Note Taking in e-Learning

Note Taking in e-Learning

I’m a serial note taker. Put me in a training event or a conference session and I’ll be scribbling away on my freeform unlined paper making notes – all sorts of notes. I write down key points, web links, book references, even make small diagrams.

Sometimes I even mind map. I also run two ‘notebooks’ (well sheets if I’m honest) one that relates to the material being delivered and one to capture wider thoughts that may have been sparked off by that material. These notes are usually down to connections that pop-up in my big picture brain – so for example I might have a business development idea, a blog post idea or simply a useful concept that I will follow-up at some future time.


You may have realised by now that I still prefer pen and paper for note taking. Others are happier tapping away on their laptops or more recently on their tablets (sometimes to the annoyance of others).

What role does note taking play in learning?

Now I’m not the only one who takes notes at ‘learning’ events so clearly note taking has a role to play in our processing and understanding of the material being presented. Even when the presenter/trainer tells us that the ‘slides’ will be available ‘at the end’ I still take notes – though I notice some people breathe a deep sigh of relief , put down their pen and relax a little in their seats. Sometimes a presenter will even handout slides at the start ready for us to make notes in the little lined area next to each slide. I hate this – that little lined area is way too constraining for my free range approach.

For me taking notes is a key part of the learning process – the material is presented, some things seem particularly relevant or interesting so I write them down, other things cause some synapses in my brain to fire and a few new connections are made and these new insights are noted down too. At the end my notes are not always completely coherent but there is usually enough for me to take my learning further later even if it’s only looking up the web links and buying yet another book on Amazon. Of course sometimes I never look at my notes again but the act of making those notes in the first place signifies a deeper connection with the material than if I just sit there watching and listening. I guess that, in some small way, the act of note taking turns me from a passive learner into an active learner.

So, if we find notes useful in a face-to-face environment why not also use them in e-learning? Most people don’t seem to. Maybe the fact that they have control over the speed of the delivery and because they can repeat bits notes are less relevant. Links and book references are even handled automatically – generally they are just one click away. A few years ago I worked on an e-learning programme for an NHS Trust and we discovered that nurses were much more likely to make notes compared to doctors.

When I was working on e-learning projects back in 2001 one of the popular innovations was a live notepad which was built into the e-learning programme. The idea was that it would be pretty useful if the learner could make notes in the e-learning as they went along. In practice of course pretty much no one used the built-in notepad and it gradually became extinct – though you do occasionally still see it around. I note (sic) for example that iTunesU supports notes (it even has a special notes tab – see below).


So is note taking in e-learning relevant or useful? Are we missing a trick by not considering how this relatively simple activity contributes to the overall learning experience?

Is there any research on the benefits of note taking?

A quick search on the web reveals lots of research on note taking and also on note taking systems (such as the Cornell System Research, of university level students in particular identifies two key purposes of note taking. Encoding and external storage.

With regards to learning, note-taking benefits have been placed in two categories: Encoding and External Storage (Carter & Van Matre, 1975). Encoding benefits are accrued through the act of note-taking. The act of recording an idea in notes facilitates learning, regardless of whether the notes are later reviewed. External Storage benefits are derived from students reviewing their notes. In this case, notes are useful as documents that can be reviewed prior to tests.

For me the concept of encoding is the one that drives my note taking. The writing down and/or visualisation of ideas and concepts helps me to ‘see’ the material from my own experiential viewpoint. For me it’s about being able to connect the new material satisfactorily with the stuff I already know.

So should note taking be encouraged in e-learning?

So two questions to finish and hopefully to encourage some debate. Firstly, should we bother about whether our e-learners make notes or not? Secondly, if we do see the value in encouraging note taking what devices can we employ from a learning design perspective?

This post originally appeared on the E-Learning Network’s Advent Blog series for Christmas 2011. See previous comments and notes.

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