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February 2005 Issue

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Note Organization Formats That Inhibit or Promote Learning 

By Dennis H. Congos, University of Central Florida

Email: dcongos@mail.ucf.edu

The intent of this article in to prompt examination and discussion into ways to determine the effectiveness and efficiency of notetaking formats.  I have been unsatisfied with responses of fellow learning skills professionals that one format is the same as another and that choice should depend on a personal preference.  I think that efficiency and effectiveness can be observed and codified and communicated to faculty, staff, and students.  This does not preclude flexibility for learning styles or personal preference.  However, I believe we, as learning skills professionals, are derelict in our duties if we do not point out more effective ways to learn even among those earning high grades.  I have seen many A students cut study time as much as in half to assimilate the material and still earn As and when they adopt faster and more productive techniques for learning.


Guidelines for Rating the Effectiveness of Note Organization Formats

Lecture and textbook notes may be organized into many different formats.  Some of these formats promote learning and some inhibit learning.  Those that promote learning include many elements that have been proven to increase learning.  Below is a set of guidelines to rate the effectiveness of note organization formats from the least effective to the most effective in promoting learning.

These guidelines have 15 elements all of which promote learning.  In rating the effectiveness of note organization formats, each guideline is worth 1 point.  The higher the total score indicates greater effectiveness of the note organization format in promoting learning.  The lower the score indicates increased potential to inhibit  learning.  Sixteen is a perfect score.

Elements of Note Organization Formats That Promote Learning  

1.   Visually separates main ideas from other main ideas with space.

2.   Visually separates main ideas from details with space.

3.   Visually separates details from other details with space.

4.   Numbers, letters, and symbols indicate how many details there are to remember.  

1, 2, 3 and 4 are important in note organization formats because what is visibly separated on paper is easier to organize in the mind and recall when needed.  The act of organizing main ideas and details requires mental manipulation which is very important in promoting learning.  Using numbers, letters and symbols facilitates the separation of ideas and organizes material which saves time in reviewing, learning, and recall.   

5.   Promotes self-testing by quickly revealing what has and has not been learned.  

Self-testing is done by looking only at main ideas and trying to recall details from memory, then looking at the details as a check.  This is important because learners can discover what is learned and not-yet-learned, before a test is taken, when something can still be done about it.  When notes are properly organized, self-testing is fast, efficient, and promotes understanding and learning speed.  This also helps students to avoid discovering what has and has not been learned after a test is returned when little to nothing can be done about the test grade.  

6.   Visually and physically separates learned and not-yet-learned material.  

When learned and not-yet-learned material is visibly separated in a note organization format, little time is wasted because energy can be more focused on the "not-yet-learned" material.  This reduces study time, considerably.  It also allows the learner to see progress as learning takes place as the material is repeatedly reviewed.  

7.   Main ideas and details can be regrouped/reorganized.  

Regrouped/reorganized material helps in learning and remembering because information to be learned can be organized into groups or patterns that have meaning to the learner.  Regrouping and recategorizing information in one's note organization format requires that all-important mental manipulation that is vital to understanding, learning, and recall.  

8.   Requires mental manipulation of ideas to set up and review notes, analyze, evaluate, synthesize, condense, and restructure notes.  

Mental manipulation of ideas is very important in learning as mentioned above.  Some examples of mental manipulation are analyzing, reorganizing, categorizing, sorting, condensing and evaluating.  Simply reading over notes (stroking words with eyes) results in little to no learning or recall because it requires little to no mental manipulation.  It also greatly increases the time it takes to learn any given material.  

9.   Can be rewritten in one's own words using abbreviations, symbols, and short phrases.  

Using as many of one's own words as possible in a note format promotes faster learning.  This is true because using one's own words make learning and remembering easier and because converting ideas into one's own words involves mental manipulation of ideas.  Using abbreviations, symbols, and short phrases condenses the material.  This means that time is saved in recording and reviewing notes because there is less total written verbiage.  

10.  Promotes summarizing of main ideas.  

Once material has been learned, looking at main ideas in a summary should be all that is necessary to stimulate recall of all relevant details for each idea: if the material has been learned, that is.  This is another way to discover if the material has been learned to the point of accurate recall or not.  Therefore, it is helpful that main ideas be quickly and easily identified so that they can be reorganized into a summary format.  

11.  Easy to form questions out of main ideas and answers out of details.  

When questions are made from main ideas and answers made from details in notes, there are many benefits in learning.  One benefit is that this activity makes it easier to maintain concentration as the mind focuses on formulating a question that properly fits the nature of the details.  Concentration is also enhanced as answers are built out of details.  Another benefit is that many of these questions appear on exams because of the nature of the way many exams are constructed.  A third benefit is that questions speed learning of details needed for answers on exams.  A fifth benefit is that questions and answers allow learners to practice the very activity they do when taking a test: looking at questions and recalling answers from memory.  Adage:  we become better at that which we practice.  For example, if students practice not solving algebra problems, they become better at not solving algebra problems.  

12.  Simple format.  

The simpler a note organization format is, the faster it is to organize, record, and learn the material.  

13.  Can be conveniently and efficiently reviewed and recited.  

Since most learning takes place during review and recitation, it is wise to have a note organization format that eases review and recitation.  The organization of main ideas and related details should promote fast and easy review and recitation.  A note organization format should also make it quick and easy to determine if recitation is complete and accurate.  Note formats should supply immediate, corrective feedback when information is recited incorrectly or incompletely and it should supply immediate reinforcement when information is recited completely and accurately.  This process speeds learning considerably.  

14.  Eases evaluation of test performance and effectiveness of learning tools.  

Unless test performance is evaluated, it is almost assured that grade-limiting study skills will be repeated and grade-raising study skills will go unrecognized.  Evaluation of test performance is crucial if wise decisions are to be made about refinements in study skills.  A good note organization format promotes the analyses of test performance.  For example, if notes are well organized, it's easier to take missed answers on exams and discover the ineffective study skill that led to a loss of points.  In illustration, if a test answer was missed because something was not included in notes, this suggests that notetaking techniques need refinement and clues to important ideas need identification.  On the other hand, if information for the answer was in notes but missed on the test, the indication is that more reciting and review may be needed.  

15.  Easily portable.  

Carrying around heavy books and cumbersome notebooks in order to have material to study is outdated.  A note organization format should make transporting information to be learned easy and convenient.  

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