JOURNAL OF RESEARCH IN SCIENCE TEACHING VOL. 43, NO. 8, PP. 786818 (2006)
How College Science Students Engage in Note-Taking Strategies
Janice M. Bonner,1 William G. Holliday2
1College of Notre Dame of Maryland, 4701 North Charles Street, Baltimore, Maryland 21210
2University of Maryland, College Park, Maryland 20742
Received 31 December 2004; Accepted 31 May 2005
Abstract: A composite theory of college science student note-taking strategies was derived from a
periodic series of ve interviews with 23 students and with other variables, including original and nal
versions of notes analyzed during a semester-long genetics course. This evolving composite theory was
later compared with Van Meter, Yokoi, and Pressleys (Journal of Educational Psychology, 86, 323338,
1994) corresponding composite college students theory of note-taking. Students notes in this long-term
study were also compared with a standard of adequate note-taking established by experts. Analyses
detected many similarities between the two composite theories. Analyses also provided evidence of
inadequate note-taking strategies, inconsistencies between what students claimed and evidently did with
their notes, and weak self-regulating learning strategies. Recommendations included prompting students
during class on how to take notes. 2006 Wiley Periodicals, Inc. J Res Sci Teach 43: 786818, 2006
In this study, the researchers developed a composite set of beliefs held by a group of college
science students concerning their note-taking strategies and compared it with the seminal work of
VanMeter, Yokoi, and Pressley (1994). VanMeters team, subsequent to analyzing a series of ve
interviews with 252 college students, developed a college students theory of note-taking,
derived from students beliefs about note-taking. Researchers in the present study determined how
extensively the participants set of note-taking beliefs was implemented in a semester-long
genetics course. Data were derived frommany sources, including students notes (both after each
lecture class and again at the end of the semester), their markings in course textbooks, and
interviews with the professor teaching the target genetics course. A comparison was made
between what students said about how they took notes and evidence about what they actually did
with their notes in preparing for course examinations. Notes written by the 23 participants were
assessed in terms of what two experienced biology teachers believed to be reasonable notes
covering seven genetics concepts presented in the course, referred to as adequate representations.
The data generated in this study were assessed in terms of selected components of the
Correspondence to: J.M. Bonner; E-mail: email@example.com
Published online 24 July 2006 in Wiley InterScience (www.interscience.wiley.com).
2006 Wiley Periodicals, Inc.
self-regulated learning theory (Schunk, 2005; Zimmerman, 1989, 1998). Thus, the rationale for
this study is to build on the previous work of VanMeter et al. (1994) and other researchers, to seek
clarication about how students take notes and what collected evidence suggests about the way
students use their notes, and to compare a sampling of students notes with an adequate
representation of notes.
Note-taking, a nearly ubiquitous classroom practice, is a popular learning strategy among
science students and is often encouraged by teachers. The goal perhaps is to help students record,
clarify, organize, and comprehend information highlighted during lectures rather than merely
depend on their memories and, thus, enhance preparation for and performance on course tests. A
recent survey of 5728 science and mathematics teachers in the USA found that 86% of students in
high school biology classes listen to lectures and take notes at least once aweek (Weiss, 2002). The
strategy is apparently practiced, although to a lesser degree, in middle and elementary schools
54% and 15%, respectively (Weiss, 2001, Table 5.6). If a similar survey were administered to
college science instructors, it would perhaps produce rates higher than the 86% reported by high
school science teachers (see Palmatier & Bennett, 1974).
Early note-taking literature grew out of the pedagogical question of whether a student would
be better served by taking notes or merely listening attentively in class. Some early studies
suggested that note-taking had positive benets for the student. Crawford (1925a, 1925b)
administered postlecture quizzes to subjects, some of whom had taken notes during a short lecture
and others who had not. He concluded that students who took notes performed better on follow-up
quizzes than students who did not take notes, especially if their notes were clear and specic.
Eisner and Rohde (1959), on the other hand, concluded that students did not necessarily benet
from taking notes. In their study, subjects listened to a short lecture. Half of them took notes during
the lecture and the other half immediately following it. Results of quizzes on the lecture material
showed no signicant difference between the two settings for the taking of notes.
Landmark studies by DiVesta and Gray (1972, 1973) expanded the pattern of back-and-forth
conclusions about the efcacy of note-taking to consider the actual role played by the strategy,
specically whether notes are more valuable as a source of information for later reference or as a
method bywhich students can translate information into their own understanding. As DiVesta and
Grays subjects listened to a set of short passages, some were permitted to take notes and others
were not. Subjects who had taken notes performed signicantly better on both a recall test and a
multiple-choice test. DiVesta and Gray suggested that note-taking, rather than interfering with
learning as had been hypothesized by some earlier researchers, actually enhanced the ability of the
student to recognize and organize important information.
Subsequent investigators began to approach note-taking in the framework established by
DiVesta andGraythat is, either as a process of recording information in class or as a product that
could be reviewed afterward. The work of Carter and Van Matre (1975) suggested the former. In
their study, college students listened to a short lecture, some taking notes and others not doing so.
Subjects were then provided a short period in which to either reread their notes or to mentally
review the lecture. Theywere then administered a test, either immediately after the review or after
a delay. On the delayed test, the only subjects who performed better were those who had taken
notes and then reviewed them. Carter and Van Matre concluded that taking notes was not as
benecial to the student as having notes. Alternatively, Peper and Mayer (1978) believed that
actually taking notes was of more benet than merely having them. In their study, subjects were
divided into note-takers and nonnote-takers and then shown a short video. Afterwards, theywere
COLLEGE STUDENTS NOTE-TAKING STRATEGIES 787
given a set of two types of problems: some required them to generate a solution to a problem
related to the video and others required them to interpret information included in the video. In
measures of retention and recall, note-takers performed no differently than nonnote-takers.
