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Science Behind: Taking Notes

For many students at East, taking notes is a dreaded part of the school day. However, while some students find taking notes during lectures and PowerPoint presentations to be dull or tedious, most agree that note-taking is a crucial part of the classroom experience.

At East, there are several styles of note-taking that are popular among students. In middle schools across the Chapel Hill-Carrboro City School district, students are encouraged to take “Cornell-style” notes, and often times these note-taking skills are brought over into high school. Recently however, many students at East have turned to technology to take notes in the classroom. Historically, using laptops for note-taking has been more popular among upperclassmen, but recently, teachers at East have noted a spike in laptop use for note-taking in younger classes.

As the age of technology continues to revolutionize learning in classrooms across the country, there have been several studies conducted to analyze how digital note taking has affected students. In a recent study published in “Psychological Science,” researchers Pam Mueller of Princeton University and Daniel Oppenheimer of the University of California evaluated how laptops in the classroom have changed how students take notes.

“When people type their notes, they have this tendency to try to take verbatim notes and write down as much of the lecture as they can,” said Mueller.

In the study, Mueller and Oppenheimer categorize note-taking in two ways: generative and non-generative. Generative note-taking, which involves summarizing, paraphrasing, and concept-mapping, is an active and thoughtful note-taking process, and was found to be more prevalent among students who take notes with pen and paper. On the other hand, non-generative note-taking uses the speed of a keyboard as a crutch to copy down everything on a slide, instead of actively processing the information. In every test throughout the study, the students who took physical notes generally had a greater understanding of the material and were able to apply the concepts much more effectively than the students who took notes with a laptop.

Mueller also recognizes that it is much easier to become distracted when taking notes on a computer. At East, students who take digital notes are often seen perusing Amazon’s daily deals or tabbing over to Twitter, unbeknownst to their teachers. These distractions can add up to poor note-taking habits over the course of the year, which is why many teachers at East appreciate when students take notes by hand.

“In the classroom, I allow my students to take notes on the computer, but I prefer if they don’t,” said chemistry and biology teacher, Kelly Allen. “Lots of studies have shown that handwriting your notes helps you remember, and typing them out isn’t quite the same thing.”

Sometimes, students prefer to take notes in a specific format for certain subjects at school. In some cases, using a laptop does not speed up the note-taking process.

“I take written notes when it comes to math and science, it’s much easier than typing it out,” said senior Gabby Dimaté.

Like most things in life, there are pros and cons to taking handwritten notes and taking notes on a laptop. Students who click-clack away on the keys for the entire lecture have more content to look back on, but may not understand the material as well. Those who prefer to fill their notebooks the old-fashioned way may have less to review later on, but will most likely have a greater understanding of the information. For busy students seeking the best of both note-taking worlds, tech companies like Livescribe have introduced new lines of “smart pens,” which use micro cameras and special paper to convert handwritten notes into digital documents.

In CHCCS, administrators have made it clear that technology will be an important part of the classroom from now on, but how this technology is implemented and the extent of its use will continue to be up to the discretion of teachers.

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