Positive Effects of Restricting Student

Faculty Forum

Positive Effects of Restricting Student Note-Taking in a Capstone Psychology Course: Reducing the Demands of Divided Attention in the Classroom

Gerald M. Long1

Abstract Two versions of a senior-level capstone course with differing note-taking strategies were compared. In one semester, a traditional student note-taking format was used; in another semester, student note-taking was rendered unnecessary by providing students with complete instructor notes. Student performance in the course as well as student opinions of the course itself and the new no-notes format were assessed. The nature of students’ in-class participation increased significantly with the no–note-taking for- mat, and final grades exhibited a modest improvement as well. Students were overwhelmingly positive in their reactions to the approach. Recommendations regarding the potential benefits of reducing the divided attention demands of note-taking in the classroom are discussed.

Keywords student note-taking, divided attention, classroom participation

Numerous reviews of student note-taking have emphasized the

complexity of the task for the student who must listen to novel

and often difficult material presented at a range of paces, iden-

tify and extract critical components of that information, orga-

nize the material in a personally meaningful fashion, and

transcribe it in a format that will allow for useful review later,

while simultaneously keeping abreast with what is happening

in the classroom (e.g., Bligh, 2000; Dezure, Kaplan, & Deer-

man, 2001; Glenn, 2010). Given the competing nature of these

multiple underlying cognitive tasks that comprise note-taking,

it is not surprising that the quality of note-taking among college

students has been found to be so poor. Since at least the 1960s,

many studies have reported the striking level of omissions of

key items in student notes, reaching levels of almost 90% in freshmen (Hartley & Cameron, 1967; Howe, 1970; Kiewra,

1985). Related work has found frequent inaccuracies in the

information recorded in notes, gross oversimplifications of the

material in the notes, and poor organization of the notes in

which key items and supporting material are not distinguished

(see the review by Dezure et al., 2001).

In spite of these difficulties, it has also been found that note-

taking is generally beneficial for student learning. Students

who take notes and review them tend to perform better than stu-

dents who do not (e.g., Kiewra et al., 1991; Nilson, 2010;

Titsworth & Kiewra, 2004). Consequently, one popular area

of research has involved the consideration of improved strate-

gies for note-taking that may allow the student to overcome the

inherent weaknesses of the divided attention task represented

by note-taking during a class period (e.g., Kiewra, Benton,

Kim, Risch, & Christensen, 1995). Although the Cornell

Method, in which students explicitly format their note pages

following a strict template (Pauk & Owens, 2010), is probably

the best known, other approaches abound. The web is replete

with links to all manner of note-taking strategies, including

‘‘form-free note-taking’’ that tries to go beyond the traditional

linear format of notes by emphasizing the critical linkages

between key points and ‘‘visual note-taking,’’ which presum-

ably engages the nonverbal right hemisphere.

In contrast to this dominant trend of seeking methods to

improve the quality of students’ note-taking, the present work

involves a quasi-experiment that considered the potential ben-

efits in some contexts of essentially eliminating this competing

task from students’ in-class activities. Rather recently, espe-

cially with regard to the controversy concerning laptop usage

in the classroom, the divided-attention aspect of note-taking

has been emphasized (e.g., Fried, 2008; Glenn, 2010) and the

possible counterproductive nature of classroom note-taking has

1 Department of Psychology, Villanova University, Villanova, PA, USA

Corresponding Author:

Gerald M. Long, Department of Psychology, Villanova University, Villanova, PA

19301, USA.

