Which Note-Taking Style Produces the Most A’s

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We all spend an obscene amount of dollars to go to college, so it goes without saying we should get our money’s worth. We all want to know if there’s a definitively better way to learn more in each class. Or does everyone really just learn differently? These three UC Berkeley professors settle that argument.

Click away on the keyboard or scribble on the notepad?

For a student who cares about their grades, watching the person in front of you update their fantasy football team while you’re trying to learn is just about the most infuriating thing ever. “I do think it’s a distraction to the person using it and the people around them, and it’s distracting to me because people’s attention goes elsewhere,” Berkeley graduate student instructor Aileen Liu said.

But when you’re writing, those hand cramps can stop you dead in your tracks while your typist friend leaves you in the dust. Research in the Psychological Science Journal shows that although one can write more when typing, students who write focus more on listening and interpreting information rather than simply transcribing the professor. They’re less likely to be distracted, thereby retaining more information. Laptops can both deviate your attention and hinder the note-taking process. While some professors ban laptops in lecture because of this, some don’t mind, leaving it up to the students.

Although some professors aren’t so thrilled with computers in the classroom, some think its powers should be utilized. “The electronics have just been a source of distraction in the past so that’s why we have a policy of disallowing them except for cases of accommodation. But I have no other objection to them; they seem like a great way to take notes,” English professor Jeffrey Knapp said.

Give your hands a day off or keep up the scribbling?

Sometimes you just want to put your feet up, throw your hands behind your head and just kick it while you learn from the professor through osmosis. Research from the University of Michigan suggests that note taking can improve your grades, but for some people, taking notes and listening are mutually exclusive.

As a student in high school, Berkeley Geology professor Mark Richards took the osmosis approach, but when he started college he found it difficult to take notes and listen at the same time. He encourages the students who would rather listen to the lecture and appreciate what he’s saying, and then study online lecture notes later. “I always put my notes up on (the class website),” Richards said. “Sometimes I post them before the lecture so that students can actually get out their laptops and follow along my notes as I’m lecturing.”

On the other side of the debate, professor Knapp encourages students to take notes in an active manner. “I’d imagine myself in conversation with the lecturer rather than just being the victim of the lecture, and I think that’s a much better way to process intellectually what’s happening in the lecture,” Knapp said.

Should your strategy change depending on presentation style?

Some professors write on a chalkboard à la Albert Einstein, some show pretty pictures with their lectures and some just do it the good ol’ fashion way by lecturing from a podium.

As to whether one particular lecturing style requires a specific form of note taking, Richards suggests that the question isn’t so simple. Different subjects require different teaching methods. “When I teach more technical mathematically advanced courses, I often use very old technology: overheads. You can actually manipulate and write on overheads dynamically while you’re talking in a way that you can’t do in PowerPoint,” Richards said.

Political science junior Max Seltzer at UC Berkeley says that his favorite teaching style is perfect for taking notes by hand. “Being a humanities major, when I walk into lecture I would prefer the professor to be able to verbally create a story without the use of a few basic PowerPoint slides. Those, for me, are the most effective lectures and taking notes by hand allows me to enjoy the material more than usual,” Seltzer said.

At the end of the day, its up to you how you study. Becoming active and engaged in lecture is the true key to success. If you’re using a laptop, make sure you’re not merely transcribing and refrain from updating your Facebook during class, or if you’re not taking notes at all, make sure you actually listen and the midterm won’t seem like a foreign language.

Dano Nissen is a sophomore English major at UC Berkeley. He enjoys listening to Pearl Jam and watching The Simpsons.

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