Peper and Mayer did nd that note-takers, especially those of lower ability, recalled more
conceptual idea units, and nonnote-takers recalled more technical idea units. They concluded
that note-taking may help students to connect the lecture content with their prior knowledge.
Kiewra (1985) summarized investigations that had been conducted along the note-taking as
process/notes as product front. Of the 29 studies that had explored the process function of note-
taking, two thirds suggested that note-taking was a positive strategy compared with listening. In
addition, of the 18 studies that had examined the product role, two thirds reported that having notes
and reviewing them is better than either not having notes or not reviewing them.
Although the process/product debate continued, some researchers began to ask different
questionsfor example, about the content and format of notes taken by students. Einstein,Morris,
and Smith (1985) sought to determine what students put into their notes. In their study, subjects
either took notes during a short videotaped lecture or merely listened to it; afterwards, they were
asked to record everything that they remembered. Note-takers recalled signicantly more high-
importance concepts from the video than nonnote-takers. Moreover, their notes included
signicantly more high-importance ideas than either medium- or low-importance ideas. In
addition, subjects later recalled a greater percentage of those ideas that they recorded in their
notes. Einstein et al. concluded that note-taking apparently encourages students to process
information in a qualitatively better way. Kiewra et al. (1991), in addition to directing subjects to
either take notes or not take notes during a short video, instructed subjects to take notes in a
particular style: linear (completing an outline of the lecture); matrix; or conventional. Subjects
were administered a recall test and a synthesis test either immediately after the lecture or after a
short review period. Subjects who took notes and reviewed them performed best on both types of
test. There was no signicant difference among the types of notes.
Some studies of note-taking set out to capture what undergraduate students actually think
about the strategy, primarily through surveys or questionnaires. Palmatier and Bennett (1974)
distributed a survey to 223 undergraduates. Ninety-nine percent of the subjects responded that
they took notes during lecture (even a few who stated that they did not think note-taking was
helpful) and 71% said they did so when they read. There appeared to be no relationship between
students course grades and their note-taking practice. Carrier,Williams, andDalgaard (1988) also
surveyed college students by administering the Note-Taking Perceptions Survey, which asks
questions about perceptions of the worth of note-taking, levels of note-taking activity, and
condence in note-taking skills. The researchers concluded that women respondents valued notes
more highly, utilized notes more, and were more condent of their ability to take good notes than
men. Moreover, their study suggested that nal course grade was predicted by a students note-
Most recently, note-taking research has been integrated with listening and reading
comprehension strategies. In this regard, leading reading researchers (Guthrie & Anderson,
1999; Ogle & Blachowicz, 2002; Pressley & McCormick, 1995; Pressley, 2002; Vacca & Vacca,
2002) recommended that teachers train students how to take notes and to engage in other strategies
while reading or listening about information. Although some students are taught specic note-
takingmethods (Stahl, King,&Henk, 1991)for example, the CornellMethod, theUniedNote-
taking System (Palmatier, 1971), or the Verbatim Split Page Methodmost students are not
instructed in any note-taking methods at all (Van Meter et al., 1994).
All of the described note-taking studies typically were conducted as isolated events
snapshots of the note-taking process. Moreover, they were not situated in naturalistic settings, but
788 BONNER AND HOLLIDAY
in contrived contexts. Finally, they involved notes, textual material, and test questions that had
little or no bearing on students personal academic success and for which they had little academic
accountability. Therefore, the research design of these studies may have prevented investigators
from capturing what really occurs both in the lecture hall and at the study carrel. Such earlier
published studies, of course, contributed to our understanding of note-taking and provided
researchers with a foundation to move beyond contrived experiments. Furthermore, although
surveys such as those described may provide helpful information about how students view note-
taking, the survey format also has denite limitations because it frequently superimposes choices
on students, limiting their freedom of response.
VanMeter et al. (1994), believing that amore complex student-centered theory of note-taking
was a prerequisite to any understanding of the process, conducted a series of ethnographic
interviews of 252 undergraduates from which they developed the seminal college students
theory of note-taking (CSTN). Because of its methodological thoroughness and analytical
insightfulness, the CSTN stands as perhaps the most explicit development of undergraduate
beliefs about a key academic strategy. It expands both educators and investigators understanding
of note-taking and suggests future research directions.
The CSTN (VanMeter et al., 1994) can be matched with extant note-taking research on three
tracks. First, in numerous aspects, it was consistent with the extant note-taking literature. Van
Meters participants reported that they almost always took notes during class lectures, and
discussed contextual factors that affected their ability to take good notes, particularly the lecture
style of the instructor (fast or slow, organized or disorganized). Van Meters participants had
denite opinions about the details they incorporated into lecture notes and about how these details
were best organized. They also discussed how they adapted note-taking strategies based on an
assessment of test performance. Van Meters participants described the key role played by prior
knowledge related to the course, their increased prociency in taking notes as they progressed
through college, and their commitment to taking and keeping good notes. Their participants also
described methods they used to process notes after class and the conditions under which they used
notes to study and do homework. Second, the CSTN included considerations that previously had
not been a part of researchers understanding of note-taking. Van Meters participants report-
ed that, while their primary goal in taking notes was success in the course, they also considered
subgoals, such as staying attentive in class and having a tool that could be used later for homework
assignments. The students also reported that their note-taking style evolvedmost often in hard-to-
take-notes courses that placed the greatest demands on note-taking skills. Apparently, neither of
these two aspects of note-taking had been revealed by prior research. Third, in at least one area,
whether notes are paraphrased or taken verbatim, the CSTN contradicted existing note-taking
literature, which had suggested that paraphrased notes implied a higher degree of information
processing than notes taken verbatim. Van Meters participants explained that they consciously
selected either verbatim or paraphrased notes, depending on cognitive demands of the course,
sometimes choosing word-for-word notes if they were not sure of the message of the instructor.