Email: gerald.long@villanova.edu

Teaching of Psychology 2014, Vol. 41(4) 340-344 ª The Author(s) 2014 Reprints and permission: sagepub.com/journalsPermissions.nav DOI: 10.1177/0098628314549707 top.sagepub.com

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been raised. Although there has been some work examining the

relative benefits of limiting student note-taking (e.g., Colling-

wood & Hughes, 1978; Cornelius & Owen-DeSchryver,

2008; Vandehey, Marsh, & Diekhoff, 2005), this work has gen-

erally suffered from weak external validity because it has used

noncourse-related materials, isolated lectures, or immediate

testing. In the present work, the type of note-taking available

to students was varied across successive fall semesters in a

senior capstone course in psychology. For one semester, a tra-

ditional outline of each course topic was provided throughout

the entire semester, and typical note-taking by students was

encouraged. For the next semester, the instructor provided

complete notes to augment the standard outline for each course

topic; and students were explicitly informed that note-taking

was no longer necessary. It was hypothesized that the removal

of the note-taking responsibility would allow students to

engage more in the classroom discussion, thereby fostering

more active learning on their part. The degree of students’ par-

ticipation in the class, student attendance levels, and students’

overall performance in the course were compared across the

two formats; and student’s opinion of the no–note-taking for-

mat was assessed. It was expected that measures of student par-

ticipation in the lectures as well as student perceptions of their

engagement with the course material and their overall satisfac-

tion with the course would improve in the no–note-taking for-

mat. Ratings of other basic course characteristics, such as

clarity of course goals, fairness of grading, respectful treatment

of students, relevance of assignments, and observed cheating,

were not expected to change across the two formats.

Method

Participants

Seniors (N ¼ 36) enrolled in a capstone course, Foundations of Modern Psychology, offered in the psychology curriculum at

Villanova in the fall of 2011 and students enrolled in the same

course (N¼ 19) in the fall of 2012 served as participants. There was no significant difference in the grade point average of

the no–note-taking students (M ¼ 3.45, SD ¼ 0.26) and the note-taking students (M ¼ 3.38, SD ¼ 0.39), t(53) ¼ 0.89, p > .05. Similarly, there was no significant difference in the

average combined SAT scores for the no–note-taking students

(M ¼ 1283, SD ¼ 91.60) and the note-taking students (M ¼ 1280, SD ¼ 104.84), t(45) ¼ .08, p > .05.1

Materials. A traditional block outline for each of the 16 broad course topics comprising the course was prepared. These multi-

page outlines provided a detailed organization of the lecture

material, clearly indicating the organization and chronology

of the material to be discussed in the lecture. In addition, the

outlines contained examples of particular concepts along with

reference to supporting research; and the outlines also included

relevant clipart, diagrams, and photographs to reinforce partic-

ular points. This same outline was then markedly expanded to

include detailed lecture notes that elucidated each of the

outline’s headings, subheadings, examples, and diagrams.

These lecture notes were intended to be very complete, render-

ing additional note-taking by the student unnecessary and

allowing students to feel confident that their own note-taking

would be redundant.

Procedure

Students enrolled in the course in fall of 2011 were provided

with the standard outline of each course topic 1 or 2 days pre-

vious to the respective lecture. This outline was e-mailed to

them by the instructor. Students enrolled in the second fall

semester were e-mailed the expanded version of each outline

and were explicitly instructed that note-taking during class was

unnecessary because of the detailed character of the notes pro-

vided to them. In all other respects, the course was as identical

as possible across the two semesters: the same two textbooks,

the same four writing assignments, the same PowerPoint slides,

nearly identical exams, and the same grading scale were used.

In addition to final grades in the course, student ratings of the

course and instructor were analyzed. At Villanova, the instru-

ment for assessing student ratings is the anonymous Course

and Teacher Survey (CATS) and it consists of 22 positive state-

ments to be rated on a 1 (strongly disagree) to 5 (strongly

agree) scale along with an open-ended section for student com-

ments. The individual 22 items include questions about basic

course mechanics and classroom atmosphere (e.g., asking stu-

dents to rate their views of the course assignments, exams, use

of class time, in-class discussions, instructor feedback to stu-

dents, grading, etc.) and two broad summative items about their

overall view of the course content and the quality of instruction

they received. A few additional items were added to the stan-

dard CATS instrument to assess student opinion of the

no-notes approach in the second semester. These included a rat-

ing of the students’ views of the notes-free format, whether

they found it necessary to take additional notes, and whether

the students would prefer to enroll in future courses that

employed the notes-free format.

