Brian Underwood: Write this down, watch grades go up

“Write this down; take a little note, to remind you in case you didn’t know…”

These memorable lyrics from country music legend George Strait’s 35th No. 1 hit, Write This Down, are indelible and beloved by King George fans everywhere.

And while this classic ditty is clearly a love song, the title speaks to the value of recording important information, and it’s a phrase teachers use every day. And depending upon where a student might find him or herself thus far this semester, brushing up on note taking skills might prove beneficial for a strong finish to the term.

There are clearly abundant technological applications to record information today. Cell phones, personal computers, livescribe pens, and other tools all provide convenience means to recording lectures. However, the reliance on recording lectures, while acceptable (depending on teacher policy), diminishes the value of active listening, or concentration, present through traditional note taking.

Active listening is the practice of fully concentrating on what’s being said rather than just passively ‘hearing’ the message of the speaker. At its best, active listening involves listening with all senses, which includes participation through note taking. And according to several studies, students taking handwritten notes tend to enjoy better recall and success of those using typed notes.

According to a study released a 2017 article from the Harvard Graduate School of Education, “For Note Taking, Low-Tech is Often Best,” researchers at Princeton and the UCLA, had students watch a lecture, randomly assigning them either laptops or pen and paper for their note-taking.

The results revealed comprehension of the lecture, measured by a standardized test, was substantially worse for those who had used laptops. Researchers hypothesize while students can type faster than they can write, “a lecturer’s words flow straight from the students’ ears through their typing fingers, without stopping in the brain for substantive processing.

“Students writing by hand, by contrast, have to process and condense the material if their pens are to keep up with the lecture. Indeed, in this experiment, the notes of the laptop users more closely resembled transcripts than summaries of the lectures.”

So working upon this supposition, the next logical question is teaching students how to take useful notes for future use. Oxford Learning,, offers Five Effective Note Taking Methods.

The following represents five unique ways of taking notes, often based on the type of information, or style of lecture, given. I encourage visiting the Oxford Learning site. It offers greater detail on learning and implementing the different approaches to note taking.

No. 1 — The Cornell Method — This is a classic approach that divides a page in vertical thirds, a 2.5” margin to the left, a 2” summary section on the bottom, and a main 6” in-class note section. This helps organize class notes into easily digestible summaries by organizing main points, details, study cues, and summary are all written in one place.

No. 2 — The Mapping Method — is a more visual way to organize notes. This technique is useful when learning about relationships between topics. The page is organized by topic, with the main topics branching out into subtopics with detailed information.

No. 3 — The Outlining Method — uses headings and bullet points to organize topics. This method is most useful when learning about topics that include a lot of detail. Each section starts with a heading of the main topic, and a supporting fact is written underneath.

No. 4 — The Charting Method — uses columns to organize information. This method is useful for lessons that cover a lot of facts or relationships between topics. The page is divided into columns labeled by category. The details of each category are filled out in the rows below.

No. 5 — The Sentence Method — is simply writing down each topic as a jot note sentence. This method works well for fast paced lessons where a lot of information is being covered. Each line on the page is a new and separate topic. To organize your notes even more, you can use headings for each main topic.

There are, of course, many different styles and approaches to note taking, but the key thing is for users to explore then commit to using a style that works best for him/her. For visual learners, YouTube has several short, but worthwhile, videos on this important topic.

I don’t know if King George needed all this to get the job done, but research shows students do. And a venerable Chinese proverbs helps puts note taking into perspective for anyone needing to remember something — “The faintest ink is better than the best memory.”

Brian Underwood is the director of school development at Sierra Lutheran High School.


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