Note-taking is one of a group of strategies that can be used to predict with a high degree of
accuracy a students membership in either a higher achievement or lower achievement academic
track (Zimmerman&Martinez-Pons, 1988). The self-regulation of these strategies is described as
taking place over three phases that occur cyclically (Paris & Paris, 2001; Zimmerman, 1998):
forethought; then the actual academic performance; and then self-reection. Forethought is the
time before performance during which the student draws connections between task analysis and
COLLEGE STUDENTS NOTE-TAKING STRATEGIES 789
self-motivation. It is during forethought that the actions of goal setting and strategic planning are
integrated with the beliefs of self-efcacy, outcome expectations, interest in the task, and goal
orientation. During the second phase, performance, there is an opportunity for more interaction as
the student focuses on strategies that facilitate both concentrating on the task and monitoring
various aspects of the performance. The third phase is self-reection. Here, the student evaluates
the performance and assigns causal signicance to the results; the student also responds with
satisfaction or dissatisfaction to the performance and decides whether to change the performance
in the future. Based on current literature, therefore, a self-regulated note-taker would approach an
academic situationfor example, a new coursealready armed with strategies and goals
developed during the forethought phase. This note-taker would constantly adjust the note-taking
process as the semester progressed, and would assess the success of themodications at the end of
College students are frequently described (e.g., Nelson, Dunlosky, Graf, & Narens, 1994) as
competent self-regulated learners. It is possible, however, that the self-regulatory skills of this
group have been overestimated because of the nature and context of the evaluative tasks (Pressley
& Ghatala, 1988, 1990). In fact, college students performance on tests may be more strongly
connected to note-taking and prior knowledge than to self-regulatory skills (Peverly, Brobst,
Graham,&Shaw, 2003). To assist college students in their development as self-regulated learners,
Zimmerman and Paulsen (1995) suggested that students be taught self-monitoring strategies,
particularly when they are trying to understand difcult reading material or to develop new skills
outside their collegemajor, and that faculty incorporate such instruction in their classes. Hofer,Yu,
and Pintrich (1994) suggested that undergraduates are well-served by a program that provides
them with a variety of clearly targeted strategiescognitive, metacognitive, and motivational
but does not overload them with options. On the other hand, Paris and Paris (2001) suggested that
students would benet from an on-going discussion of academic challenges and how to address
them even more than from an overt presentation that matches particular strategies to particular
VanMeter et al. (1994) established that undergraduate students have a denite theory of note-
takingthey can talk the talk. Since then, little research in science education has been done to
study note-taking or to link it with self-regulation. In particular, a recent survey of major
research journals in science education (specically, Journal of Research in Science Teaching,
Science Education, and International Journal of Science Education) failed to uncover basic
work investigating note-taking by students enrolled in science courses at any school or college
Questions addressed by the present study include the following. Was the note-taking
theory of students in this study comparable to Van Meter et al.s (1994) college students
theory of note-taking (CSTN)? How did college students apply their theory (i.e., beliefs or
notions) about note-taking as they experienced the challenges of a demanding genetics
coursein short, did they walk the walk? These questions were addressed by interviewing
students and by examining their learning materials and other factors linked to the semester-
long science course.
The current study differs from traditional note-taking research in three ways. It was
longitudinal in nature, enabling the researchers to follow individual students throughout an entire
academic semester. It was situated in an actual academic course, thereby having an added
naturalistic dimensiona situation approaching an authentic classroom condition and its implied
responsibilities and tensions. Finally, this study explored students theory of note-taking aswell as
their application of that theory in their course notes and, to a lesser degree, in their course
790 BONNER AND HOLLIDAY
To uncover participants theory of note-taking, students were interviewed ve times over the
semester, producingnearly100 hours of total interview time and600pages of transcripts. To observe
how participants applied their theory of note-taking, their notebooks were analyzed after each class
period and again at the end of the semester, producing almost 2500 pages of students notebooks. In
addition, participants textbooks and course tests were analyzed, producing another 400 pages of
data. Data were gathered and analyzed using the qualitative technique of analytic induction to build
patterns of similarities and differences among participants (Bogdan & Biklen, 1992; LeCompte,
Millroy, & Preissle, 1992). Researchers inspected evidence-based documents and came to
consensus.Disputes between researcherswere negotiatedby appeal to evidence in the data gathered.
Students enrolled in a 300-level genetics course at a private, liberal arts college for women
were invited to participate in a semester-long study of note-taking strategies. The genetics course
was a required course in the biologymajor, usually taken by students in their third year following a
100-level introductory course, three 200-level organismal courses (selected from among botany,
invertebrate zoology, microbiology, and vertebrate anatomy), and four semesters of general and
organic chemistry. Interviews with six instructors residing in the biology and chemistry
departments suggested that instructors of these courses generally presumed that students took
notes in class and used notes to study and complete homework. None of the instructors reportedly
included formal training in note-taking in their classes.
The genetics coursewas chosen for two reasons. Therst reasonwasmore discipline-based
genetics lies at the heart of contemporary biology. Students must understand and apply principles
of genetics as they relate to the cell, to the molecular basis of heredity, and to evolution (National
Research Council, 1996). The second reason was more curriculum-basedthe learning of
genetics is often considered difcult for students at many levels of schooling because of the
conceptual integration that is required (Baker & Lawson, 2001; Lewis &Wood-Robinson, 2000;
Marbach-Ad & Sokolove, 2000). Within the biology curriculum of the institution at which this
studywas conducted, genetics is the rst upper-level course taken bymost biologymajors, serving
often as a gateway to more demanding theoretical and analytical 300- and 400-level biology
courses. In addition, more than 12 years of academic advising at the institution by the rst author
suggested that the genetics coursewould provide a situation that challenged participants ability to
take good notes. Participants corroborated these opinions in later interviews.