Throughout the semester, the degree of student participation

in the classes was determined from audiorecordings of the

actual class lectures. These recordings were later coded by a

graduate student unfamiliar with the research hypothesis. Each

student comment or question was analyzed to determine

whether it was primarily ‘‘factual’’ (dealing with a specific

point of fact or clarification) or ‘‘conceptual’’ (dealing with

integrating points or arguments).

Results

Student Participation

There was a little difference in the average number of times stu-

dents in the two semesters spoke during a typical lecture. For

the note-taking group, M ¼ 10.6 and SD ¼ 4.45, and for the no–note-taking group M ¼ 11.5 and SD ¼ 6.44, t(39) ¼ 0.49, p > .05. However, there was a significant change in the nature

of the comments. The mean proportion of the in-class

Long 341

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interactions that were deemed to be of a ‘‘conceptual’’ nature

rose from .58 under the note-taking format to .71 under the

no–note-taking format, t(39) ¼ 2.03, p < .05, Z2 ¼ .09. Even if only those interactions were considered in which students

spontaneously asked a question or made a comment without

prompting by an instructor’s question, the same pattern

appeared to remain: .78 versus .88, t(39) ¼ 1.56, p ¼ .06, Z2¼ .06, for a one-tail test. (Because of the general exploratory nature of the present work, a significance level of p < .10 was

adopted for all the analyses.)

A related issue of concern prior to the study involved

the possibility of increased absenteeism by students in the

no–note-taking section. This did not occur. Average daily class

attendance in the standard Note-taking section was 87% (SD ¼ 9.03); and average daily class attendance in the no– note-taking section was 92% (SD ¼ 7.45). Furthermore, both these figures underestimate actual class attendance because a

student arriving late for class was likely judged to be absent.

Student Grades

Probably because of the capstone nature of the course and the

generally homogeneous nature of the first-semester seniors

comprising the students in the successive fall semesters, final

course grades exhibited a restricted range between ‘‘C�’’ and ‘‘A’’ in both semesters; no grades of ‘‘F’’ or ‘‘D’’ were

awarded. The mean final grade for students under the standard

note-taking format was 83.6% (SD ¼ 5.46); and mean final grade for students under the no–note-taking format was

85.5% (SD ¼ 7.42). Because the possibility of a ceiling effect with these average grades seemed likely due to the nature of

this class, the assignment of letter grades was looked at more

closely. It was determined that the proportion of students earn-

ing grades of ‘‘A�’’ or ‘‘A’’ rose from .36 to .53, suggesting a modest improvement in overall student performance. If a 2� 3 table was constructed for the number of C-level grades, B-level

grades, and A-level grades under the two teaching formats, a

significant difference was obtained, w2(df ¼ 2) ¼ 11.43, p < .01, indicating different assignments to the grade categories

under the two formats.

Student Attitudes

Student ratings of the course in the standard notes format were

rather good. On the 20 formative (descriptive) items, the rat-

ings averaged 4.5; on the 2 broad evaluative items, the ratings

averaged 4.4. These were quite high and again raised the pos-

sibility of ceiling effects limiting indications of improvement

in the subsequent no–note-taking term. Nonetheless, student

ratings improved in the no–note-taking semester; and the

breadth of the improvement was quite large. Of the 22 items

rated by students, 16 improved from the note-taking semester

to the no–note-taking semester, suggesting more than chance

variability (p < .05 as a binomial probability). Further analysis

of the specific areas of improved ratings generally supported

the a priori predictions. The mean ratings on the 2 broad

evaluative items about course content and quality of instruc-

tion increased to 4.5 (from 4.4). Although the absolute differ-

ence was small, a 2 (note-taking vs. no–note-taking) � 2 (overall rating of course content vs. overall rating of instruc-

tion) revealed a significant effect of format, F(1, 48) ¼ 3.85, p < .05, Z2 ¼ .07.2 And there was a significant difference between the ratings on the two items, F(1, 48) ¼ 32.77, p < .001, Z2 ¼ .39, with the rating on the quality of instruction higher for both groups; but the interaction was not significant,

