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Note-taking

Rules for effective note-taking

  • Select. Omit trivial and redundant details. Omit anything you'll recall anyway!
  • Condense. Replace lists with a category term.
  • Organize. Choose headings and topic sentences.
  • Rephrase. Use your own words.
  • Elaborate. Make connections to existing knowledge.1

To use note-taking effectively, you need to understand that its primary value is not in the record you produce, it is in the process itself. The process of taking notes guides the memory codes you make. Note-taking is a strategy for making information meaningful. It is therefore only effective to the extent that you paraphrase, organize and make sense of the information while taking notes.

Note-taking is a strategy for making information meaningful.

What does that mean? What does it mean, to make information meaningful? It means to connect new information to existing knowledge. The more connections you make, the better you will understand the information.

Connection is the heart of what makes information meaningful.

Why is it important to make information meaningful?

Because connection is the key to remembering. The more connections you have, the more entry points you have to the information, therefore the easier it will be to retrieve.

Facts that you already know very well and have no trouble remembering act as anchor points.

The more anchor points you can connect to, the more meaningful the new information becomes, and the more easily you will remember it.

Think about it for a moment. When you are told something new, you only understand it to the extent that you can relate it to something you already know.

Here’s a quote from The complete idiot’s guide to Microsoft Office:

After you select the data source to use, the Mail Merge Helper displays the Label Options dialog box, asking you to specify the type and size of the mailing labels on which you intend to print.

Now if you don’t know anything about computers this will be complete gibberish and there’s no way you’re going to remember it. If you have some experience with Microsoft Office, but have no experience of Mail Merging, then you will sort of understand what’s going on, but not have enough anchor points to really understand it — and you’re not going to remember it either. But if you are already au fait with Mail Merging, and merely want to know how to do the labels, then you will have a well-organized, strong cluster of facts already recorded in memory, and the new fact will slot in easy peasy. You’ll understand it, and you’ll remember it — to the extent that your existing cluster of information about Mail Merging was strong and well-connected.

It’s like learning a new word. Pediment, for example. If you were told this was a triangular part crowning the front of a building in the Grecian style — assuming you don’t already know the word, and assuming you have no particular knowledge of architecture — you’re not likely to remember it without repeatedly coming across it. You might make the connection pedimentimpediment, but since there is no meaningful connection between these words, this won’t help you remember the meaning of pediment. It might help you remember the word itself, mind. But to remember the meaning of the word, you need a meaningful connection. That might be provided by the suggestion that pediment is derived from a corruption of pyramid, which as we all know, is triangular, and is also a building.

The more connections to existing anchor points, the more meaningful the word becomes; the more easily remembered it is.

Connection is the key to remembering.

The more connections you have, the more entry points you have to the information.

Therefore, the more easily it will be found.

Connection is the heart of what makes information meaningful.

How does notetaking help make information meaningful?

Here we came to the nub of the matter. Notetaking doesn’t have to make information meaningful, but it is mainly valuable to the extent that it does.

So this is how you judge your notetaking skills, and how you judge the value of a particular strategy in a particular situation —

Ask yourself: does this help me make connections? Does it help me connect the facts together? Does it help me connect the new information with information I already have? Does it make any connection with facts I already know very well, and am unlikely to forget?

Conditions for effective note-taking

  • Slow or self-determined rate of presentation
  • Well-organized material
  • Material that is not too difficult or complicated
  • Skill at note-taking1

References: 

  • Baine, D. 986. Memory and instruction. Englewood Cliffs, NJ: Educational Technology Publications.
  • Barnett, J.E., DiVesta, F.J. & Rogozinski, J.T. 1981. What is learned in note-taking. Journal of Educational Psychology, 73, 181-192.
  • Peper, R.J. & Mayer, R.E. 1978. Note-taking as a generative activity. Journal of Educational Psychology, 70, 514-522.
  • Schneider, W. & Pressley, M. 1989. Memory development between Two and Twenty. New York: Springer-Verlag.