Twenty-three of 32 students enrolled in the genetics course (72%) participated in this study.
The average age of participants was 20.7 years (SD 0.77). Six identied themselves as AfricanAmerican. One student identied English as her second language. Participants mean aptitude
scores were 490 (SD 64) on the verbal section of the SAT (VSAT), and 458 (SD 71) on themathematics section of the SAT (MSAT).At the beginning of the semester, participants had earned
an overall college GPA of 3.19 (SD 0.34) and a combined GPA of 3.06 (SD 0.41) in scienceand math courses required for biology majors.
The course instructor, Dr. Frank Bradshaw (all names are pseudonyms), holds a doctoral
degree inmolecular genetics. Hewas a tenure-track facultymember of the biology department and
had taught genetics at the institution for 5 years.
The genetics class met for a 50-minute lecture three times a week. The tiered classroom in
which the class was held could accommodate 60 students in traditional college arm-chairs.
COLLEGE STUDENTS NOTE-TAKING STRATEGIES 791
Students apparently had reasonable room to take notes comfortably.Many students were observed
using two desks, one for the notebook and another for the textbook. The instructor usually stood in
front of the classroom and used an overhead projector throughout his lecture. His lecture style
might be characterized as conversational and moderately paced, and included time for student
questions, according to comments made by interviewed participants. The genetics course also
included a weekly 3-hour laboratory session that was not explicitly included in the study.
Five rounds of semistructured interviews of the 23 participants were spaced throughout the
semester (Figure 1). The average participant compliance was 81%. The rst interview, conducted
with each of the 23 participants during the rst week of the semester, was designed to establish the
baseline note-taking beliefs of participants. Participantswere presented an adaptation of questions
used by Van Meter et al. (1994). Questions were modied to maximize their theoretical
effectiveness in eliciting information from participants. The following questions represent the
nature of the actual questions (see Appendix):
What do you consider good notes? Bad notes? What are the characteristics of your notes? Do your course notes change over the semester?
The second interview was conducted during the fth week of the course, immediately before
Exam 1. The third interview was conducted during the eighth week of the semester, at about its
midpoint. The fourth interview was conducted during weeks 11 and 12, straddling Exam 2. Each
of these rounds of interviews (second, third, and fourth) used a series of questions, slightly
different for each round, that dealt with each participants perception of her academic progress, her
goals, and her note-taking strategies. For example, participants were asked:
Have you done anything in the genetics course to change the way you take notes? How did you know what to do? What has been the most difcult part of the course for you so far? Have you done anything differently to take notes in that part of the course? How do you use your textbook in a course?
Figure 1. Diagrammatic representation of the alignment of the components of the genetics course with the
792 BONNER AND HOLLIDAY
After participants completed the nal examination, the fth and nal interview was
conducted. Participants were asked such questions as:
How did you use your notes to prepare for the nal exam? What did you learn about yourself as a student in taking this genetics course?
Two interviews were conducted with Dr. Bradshaw, at the beginning and again at the end of
All interviews were audiotaped and transcribed. Transcripts were broken into single-topic
informational units, and those that referred to note-taking were extracted. These units were then
divided into categories, referenced across the 23 participants, and collapsed into a composite
matrix that summarized what participants said they did with their notes and their textbook in the
Participant interviews were situated within the conceptual framework of the CSTN (Van
Meter et al., 1994). The theorywas outlined andmatchedwith corresponding beliefs derived from
participant interviews. A participants name was recorded under an aspect of note-takingfor
example, highlighting, use of color, or use of bulletsonly if she specically mentioned that
aspect during an interview. Therefore, if a participant stated that she rewrote her notes after each
class, her name was recorded in this category; however, if a participant did not state that she used
color in her notes, her name was not recorded, even if her notes included the use of color.
Dr. Bradshaw provided the researchers with the followingmaterials from the genetics course:
his lecture material for the course (180 hand-written overhead transparencies from which he
lectured); the entire set of overhead transparencies of diagrams and gures produced by the
publisher of the course text (Russell, 1998) that he incorporated into his lectures; a copy of each
participants three exams (corrected and graded) and both midterm and nal grades; and a copy of
the oppy disk that he distributed to each student enrolled in the course. This disk contained the
textual information from the hand-written overhead transparencies used in his lectures.
Information on this disk is subsequently referred to as the transparency transcript. It is important
to note that Dr. Bradshaw stated to the class that he did not envision the material on the oppy disk
distributed to students to be formal lecture notes, as characterized and described in both
pedagogical and research literature (e.g., in Stencel, 2003). Instead, he frequently reminded
students that the information on the disk should only be viewed as a starting point for writing a
good set of notes for his genetics course.
Participants notebooks were collected by researchers at the end of each lecture class period.
Notebook pages of each participant for each day were photocopied; highlighting and other uses of
color were replicated on the photocopies. Notebooks were returned to participants within an hour
following each class lecture. These notes are subsequently referred to as the original notes.
Although not every participant left her notes after every lecture, there was a 69% compliance
rate. At the end of the semester, 20 participants (86%) shared their notebooks with the researchers.
These notebooks were photocopied in their entirety, and use of color was replicated on the copies.
These notes are subsequently referred to as the nal notes.