F < 1.0. For each of the two items, a one-tailed t-test revealed

significantly higher ratings in the no–note-taking semester:

t(48) ¼ 1.86, p < .05, Z2 ¼ .07, for the perceived quality of instruction, and t(48) ¼ 1.77, p < .05, Z2 ¼ .06, for the per- ceived value of course content. The mean ratings on the 20

formative items increased to 4.7 (from 4.5) in the no–note-

taking semester. However, as noted in the Introduction sec-

tion, little change had been predicted in students’ views of

several basic aspects of the course: clarity of course goals,

respectful treatment of students, keeping up with coursework,

relevance of exams, fairness of grading, availability of

instructor outside of class, class attendance, clarity of

instructions for assignments, perceived cheating, and hard

work required for good grade. In fact, on these 10 dimensions,

no obvious pattern emerged; and 6 were rated higher in the

no–note-taking semester and 4 were rated higher in the

note-taking semester. On only the single item of employs rel-

evant tests and assignments, there was a significant difference

between formats, with the no–note-taking class providing

higher ratings, t(48)¼ 2.33, p < .01, Z2 ¼ .10. In contrast, cer- tain dimensions of the course had been hypothesized a priori

to be particularly sensitive to the shift from the note-taking to

the no–note-taking format: course organization, intellectual

stimulation, learned a great deal, instructor interacts effec-

tively, instructor encourages participation, instructor

responds to student questions, instructor explains course

material clearly, instructor’s enthusiasm, instructor provides

useful feedback, and instructor uses class time effectively. Of

10 of these dimensions, 8 were rated higher in the no–note-

taking section. In five cases, the difference was significant

for the predicted superiority of the no–note-taking format:

t(48) ¼ 1.55, p < .06, Z2 ¼ .05, for interacts effectively; t(48) ¼ 1.54, p < .05, Z2 ¼ .05, for responds effectively to stu- dent questions; t(48) ¼ 3.21, p < .05, Z2 ¼ .18, for provides helpful feedback; t(48) ¼ 2.33, p < .05, Z2 ¼ .10, for found the course intellectually stimulating; and t(48) ¼ 1.39, p < .08, Z2 ¼ .04, for learned a great deal.

Finally, students in the no–note-taking section were explicitly

asked about their usage of the notes provided to them and their

opinion of the no–note-taking approach. On a 5-point scale

inquiring how often students in the no–note-taking section took

their own notes from 1 (never) to 5 (always), student ratings aver-

aged 3.0 (sometimes). However, in their open-ended comments,

several students indicated that the degree of note-taking was

extremely modest. This matched the instructor’s informal obser-

vation that, although students occasionally jotted down an idea,

the typical impression of extensive note-taking was absent.

342 Teaching of Psychology 41(4)

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When asked whether they would prefer to enroll in future

courses with the no–note-taking format or the more traditional

note-taking format, the results were very clear. Only 2 of the 18

students preferred the standard format; 1 student was unde-

cided; and 15 favored the notes-free format in future courses,

w2(df ¼ 2) ¼ 20.33, p < .001. Moreover, their anonymous open-ended comments repeatedly reinforced this view.

Remarks such as ‘‘ . . . notes-free format allowed me to listen to what was being said rather than scrambling to take notes,’’

‘‘ . . . notes-free format was extremely helpful in studying and understanding the material,’’ and ‘‘ . . . notes-free format allows me to actually learn (and enjoy) the material w/o the pressure to

write everything down’’ were common.

