the same time’ - Bui & Myerson

The central executive is responsible for most note taking acts. Multi-tasking, dealing with interruptions and distractions, filtering out irrelevant information… it’s a defensive unit, making the offence’s job easier.

Combine the central executive with the limited storage of working memory, and you can see why students struggle, particularly cognitively impaired students.

But even with a high-functioning central executive and working memory, students still run into an all-too familiar problem.

We naturally make note taking as difficult as possible

Good note taking can be difficult because we naturally reach for a process that makes it so.

But if you understand the purpose of note taking, and the difference it’s intended to make to learning, you can start to imagine a new, more accessible process that works for everyone.

It’s all about process

'There are many strategies that a student with disabilities could employ to make note taking play to their strengths. Use of technology is one of them (e.g. taking a picture of the content using a smartphone or tablet, or recording sound). If one is experiencing anxiety because their note taking strategy is not working for them, try a different approach and see what happens. The key is to capture the information for later review. How one does that is down to what works for them, as everyone is different.' - John Hicks

We use tools in all areas of life to make tasks easier. You can peel a potato with a knife, but using a peeler is much easier, and the results are the same.

Similarly, can students gain the same results of effective note taking with a process that makes it less difficult?

By looking at the problem of note taking as a process issue, you can start to see how a scaffold can make good note taking more accessible.

With a smart use of tools, students can capture everything they need and create a complete set of notes without the problems associated with traditional note taking.

Complete notes made easy

Imagine you walked into a lecture and knew you were about to capture everything from it.

And how about you knew that, with minimal effort, you could highlight key points to return to, taking pressure off your typing speed? You’d probably focus a little more on absorbing the information, and less on frantically writing, which itself might lead to more thoughtful and better notes.

Glean is designed with one clear purpose in mind - to make creating and using a complete set of notes easy.

It does so by rebuilding note taking to match what we know about the learning process. By using Glean, students are finally able to leave the Note Taker’s Dilemma behind and make great notes come naturally.

That stressful, frenetic writing you remember from school or college? With Glean, that’s not note taking.

Up Next: The note taker's dilemma

We've identified a problem every note taker faces; one that has real consequences for learning and getting the most from the information around you. Do you recognise it?

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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