1. Adapted from The Memory Key.

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Working memory, expertise & retrieval structures

In a 1987 experiment (1), readers were presented with a text that included one or other of these sentences:

After doing a few warm-up exercises, John put on his sweatshirt and began jogging.

or

After doing a few warm-up exercises, John took off his sweatshirt and began jogging.

Both texts went on to say: John jogged halfway around the lake.

After reading the text, readers were asked if the word sweatshirt had appeared in the story. Now here is the fascinating and highly significant result: those who read that John had put on a sweatshirt responded “yes” more quickly than those who had read that he had taken off his sweatshirt.

Why is this so significant? Because it tells us something important about the reading process, at least in the minds of skilled readers. They construct mental models. If it was just a matter of the mechanical lower-order processing of letters and words, why would there be a difference in responses? Neither text was odd — John could as well have put on a sweatshirt before going out for a jog as taken it off — so there shouldn’t be a surprise effect. So what is it? Why is the word sweatshirt not as tightly / strongly linked in the second case as it is in the first? If they were purely textbase links (links generated by the textbase itself), the links should be equivalent. The difference in responses implies that the readers are making links with something outside the textbase, with a mental model.

Mental models, or as they are sometimes called in this context, situation models, are sometimes represented as lists of propositions, but in most cases it seems likely that they are actually analogue in nature. Thus the real world should be better represented by the situation model than by the text. Moreover, a spatial situation model will be similar in many ways to an image, with all the advantages that that entails.

All of this has relevance to two very important concepts: working memory and expertise.

Now, I’m always talking about working memory. This time I want to discuss not so much the limited attentional capacity that is what we chiefly mean by working memory, but another, more theoretical concept: the idea of long-term working memory.

Think about reading. To make sense of the text you need to remember what’s gone before — this is why working memory is so important for the reading process. But we know how limited working memory is; it can only hold a very small amount — is it really possible to hold all the information we need to make sense of what we’re reading? Shouldn’t there be constant delays as we access needed information from long-term memory? But there aren’t.

It’s suggested that the answer lies in the use of long-term working memory, a retrieval structure that keeps a network of linked propositions readily available.

Think about when you are studying / reading a difficult text in a subject you know well. Compare this to studying a difficult text in a subject you don’t know well. In the latter case, you may have to painfully backtrack, checking earlier statements, trying to remember what was said before, trying to relate what you are reading to things you already know. In the former case, you seem to have a vastly expanded amount of readily accessible relevant information, from the text itself and from your long-term memory.

The connection between long-term working memory and expertise is obvious. And expertise has already been conceptualised in terms of retrieval structures (see for example my article on expertise). In other words, you can increase your working memory in a particular domain by developing expertise, and the shortest route to developing expertise is to concentrate on building effective retrieval structures.

One of the areas where this is particularly crucial is that of reading scientific texts. Now we all know that scientific texts are much harder to process than, for example, stories. And there are several reasons for that. One is the issue of language: any science has its own technical vocabulary and you won't get far without knowing it. But another reason, far less obvious to the untutored, concerns the differences in structure — what may be termed differences of genre.

Now it might seem self-evident that stories are far simpler than science, than any non-fiction texts, and indeed a major distinction is usually made between narrative texts and expository texts, but it’s rather like the issue of faces and other objects. Are we specially good at faces because we're 'designed' to be (i.e., we have special 'expert' modules for processing faces)? Or is it simply that we have an awful lot of practice at it, because we are programmed to focus on human faces almost as soon as we are born?

In the same way, we are programmed for stories: right from infancy, we are told stories, we pay attention to stories, we enjoy stories. Stories have a particular structure (and within the broad structure, a set of sub-structures), and we have a lot of practice in that structure. Expository texts, on the other hand, don't get nearly the same level of practice, to the extent that many college students do not know how to handle them — and more importantly, don't even realize that that is what they're missing: a retrieval structure for the type of text they're studying.

References: 

Glenberg, A.M., Meyer, M. & Lindem, K. 1987. Mental models contribute to foregrounding during text comprehension. Journal of Memory and Language, 26, 69-83.