Discussion

The results of replacing typical student note-taking with instruc-

tor’s notes that were provided to students prior to class meetings

of a senior capstone course in psychology are encouraging. The

quality of student participation in the class increased significantly

in the no–note-taking format, and there were indications of mod-

est improvement in grades as well. Moreover, student reactions to

the no–note-taking format were strikingly positive. Class atten-

dance was not adversely affected; and student ratings of the

course, especially on the two overall evaluative items of instruc-

tion quality and course content and on the dimensions related to

in-class participation, improved significantly. Finally, when

asked whether they would prefer to enroll in future courses with

a no–note-taking format, there was an overwhelming preference

for the no–note-taking format over the traditional note-taking

format.

Although the impact of the no–note-taking format is

encouraging in the particular context investigated in this study,

there is an obvious need to replicate this work because of the

unusual character of both the students (college seniors) and

the course (small lecture/discussion format) involved. How the

no–note-taking approach would fare in other classroom con-

texts is an open question. This caution is reinforced by the fact

that some previous work with instructor-provided notes has not

reported the apparent benefits described in the present work

(Cornelius & Owen-DeSchryer, 2008). However, several criti-

cal differences between that work and the present work make

comparison difficult, including freshmen versus senior stu-

dents, introductory versus capstone course, large versus small

classes, and significant note-sharing by students in the Corne-

lius and Owen-Deschryer (2008) study. These several factors

reinforce the clear need for caution in extrapolating from the

present results. Nonetheless, the positive effects obtained in the

present work provide a degree of support for the concern with

divided attention effects in the classroom.

Acknowledgments

I thank Takakuni Suzuki and Caitlin Dresler for their assistance with

the data coding and statistical analyses. The research protocol

employed in this research received prior approval from the Univer-

sity’s institutional review board (IRB).

Author’s Note

The results described in this article were presented at the annual Lilly

Conference on College and University Teaching, Bethesda, Maryland,

May 30 to June 2, 2013.

Declaration of Conflicting Interests

The author declared no potential conflicts of interest with respect to

the research, authorship, and/or publication of this article.

Funding

The author disclosed receipt of the following financial support for the

research, authorship, and/or publication of this article: This research

was supported by a grant to the author from the Villanova Institute for

Teaching and Learning (VITAL).

Notes

1. The degrees of freedom that appear in the statistical tests through-

out this article (e.g., for the tests of SAT scores and grade point

average measures) occasionally differ because the number of

records differed for the various data sets. For example, a small

number of students did not have SAT scores in their files; and 32

of 36 students completed the course ratings in the note-taking

semester, while 18 of 19 students completed the course ratings in

the no–note-taking semester.

2. Prior to computation of the analysis of variance and the subsequent

t-tests on the student-rating data, these values were adjusted with a

log-transform because of the well-known highly skewed nature of

course ratings. Specifically, the transformation used was log (high-

est score þ 1 – score), which served to normalize the data.

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/FlattenerPreset << /ClipComplexRegions true /ConvertStrokesToOutlines false /ConvertTextToOutlines false /GradientResolution 300 /LineArtTextResolution 1200 /PresetName ([High Resolution]) /PresetSelector /HighResolution /RasterVectorBalance 1 >> /FormElements true /GenerateStructure false /IncludeBookmarks false /IncludeHyperlinks false /IncludeInteractive false /IncludeLayers false /IncludeProfiles true /MarksOffset 9 /MarksWeight 0.125000 /MultimediaHandling /UseObjectSettings /Namespace [ (Adobe) (CreativeSuite) (2.0) ] /PDFXOutputIntentProfileSelector /DocumentCMYK /PageMarksFile /RomanDefault /PreserveEditing true /UntaggedCMYKHandling /UseDocumentProfile /UntaggedRGBHandling /UseDocumentProfile /UseDocumentBleed false >> ] /SyntheticBoldness 1.000000 >> setdistillerparams << /HWResolution [288 288] /PageSize [612.000 792.000] >> setpagedevice

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