COLLEGE STUDENTS NOTE-TAKING STRATEGIES 793
To facilitate an examination of participants notes, a two-part checklist was developed: for the
89 tables and gures located in the course textbook that Dr. Bradshaw referenced during his
lectures and for traces of physical characteristics that participants used to describe their notes (e.g.,
use of color, underlining, and references to diagrams). Figureswere included as part of the analysis
because, frequently, in discussions of science, they traditionally play a crucial role in the
understanding of concepts, often used as representations of ideas (McGinn & Roth, 1999). The
physical characteristics of notes were, in themajority of instances, the same as thosementioned by
students in the Van Meter et al. (1994) study.
Both the original notes (the version obtained following the class lecture) and the nal notes
(the version submitted at the end of the course) were analyzed, using the two-part checklist. To
establish reliability of the evaluation of participants notes, a randomly selected sample of seven
notebooks (both original and nal versions) and the accompanying two-part checklist were
provided to a member of the biology faculty for analysis. The percentage of agreement in the
analysis of specic tables and gures was 96%; in the analysis of identifying physical
characteristics, it was 93%. Differences were easily resolved.
Because Van Meter et al.s (1994) students claimed that they adjusted their note-taking
strategies based on their test performance, researchers used the placement of the three course tests
to divide the course. Based on this division of the course, each set of notes was also split into three
parts, each corresponding to one of the three time segments of the course: prior to Exam 1
(Weeks 15); betweenExam1 andExam2 (Weeks 611); and betweenExam2 and the nal exam
(Weeks 1214). Two matricesone for original notes and another for nal noteswere
developed for each of the three course segments to summarizewhat participants notes looked like
at each of these stages in the course.
Finally, to facilitate a more thorough content analysis of participant notes, seven genetics
topics were selected from the course notes based on two criteria: placement in the semester and
biological content important to an understanding of undergraduate genetics. The course syllabus
indicated, and dates provided in student notes veried, that each topic was the focus of at least one
50-minute lecture period. The seven topics included branch diagrams, the highly similar concepts
of epistasis/expressivity/penetrance/pleiotropy, the experimental work of Grifth, the experi-
mental work of Creighton and McClintock, the experimental work of Meselson and Stahl,
production ofmRNA in transcription, and translation in eukaryotes. For each of the seven topics, a
set of notes was developed, based on what the researchers believed was reasonable notes for an
understanding of the concept. These reasonable notes were not prepared during the class lectures,
as were the participants notes, but they reect what Dr. Bradshaw stated he had covered in the
lecture. Because the instructor did not regard the transparency transcript as formal class notes,
substantial supplementation and reformatting were sometimes necessary to produce notes that
would adequately explain the concept.
For example, the transparency transcript for one of seven topics, the MeselsonStahl
experiment discussed toward the middle of the semester, is shown in its entirety in Figure 2.
Researchers decided that a satisfactory set of student notes for the MeselsonStahl experiment
Equilibrium density gradient centrifugation
DNA will come to equilibrium (float) where its buoyant density equals the density of the surrounding CsCl
Figure 2. Section of transparency transcript for MeselsonStahl experiment.
794 BONNER AND HOLLIDAY
should include the following information: (1) the three hypothesized models of DNA replication;
(2) details regarding the protocol followed by Meselson and Stahl, specically the growth of
bacteria in two different nitrogen isotopes, removal of bacteria from the culture at various times
during the experiment, and differential centrifugation of the bacteria; (3) details regarding the
results obtained byMeselson and Stahl, specically the patterns formed by the centrifuged DNA;
and (4)Meselson and Stahls interpretation of their results, connecting back to the three originally
hypothesizedmodels.Moreover, these points were all addressed byDr. Bradshaw, as conrmed by
The seven sets of notes were provided to another member of the biology department, familiar
with genetics, for cross-validation. After discussion, a nal draft of these notes was constructed
and agreed on for each of the seven topics. It was assumed that the seven sets of notes developed by
the expert biologists theoretically would provide a student with reasonable information for
understanding each topic. The sets of notes for the seven designated genetics concepts are
subsequently referred to as the adequate representation. The adequate representation was seen by
the researchers primarily as a standard towhich the notes of all the participants could be compared
and, therefore, compared with each other.
To quantify the thoroughness of each participants notes, an assessment system was
developed to compare each participants notes with the adequate representation for each of the
sevendesignated topics. Apoint valuewas assigned to each part of the satisfactory notes, and a raw
score was determined for each set of participant notes. This was then converted to a percentage
value that was referred to as the percentage of adequate representation. This analysis was
conducted for the seven designated topics in both the original and the nal version of each
participants notes. To establish reliability of the evaluation of percentage of adequate
representation, a randomly selected sample of seven student notebooks (both original and nal
versions)was assessed by the rst author and anothermember of the biology faculty. Percentage of
agreement among the assessors was estimated to be 88%. Of course, these calculated adequate
representation values represent estimates rather than exact proportions of elements deemed
critical by the biologists. Moreover, because each student in a genetics class has different prior
knowledge, cognitive traits, and motivational attributes, and because each student processes
information differently, there is no practical way to establish an absolute standard of perfect
validity relative to the adequate representation, given the delimitations of such an exploratory
In the CSTN (Van Meter et al., 1994), students stated in the interviews that their course
textbook played a role in their academic strategies, especially in more difcult and hard-to-take-
notes courses. At the end of the semester, 14 students (61%) agreed to share their course textbook,
Russells Genetics (1998), a text used routinely in undergraduate genetics courses. Because the
instructor required the most recent edition (fth) of the textbook, all but three of the students had
purchased their text as new. Those owning used texts reported that they were either unmarked or
minimally marked at the time of purchase.