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Desirable difficulty for effective learning

When we are presented with new information, we try and connect it to information we already hold. This is automatic. Sometimes the information fits in easily; other times the fit is more difficult — perhaps because some of our old information is wrong, or perhaps because we lack some of the knowledge we need to fit them together.

References: 

D’Mello, S., Lehman B., Pekrun R., & Graesser A. (Submitted). Confusion can be beneficial for learning. Learning and Instruction.

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Achieving flow

I’ve recently had a couple of thoughts about flow — that mental state when you lose all sense of time and whatever you’re doing (work, sport, art, whatever) seems to flow with almost magical ease. I’ve mentioned flow a couple of times more or less in passing, but today I want to have a deeper look, because learning (and perhaps especially that rewiring I was talking about in my last post) is most easily achieved if we can achieve "flow" (also known as being ‘in the zone’).

Let’s start with some background.

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Why good readers might have reading comprehension difficulties and how to deal with them

The limitations of working memory have implications for all of us. The challenges that come from having a low working memory capacity are not only relevant for particular individuals, but also for almost all of us at some points of our lives. Because working memory capacity has a natural cycle — in childhood it grows with age; in old age it begins to shrink. So the problems that come with a low working memory capacity, and strategies for dealing with it, are ones that all of us need to be aware of.

References: 

Press release on the first study: http://www.physorg.com/news/2012-01-high-school-whiz-kids-comprehension.html; see also http://rrl.educ.ualberta.ca/research.html

Second study: Banas, S., & Sanchez, C. a. (2012). Working Memory Capacity and Learning Underlying Conceptual Relationships Across Multiple Documents. Applied Cognitive Psychology, n/a-n/a. doi:10.1002/acp.2834

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Intelligence isn’t as important as you think

Our society gives a lot of weight to intelligence. Academics may have been arguing for a hundred years over what, exactly, intelligence is, but ‘everyone knows’ what it means to be smart, and who is smart and who is not — right?

Of course, it’s not that simple, and the ins and outs of academic research have much to teach us about the nature of intelligence and its importance, even if they still haven’t got it all totally sorted yet. Today I want to talk about one particular aspect: how important intelligence is in academic success.

References: 

Chamorro-Premuzic, T., & Furnham, A. (2003). Personality traits and academic examination performance. European Journal of Personality, 17(3), 237-250. doi:10.1002/per.473

Duckworth, A. L., & Seligman, M. E. P. (2005). Self-discipline outdoes IQ in predicting academic performance of adolescents. Psychological science, 16(12), 939-44. doi:10.1111/j.1467-9280.2005.01641.x

Furnham, A., & Chamorro-premuzic, T. (2005). Personality and Intelligence : Gender , the Big Five , Self-Estimated and Psychometric Intelligence. International Journal of Selection and Assessment, 13(1), 11-24.

Furnham, A., Rinaldelli-Tabaton, E. & Chamorro-Premuzic, T. (2011). Personality and Intelligence Predict Arts and Science School Results in 16 Year Olds. Psychologia, 54 (1), 39-51.

von Stumm, S., Hell B., & Chamorro-Premuzic T. (2011). The Hungry Mind. Perspectives on Psychological Science. 6(6), 574 - 588.

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Better learning through handwriting

One of the points I mention in my book on notetaking is that the very act of taking notes helps us remember — it’s not simply about providing yourself with a record. There are a number of reasons for this, but a recent study bears on one of them. The researchers were interested in whether physically writing by hand has a different effect than typing on a keyboard.

References: 

Mangen, A. & Velay, J. (2010). Digitizing Literacy: Reflections on the Haptics of Writing, Advances in Haptics, Mehrdad Hosseini Zadeh (Ed.), InTech,  Available from: http://www.intechopen.com/articles/show/title/digitizing-literacy-reflec... Press release at http://www.eurekalert.org/pub_releases/2011-01/uos-blt011911.php

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Why it’s important to work out the specific skills you want to improve

I have spoken before, here on the website and in my books, about the importance of setting specific goals and articulating your specific needs. Improving your memory is not a single task, because memory is not a single thing. And as I have discussed when talking about the benefits of ‘brain games’ and ‘brain training’, which are so popular now, there is only a little evidence that we can achieve general across-the-board improvement in our cognitive abilities.

