Note-Taking: Coordination

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Note-Taking: Coordinating content with notes

Aaron Bauer, Ken Koedinger

  • PI: Aaron Bauer
  • Key faculty: Ken Koedinger
  • Studies: 1 complete
Study Start Date March 1, 2008
Study End Date March 27, 2008
Laboratory Study
LearnLab Course Causal and Statistical Reasoning (OLI)
Number of Students 51
Total Participant Hours 120
DataShop Will attach file, May ‘08


This project examines the part the presence of a notepad plays in the educational benefits of note-taking. Some forms of note-taking involve the creation of a document that is available while they are reading learning materials. Such is the case when students record notes on a blank piece of paper, or type or paste them into a text-editor underneath a browser. In other forms of note-taking, such as highlighting, students lose access to their notes when they change pages. By comparing interfaces that do and do not include a notepad, this project explores the hypothesis that the availability of notes allows students to coordinate what they are learning with what they are learning, strengthening the connections between knowledge components.


  • Co-presence Of Text: The principle that having multiple related documents simultaneously available increases learning by increasing connections made between knowledge components.
  • 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.”
  • Select/ion: 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.
  • Highlighting:The act of creating a lasting distinction between the selected text and the main content. For example, through creating a yellow background or underlining the text.

Research Question

Previous studies have shown that the simultaneous presence of related texts increases learning. Does the simple presence of a notepad play the same role for note-takers?

Background and Significance

There is a long history of research connecting note-taking with increased performance on learning outcomes. While some researchers believe note-taking gains are achieved when students connect learning materials with prior knowledge, there is little behavioral data to support such a thesis. Students' notes rarely show indications of material external to what they are learning. In fact, notes are often recorded verbatim. Still, there is evidence that note-takers perform better on tests addressing robust learning measures (Peper and Mayer, 1986), which should derive from such connective behavior.

Previous research has found that simultaneously coordinating multiple sources facilitates learning (Wiley 2001). Note-taking often involves the creation of a separate representation of the learning material, which remains available for review while the student is learning new material. If the availability of multiple sources is responsible for positive learning outcomes, then note-taking methods such as highlighting, which does not produce a separate copy of the learning materials, should not produce similar learning results to copy-paste. This is a Coordinative Learning hypothesis of note-taking.

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

Dependent Variables

Learning Outcomes

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: Students are given a test immediately after studying the material.

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

Long-term retention after 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.


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

Note-taking Treatment

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.

Highlighting: Students can create notes by actively highlighting course material. These highlights are seen with differently colored backgrounds, as would be the case with a physical highlighter.

Highlighting with Notepad: Students highlight notes as above. In this condition, every highlight immediately appears in a notepad below the learning content. This has a similar appearance to the Paste condition, but students cannot edit or organize their notes.

No Notes: Control condition in which students read through the learning material without taking notes of any form.

Student Variables

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.


The Co-presence Of Text provided by the notepad plays a role in the learning gains achieved through note-taking. When the notepad is taken away, students will learn less because they will not be able to easily coordinate what they are learning with what they had previously learned. Therefore the highlighting condition will perform worse on learning outcomes than the Highlighting with Notepad and Pasting conditions.


NOTE: graphics to be added

  • There are no differences on immediate or delayed learning tests, meaning there are no processing benefits of note-taking even over no notes.
  • Students using tools with a notepad (Paste and Highlighting with Notepad) perform better on the review tests.
  • Students taking any form of notes receive a review benefit, whereas there is not a retesting effect for no-notes.
  • Most students in the Paste and Highlighting with notepad conditions report referring to notes from previous pages while reading the learning materials.
  • Highlighting with Notepad is more efficient than other tools.


It appears that there is no process benefit of note-taking, as no tools perform better on learning outcomes until after students are given access to their notes. While there is a benefit for review for all conditions, only the conditions with notepads perform better on the review test. However, when reviewing, highlighters generally have access to the entire document, not just the highlighted material.


Note-taking project page

Further Information

  1. Peper, R.J., Mayer, R.E., Generative Effects of Note taking During Science Lectures. Journal of Educational Psychology 78, 1 34-38
  2. Wiley, J. (2001) Supporting understanding through task and browser design. Proceedings of the Twenty-third annual Conference of the Cognitive Science Society, (pp. 1136-1143). Hillsdale, NJ: Erlbaum.