Each textbook was analyzed along two lines: for suggestions that participants had referred
to gures and tables, and for suggestions that they had read the actual text. First, because
Dr. Bradshaws lecture notes included the publisher-produced overhead transparencies that he
incorporated into his lectures, it was possible for the researchers to generate a list of these gures
and tables. Textbooks were then surveyed to determine which (if any) of the 89 gures and tables
referenced byDr. Bradshaw in lectureweremarked in someway by the selected participant, and in
COLLEGE STUDENTS NOTE-TAKING STRATEGIES 795
what manner. Second, the 11 chapters of each participants text that were covered in the genetics
course, a total of 380 pages, were examined, and an inventory was developed for each participant
that listed pages of her textbook (if any) that she had marked in some manner. To establish
reliability of the evaluation of textbooks, a randomly selected sample of seven participant
textbooks from the 14 available was assessed by a member of the biology faculty. Percentage of
agreement in the analysis of gures and tables between the two raters was 97%. The percentage of
agreement in the survey of the textbook chapters was 95%.
Although the researchers recognized that participant annotation of a textbook did not
necessarily imply that a participant had used her textbook, they hypothesized that such annotation
perhaps could provide some rudimentary evidence of a thought trail. Therefore, a comparison
was made between the list of gures and tables mentioned in each participants notes and those
actually marked in some manner in her textbook. A table of textbook use was developed that
summarized each participants use of her textbook within each of the three course segments.
Finally, these three tables were collapsed into a single composite matrix that summarized what
participants textbooks looked like at the end of this semester-long genetics course. Because the
textbooks were only collected at the end of the semester, there was no way to determine when the
textbooks had been marked.
A composite theory of note-taking beliefs held by participants in the current study was rst
compared with VanMeter et al.s (1994) CSTN. An analysis of participants note-taking was also
Comparison of Participants Theory of Note-Taking With Van Meters Theory
VanMeter et al. (1994) derived the CSTN from the statements about note-taking expressed in
interviews by students in their study. Similarly, participants in the present study presented their
beliefs about note-taking in interviews. These beliefs constituted the material from which their
theory of note-takingwas developed. As in theVanMeter study, participants in this studywere not
simply administered a questionnaire to solicit their note-taking beliefs but were individually
interviewed. Each participant was credited for adhering to a particular aspect of note-taking
theoryfor example, use of color, underlining, or bulletsonly if she specically mentioned the
point during an interview. Even within these restrictions, however, there appeared to be a high
degree of similarity between the students in this study and those in Van Meters study.
Participants theory of note-taking was generally similar to Van Meters (1994) CSTN in
numerous ways, although direct comparisons of data between this study and Van Meters are
impossible. First, the CSTN had corroborated existing note-taking literature in several aspects.
Participants in the present study held similar beliefs. Specically, 91% of participants stated that
they always or usually took notes in class. Eighty-seven percent described an instructors pace,
organization, or cues as characteristics that affected their ability to take good notes. Seventy-eight
percent of participants stated that they attempted to organize lecturematerial as they entered it into
their notes. Ninety-six percent claimed that their note-taking skills had improved during their
years in college. Sixty-one percent explained that their prior knowledge in a course affected their
ability to take notes. All participants stated that they engaged in some form of postclass processing
of their notes. Second, the CSTN included aspects of note-taking that had not been revealed by
prior research, such as having multiple goals for taking notes and the relationship between the
difculty of the course and adaptations in note-taking. In the present study, 87% of participants
796 BONNER AND HOLLIDAY
described having multiple goals for taking notes. In the initial interview, however, no participant
suggested the course difculty/note-taking connection. (Again, it should be mentioned that
participants views were derived from what they initiated in interviews, not from a questionnaire
that provided them with options from which to choose. This lack of comments regarding the
connection was predictive of participants future outcomes in the semester.) Finally, the CSTN
contradicted existing note-taking literature by stating that students consciously decided either to
take notes verbatim or to paraphrase. About half of participants in this study explained that they
attempted to copy notes in a verbatim fashion to ensure delity of whatwas said by the teacher; the
other half of the participants paraphrased what the teacher said, reportedly to ensure that they
understood the teachers explanations.
Application of Participants Theory of Note-Taking
A foremost consideration prior to the analysis of participants note-taking was their
perception of the effect of using the transparency transcript on the note-taking process.
Participants generally did not view their use of the transparency transcript as a liabilitywhen asked
if their progress in the course would have been different if they had taken notes on their own.
Thats what I started out doing [at the beginning of the semester], one student explained,
because I thought it would be better if I wrote it [out for myself] because I learn a lot better [that
way]. But hewas going too fast. I couldnt even get all the notes down (JR; 5; 4748).1Moreover,
she thought she would probably have taken her own notes in basically the same format [as the
transparency transcript] (JR; 5; 49), so she would have had to make the same adaptations to her
studying technique whether she had used her own notes or the transcript. Other participants
generally concurred, reporting that they used the transparency transcript as a general outline that
they lled in during lecture or in reading the text. This conclusion is supported by the notes of the
only student who did not use the transparency transcript at all. Her average percentage of adequate
representation value for the three designated passages in the rst course segment was 39%,
compared with the class average of 31%; her average adequate representation value for the three
passages in the second course segment was 44%, compared with the class average of 43%. Only
her nal passage, scored at 80% of adequate representation, differed appreciably from the class
average of 25%.
Participants application of their theory of note-taking was observed by studying their
notebooks and textbooks. This examination indicated that participants did not apply their theory of
note-taking as consistently as their interviews suggested. The inconsistencies were revealed in
three major areas: (1) their description of good notes; (2) their claim that they could easily
recognize and adjust to the direction in which a professor was leading a course; and (3) their claim
that they modied their note-taking according to the demands of the course.