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Novices' problems with scientific text

This is the last part in my series on understanding scientific text. In this part, as promised, I am going to talk about the difficulties novices have with scientific texts; what they or their teachers can do about it; and the problems with introductory textbooks.

The big problem for novices is of course that their lack of knowledge doesn’t allow them to make the inferences they need to repair the coherence gaps typically found in such texts. This obviously makes it difficult to construct an adequate situation model. Remember, too, that to achieve integration of two bits of information, you need to have both bits active in working memory at the same time. This, clearly, is more difficult for those for whom all the information is unfamiliar (remember what I said about long-term working memory last month).

But it’s not only a matter a matter of having knowledge of the topic itself. A good reader can compensate for their lack of relevant topic knowledge using their knowledge about the structure of the text genre. For this, the reader needs not only to have knowledge of the various kinds of expository structures, but also of the cues in the text that indicate what type of structure it is. (see my article on Reading scientific text for more on this).

One of the most effective ways of bringing different bits of information together is through the asking of appropriate questions. Searching a text in order to answer questions, for example, is an effective means of improving learning. Answering questions is also an effective means of improving comprehension monitoring (remember that one of the big problems with reading scientific texts is that students tend to be poor at judging how well they have understood what was said).

One of the reasons why children typically have pronounced deficits in their comprehension monitoring skills when dealing with expository texts, is that they have little awareness that expository texts require different explanations than narrative texts. However, these are trainable skills. One study, for example, found that children aged 10-12 could be successfully taught to use “memory questions” and “thinking questions” while studying expository texts.

Moreover, the 1994 study found that when the students were trained to ask questions intended to access prior knowledge/experience and promote connections between the lesson and that knowledge, as well as questions designed to promote connections among the ideas in the lesson, their learning and understanding was better than if they were trained only in questions aimed at promoting connections between the lesson ideas only (or if they weren’t trained in asking questions at all!). In other words, making explicit connections to existing knowledge is really important! You shouldn’t just be content to consider a topic in isolation; it needs to be fitted into your existing framework.

College students, too, demonstrate limited comprehension monitoring, with little of their self-questioning going deeply into the material. So it may be helpful to note Baker’s 7 comprehension aspects that require monitoring:

  1. Your understanding of the individual words
  2. Your understanding of the syntax of groups of words
  3. External consistency — how well the information in the text agrees with the knowledge you already have
  4. Internal consistency — how well the information in the text agrees with the other information in the text
  5. Propositional cohesiveness — making the connections between adjacent propositions
  6. Structural cohesiveness —integrating all the propositions pertaining to the main theme
  7. Information completeness — how clear and complete the information in the text is

Think of this as a checklist, for analyzing your (or your students’) understanding of the text.

But questions are not always the answer. The problem for undergraduates is that although introductory texts are presumably designed for novices, the students often have to deal not only with unfamiliar content, but also an approach that is unfamiliar. Such a situation may not be the best context for effective familiar strategies such as self-explanation.

It may be that self-explanation is best for texts that in the middle-range for the reader — neither having too little relevant knowledge, or too much.

Introductory texts also are likely to provide only partial explanations of concepts, a problem made worse by the fact that the novice student is unlikely to realize the extent of the incompleteness. Introductory texts also suffer from diffuse goals, an uneasy mix of establishing a basic grounding for more advanced study, and providing the material necessary to pass immediate exams.

A study of scientific text processing by university students in a natural situation found that the students didn’t show any deep processing, but rather two kinds of shallow processing, produced by either using their (limited knowledge of) expository structures, or by representing the information in the text more precisely.

So should beginning students be told to study texts more deeply? The researchers of this study didn’t think so. Because introductory texts suffer from these problems I’ve mentioned, in particular that of incomplete explanations, they don’t lend themselves to deep processing. The researchers suggest that what introductory texts are good for is in providing the extensive practice needed for building up knowledge of expository structures (and hopefully some necessary background knowledge of the topic! Especially technical language).

