Note-Taking: Focusing On Concepts

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Summary Table

PIs Aaron Bauer & Kenneth R. Koedinger
Other Contributers
Study Start Date June 1, 2007
Study End Date July 31, 2007
Laboratory Study
LearnLab Course Causal and Statistical Reasoning (OLI)
Number of Students 60 (expected)
Total Participant Hours 180 (expected)
DataShop Not collected. Expected Fall 2007

== Abstract ==custom pappers This experiment evaluates the hypothesis that note-taking promotes learning where it requires students to increase their focus on the ideas they record in their notes. It does so by increasing both the attention paid to the critical components of the key idea, and the amount of time students spend rehearsing the idea in working memory. Previous research indicates that when students use copy-paste functionality to take notes on text-based material, they learn less when they create wordier notes. We believe these results come from the low cost of such wordy notes. Using copy-paste functionality, students can easily select large amounts of text after a cursory read-through.

This experiment compares unrestricted copy-paste with restricted copy-paste, in which the amount of text students can select in any one action is limited. Restrictions are aimed at increasing attention paid to what is being recorded, and thus increasing learning. Two types of restrictions will be evaluated: those that are required, and those that are recommended.

For information on the note-taking project see the top-level page.


Note-taking: The act of recording ideas from learning material, either by marking up the learning material directly or creating a separate sheet of “notes.”

Selection: This term is used in the context of this study to identify the behavior of using the mouse and cursor to actively highlight a portion of digital text. Selection is first step for several online note-taking techniques, including copy-paste and annotation.

Copy-Paste: This is the act of selecting material, copying it to the computer clipboard (via a keyboard shortcut or menu), and then pasting it into students’ notes.

Research Question

Does note-taking promote learning by increasing focus on the ideas students are recording?


Many researchers believe that the beneficial learning outcomes observed for note-taking are derived from an increased attention to learning materials (see Peper & Mayer, 1986). Most studies that evaluate what students record show that recorded ideas are much more likely to be recalled at testing than ideas that are not recorded (Crawford, 1925 for earliest). The wordiness with which an idea is recorded in notes may also be an attentional component of note-taking . However, the research is somewhat equivocal as to whether wordiness is beneficial or detrimental (fewer words better: Howe, 1970; worse Kiewra, 1987).

My own research has shown that the benefits of wordiness vary according to how notes are recorded. Specifically, when ideas are recorded using copy-paste functionality, wordiness appears detrimental to learning. This is not the case for handwritten or typed notes. There may be two processes involved here. First, wordy notes have little associated cost when pasted. Using the mouse to select more text takes an insignificant amount of time. Secondly, selecting more text may be an indicator of less focus on the important components of the idea being recorded. As ideas are easier to record than when they are typed or handwritten, students may be less motivated to identify the critical components for recording.

The hypothesis of this experiment is that increasing the cost of recording notes may motivate students to focus more on what they are recording. By restricting the amount of text students can select in any one copy-paste action, we hope to increase student focus. An earlier interface designed showed both lower learning and reduced usage, perhaps due to student frustration. Due to this inhibited behavior, we were unable to evaluate the stated hypothesis. In this experiment, we aim to design more user-friendly restrictions, and evaluate the difference between required restrictions, where students are not allowed to make inappropriate selections, and recommended restrictions, where students are told when their selections may be suboptimal.

Dependent Variables


Note: all tests include both multiple choice and free response questions. The multiple choice questions all involve solving problems (for example, given a response structure, which variables are direct causes of an effect, or which interact to produce an effect). In addition, some free response questions ask students to explain terminology used in the module.

Normal post-test, immediate: Students are given a test immediately after studying the material.

Long-term retention, Normal Learning: Students return a week following the treatment (which lasts between 30 and 90 minutes) to take this test.

Normal Learning, review: After taking the long-term retention test, students are given their notes to review for 5 minutes. Following this review period, students take a final test.

Some of the harder multiple choice problem-solving applications may assess transfer.

Behavior or mediating variables

Note-Quantity: The total number of ideas students place in their notes is captured, as well as the number of words used to express those ideas.

Note-Wording: How students word their notes is recorded. Each ideas is either recorded Verbatim, Abbreviated, or in students Own words.

Completion Time: The time students take to complete the learning material is recorded.


Experience: After taking the final test, students are given a survey which solicits their reaction to the tool they used. They are asked to identify their most and least favorite features of the tools, and how they believe the tool affected their note-taking behavior.

Independent Variables


This is the basic note-taking text-editor. Built in javascript, the editor occupies the lower third of the screen, while the learning materials occupy the top of the screen. The functionality of various manipulations is described below.

Note-taking Treatment

Unrestricted Paste: Students can only create notes by copy-pasting material from the learning content to their notepad. Students can select as much material as they like in any single pasting action.

Required Restriction: Students can only create notes by copy-pasting material from the learning content to their notepad. However, students are restricted with regards to how much text they can select in any single pasting action. These restrictions are absolute, so that any restrictions above the given criterion will not be allowed. This instructional method is a method for feature focusing.

Recommended Restriction: Like "Required Restriction," only now students are told when the criterion is violated, but can still choose to make the selection. This is also a (lower assistance method for feature focusing.

Read-Only: In this condition, students do not take notes, they are only allowed to read the material.

Context/Mediating Variables on Student Characteristics

SAT Score: All students are asked to provide their SAT scores, as in previous studies SAT-Math was found to be an important covariate.

Pretest score: Prior to the learning material, students take a pre-test similar to the normal tests described above.

Preferences: In the survey, students are asked how they prefer to take notes in their regular student-life.


1. (Central Hypothesis) The restricted note-taking tools will show better performance on learning outcomes than the unrestricted tools.

2. The required will show better learning outcomes than the recommended tool, as the recommended tool will allow students to lapse into negative behaviors.

3. All note-taking tools will perform better than read-only, as note-taking has been shown to be a positive behavior.

Expected Findings

If note-taking involves increasing focus on ideas being recorded in notes, we expect that the restrictions on note-taking will result in superior performance on learning outcomes. Restrictions will require students to identify the critical information to record, whereas using an unrestricted tool students would be more likely to copy-paste large swaths of text without attending to the material.

Designing required restrictions may be an intractable problem, as students appear to have strong opinions regarding how to take notes. Frustrating tools will result in suboptimal note-taking behavior. This is more likely with the required tool than it is with the recommended tool. We hope that recommendations are enough to influence student behavior in a positive fashion, so that note-taking interfaces can offer user freedom. Therefore both behavioral and learning differences between the recommended and required tool will be important to evaluate.



Note-taking project page

Note-Taking: Focusing On Quantity

Further Information


  • Crawford, C.C. The correlation between college lecture notes and quiz papers. Journal of Educational Research, 12, 4 (1925) 282-291.
  • Howe, M.J. Using students' notes to examine the role of the individual learner in acquiring meaningful subject matter. Journal of Educational Research 64, 2 (1970), 61-63
  • Kiewra, K.A., Notetaking and Review: The research and its implications. Instructional Science 16, (1987) 233-249
  • Peper, R.J., Mayer, R.E., Generative Effects of Note taking During Science Lectures. Journal of Educational Psychology 78, 1 (1986) 34-38