Identifying Good Notes
In the rst week of the course, Josie described how she took good notes. I dont take down
[isolated] words; she stated:
I write down complete phrases, almost complete sentences. Its what helps me to
remember. And if I write down the whole thing, Im always thinking about what I know
and what Im talking about when I go back and read them. (JR; 1; 1416)
Other participants agreed that good notesshould be accurate, complete, and organized, and
provided detailed descriptions of how they accomplished these goals. A review of Josies notes for
COLLEGE STUDENTS NOTE-TAKING STRATEGIES 797
the rst course segment told a somewhat different story, however. Her notes included no complete
sentences and no complete phrases. By her own denition, Josie began the course with notes that
she could not use. Shewas not unusual in either her insistence that she knewhow to take good notes
or in the discrepancy between her beliefs and their application; arguably, shewas representative of
Attention to accuracy. The need for accurate notes was mentioned frequently by participants.
One participant, for example, declared that a good set of notes should be exactly what was
taught (US; 1; 5).
Whereas participants interviews emphasized the importance of accurate notes, an
examination of these notes suggested that the theory was not always applied. Specically, this
analysis of the evidence focused on the inspection of the designated topic of branch diagramming,
an algorithmic operation commonly used as a short cut to solve some Mendelian genetics
problems. The actual details of the branch diagram were presented during lecture on a
transparency, showing the sample cross as Ss Ss. Because the lower case s was written onthe lecture transparency in script with a long tail, all but one participant (n 17)2 miscopied thesample representation as Sp Sp rather than as Ss Ss. When participants continuedmistakenly to use p instead of s in the elaboration of the genetic makeup of the offspring
from the cross, the information theywrote failed tomake genetic sense. Yet such errors apparently
were not realized by participants, even though many of them continued to comment on their
inability to understand branch diagramming. For some participants, this confusion extended
throughout the semester, up to their preparation for the nal exam. None of the participants
included a correction of this erroneous substitution of Sp for Ss in the nal version of her
notes. The difculty could have been easily addressed if participants did what they said they
frequently didreturn to their textbook for conceptual clarication. For example, Figure 2.12 in
the text (Russell, 1998, p. 28), the same gure that Dr. Bradshaw used in class to teach the concept
of branch diagramming, clearly shows that the cross is Ss Ss.Attention to completeness. Participants declared that they did not just want their notes to be
accurate; they also wanted notes to be complete. In addition, many participants related the
completeness of their notes to the thoroughness of their understanding of the course content. For
example, one participant described the importance of her notes: Theyre the material that I look
atwhen I study for a test. Theyremyprimary source, so Iwant them to be as complete as possible
(JM; 1; 1617). Another participant explained that, when taking notes in class, she wrote
everything as much as I can; when Im studying, Im more selective (PS; 1; 9).
Because participants described completeness as a particular concern when new vocabulary
was presented during lecture, the inclusion and elucidation of denitions was a particular focus of
researchers. Analysis of a designated topic of notes from early in the rst course segment
(Weeks 15) showed how participants apparently paid less attention to completeness of
denitions in their notes than claims made during interviews. Four terms were developed in this
section of notes: epistasis; expressivity; penetrance; and pleiotropy. There are several ways in
which these four terms theoretically can be confusing. First, two terms start with e and two
begin with p, setting the stage for ambiguity. A second difculty is meaning-based, because all
fourwords describe some aspect of the interaction between genes and traits. Although participants
implied that their interest in completeness would prompt them to detect and pay attention to this
potential verbal morass, none of them included denitions of all four words in their notes. On
Exam 1, the meanings of two of these four terms, penetrance and pleiotropy, were included, with
participants required to identify the terms. In general, the more a participant had developed the
differences and similarities among the four words in her notes, the better she recognized them on
the vocabulary section of Exam 1. For example, the seven participants who got both terms correct
798 BONNER AND HOLLIDAY
included an average of 2.8 of the possible four denitions in their notes; the nine participants who
got only one of the denitions correct included an average of only 1.5 denitions. In addition, 66%
of the latter group gave as their answer one of the other three terms in the original grouping of four.
The concern for correctness in the participants theory of note-takingwas shown to be justied; the
participants, however, did not seem to apply it consistently.
Attention to organization. In addition to accuracy and completeness, organization was the
third and most frequently mentioned hallmark by which participants characterized their notes.
When participants were asked to describe the typical appearance of their notes, three fths of them
mentioned organization, using words similar to this participant: [good notes] are consistent,
organized, dated, the [handouts] are in order, theres a very clear format (PB; 1; 17). Headings,
spacing, underlining, using color, indenting, bulleting, or outlining were all mentioned as aspects
of organization. Moreover, about half of the participants estimated that during their college years
they had learned to better organize their notes.
One of the designated topics of notes in the second course segment (Weeks 611) was chosen
by researchers because it presented an opportunity to assess the organization of participants
notes. The topic of the passage was RNA transcription, the process by which RNA is copied (or
transcribed) from DNA. Transcription can be explained as occurring in three steps resulting in
RNA, which is then modied in a series of changes, described as occurring in three substeps. The
problem in this passage (Figure 3) was formatting, because the transparency transcript merely
listed phrases and made no distinction between the three major steps and the three substeps.
Many participants had declared that the organization of their notes mirrored their
understanding of the content. One participant, for example, explained that my notes have to
be really organized or my mind is jumbled, too (GL; 1; 21). Only one fourth of participants
(n 20) attempted to reformat the information to make the three major steps of RNA formation
Figure 3. Section of transparency transcript for RNA transcription.