To that end, they suggest students should be advised to perform a variety of activities on the text that will help them develop their awareness of the balance between schema and textbase, with the aim of developing a large repertory of general and domain-specific schemata. Such activities / strategies include taking notes, rereading, using advance organizers, and generating study questions. This will all help with their later construction of good mental models, which are so crucial for proper understanding.

References: 

  • Baker, L. 1985. Differences in the standards used by college students to evaluate their comprehension of expository prose. Reading Research Quarterly, 20 (3), 297-313.
  • Elshout-Mohr, M. & van Daalen-Kapteijns, M. 2002. Situated regulation of scientific text processing. In Otero, J., León, J.A. & Graesser, A.C. (eds). The psychology of science text comprehension. Pp 223-252. Mahwah, NJ: LEA.
  • King, A. 1994. Guiding Knowledge Construction in the Classroom: Effects of Teaching Children How to Question and How to Explain. American Educational Research Journal, 31 (2), 338-368.

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Concept maps

Broadly speaking, a concept map is a graphic display that attempts to show how concepts are connected to each other. A concept map is a diagram in which labeled nodes represent concepts, and lines connecting them show the relationships between concepts.

There is one type of concept map you’re probably all aware of — mind maps. Mind maps are a specialized form of concept map popularized very successfully by Tony Buzan.

A mind map has four essential characteristics:

  • the subject is crystallized in a central image
  • main themes radiate from it as branches
  • the branches comprise a key image or key word
  • the branches form a connected nodal structure

The essential difference between a mind map and the more general concept map is that in a mind map the main themes are connected only to this single central image — not to each other. In a concept map, there are no restrictions on the links between concepts.

Also, the connections between concepts in a concept map are labeled — they have meaning; they’re a particular kind of connection. In a mind map, connections are simply links; they could mean anything.

Mind maps are also supposed to be very pictorial. In Buzan’s own words:

“The full power of the Mind Map is realised by having a central image instead of a central word, and by using images wherever appropriate rather than words.”

Concepts in a concept map, on the other hand, can be (and usually are) entirely verbal. But the degree to which you use words or pictures is entirely up to the user.

In fact, this insistence on images is one of the things I don’t like about mind maps (I hasten to add that there are many things I do like about mind maps). While images are certainly powerful memory aids, they are not for everyone, nor for all circumstances.

Mind maps and concept maps are really aimed at different purposes, and perhaps, different personalities.

The chief usefulness of mind mapping, I believe, is when you’re still trying to come to grips with an idea. Mindmapping is good for brainstorming, for outlining a problem or topic, for helping you sort out the main ideas.

Concept maps, on the other hand, are particularly useful further down the track, when you’re ready to work out the details, to help you work out or demonstrate all the multitudinous ways in which different concepts (and a “concept” can be anything) are connected.

Concept maps are more formal than mind maps, and are better suited to situations where the concept is to be shared with others. Mind maps are considerably more personal, and are often not readily understood by others.

Both mind maps and concept maps are good at clarifying your thoughts, but because of the greater formality of the concept map — the need to be more precise in your connections — concept maps are better at showing you exactly what you don’t understand properly.

Which is why concept maps take a while to get right!

This is a very important point that I should emphasize — hardly anyone ever gets their map (mind or concept) right the first time. In fact, if you did, you probably didn’t need to construct it! It’s the redesigning that is important.

But concept maps can come in different flavors — from the more formal, to a visual display which simply use the basic idea of nodes and links. You can see a whole bunch of proper concept maps, constructed using cmap, at http://cmex.ihmc.us/cmex/table.html . And if you’re interested in becoming a cmapper yourself, check out http://cmap.ihmc.us/ .

And here’s a couple more links to help you learn more about concept maps:
http://www.fed.cuhk.edu.hk/~johnson/misconceptions/concept_map/concept_maps.html
http://cmc.ihmc.us/CMC2004Programa.html (this one has a number of conference papers available in pdf format).

This article first appeared in the Memory Key Newsletter for October 2006

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