COLLEGE STUDENTS NOTE-TAKING STRATEGIES 799
stand out; about two thirds tried to reorganize the phrases to highlight the three substeps. Overall,
one fourth of participants did nothing to distinguish between the steps and the substeps in this
passage. Exam 2 included a question based on the topic of RNA transcription: List three
processing events that modify eukaryotic pre-mRNA following transcription to produce a mature
message (Exam 2). Participants apparently had considerable difculty with this question, with
about two fths of them confusing the three major steps with the three minor substeps. In the
interviews, participants seemed to acknowledge a notemind connection, but did not apply it
consistently in their notes.
A few days after Exam 2, the topic covered in the genetics class was the process by which
RNA directs the building of protein (or translation). Translation can be described as occurring in
three steps. The middle step of the three can be explained as being comprised of three substeps.
Again, the transparency transcript showed no distinction betweenmajor steps andminor substeps.
The satisfactory set of notes suggested that reorganization of informationdistinguishing steps
from substepswould facilitate understanding of this passage. One fth of participants (n 20)acknowledged a relationship among the three major steps in their notes; only four participants
attempted to organize the three substeps. Only one participant reorganized the information at both
the major step and minor substep levels.
The nal exam included a question that required students to apply their understanding of both
transcription and translation to a hypothetical situation:
The eyes of Ewigs [a hypothetical organism used by Dr. Bradshaw in many of his
discussion and exam questions] are normally light green. As a worlds expert on Ewing
genetics, you isolate a mutation, whitelite, which causes the eyes to be white. You clone
and sequence the gene and nd that the mutation is one that puts a stop codon in the 50 endof the protein coding sequence of a gene responsible for eye color. What effect would this
mutation have on transcription? What effect would this mutation have on translation?
Eight participants (n 23) incorrectly answered both parts of the question, and six wroteincorrect answers for either part one or part two. Although there was no absolute pattern
connecting the percentage of adequate representation for transcription and translation in
participants notes and their ability to answer these questions, no participant whose notes
had a percentage of adequate representation lower than 55% was able to answer the questions
In general, therefore, although participants described their notes as exemplifying accuracy,
completeness, and organization, the analysis of those notes suggested that their application of their
note-taking theory was not always consistent.
Recognizing Instructors Cues
Participants spoke of how they had become procient at interpreting the instructors cues
about the importance of specic information likely to be included on exams. They said that reading
the textbook before class enabled them to detect important points presented by the instructor and
claimed that reading the textbook after class helped them to ll in gaps that they sensed in lecture
material from class. An analysis of participants notebooks, however, indicated that participants
apparently failed to notice Dr. Bradshaws cues in two important areas: the role of gures and
diagrams in his lecture and the importance of the classic genetics experiments in the structure of
800 BONNER AND HOLLIDAY
The role of gures.During his lectures, Dr. Bradshaw frequently referred directly to textbook
gures, showing a facsimile transparency of the gure using an overhead projector. Typically,
these gures (e.g., data tables, graphs, or diagrams) were not used by Dr. Bradshaw as mere
representations, like a photograph of Watson and Crick. Rather, transparencies were used during
lecture as scientists frequently use such devicesas representations of the actual concept
(McGinn & Roth, 1999). Dr. Bradshaws lecture typically incorporated a diagram or graph that
became a focal point for the classroom conversation that followed. Participants did not
immediately recognize either how Dr. Bradshaw used gures from the text as representations of
concepts in his genetics lectures or how keeping a record of these representations could be
important to their academic success. One participant explained her initial approach to the
incorporation of diagrams:
They were set up in the [text] book in little boxes that were a different color. Its like [the
authors] were saying, Take a little break from reading this [text material] and read this for
a whileits not as hard. (AL; 4; 26)
As participants progressed through the semester, they modied their note-taking strategies
and included more diagrams in their notes in at least two ways: by jotting down in their notes the
page from the textbook onwhich the diagramwas located, and by drawing the gure in their notes.
As students in the VanMeter et al. study (1994) stated, it is particularly difcult to draw a diagram
that the instructor is sketching at the board, while at the same time listening and taking notes. It is
even more challenging to draw the diagram, listen, and take notes when the gure is already
constructed on an overhead transparency. Therefore,many participants explained that theymade a
notation in their notebooks, referring them to a particular textbook diagram that had been an
integral part of the class presentation of a particular topic. As some participants described their
developing strategy, it appeared that they had recognized the importance of these diagrams. We
go through the textbook in class, commented one participant, who further stated:
And he shows us gure after gure. Sometimes Ill write in it, when hes going through it.
Then when I go back, I think about what I wrote and thing about what he was saying in
class. If he used the gure in class, I go back and read the text that matches the gure, then I
go and study the gure. (FT; 4; 4649)
An examination of participants original notes (Table 1) indicated that, in the rst course
segment (before Exam 1), participants notes included an average of 4.7 references to gures in
their textbook and an average of 0.3 personally constructed diagram. Original notes for the second
course segment showed an increase in references to gures of 274%and an increase of over 2000%
in gures drawn when compared with the rst course segment. In the third course segment,
Comparison of references to textbook diagrams made by participants in notes during the genetics course
References to Textbook Diagrams
Diagrams in TextbookAnnotated Postclass (%)Potential Diagrams
Page Referencein Notes
Hand-DrawnDiagram in Notes
I 26 4.7 0.3 30II 42 17.6 6.5 51IIIa 45 9.5 3.0 37
aValues for Course Segment III were adjusted to reect the shorter time period of that segment.
COLLEGE STUDENTS NOTE-TAKING STRATEGIES 801
references to textbook gures by each participant decreased to 9.5 and the number of additional
diagrams decreased to 3.0 for each participant. (Because the third course segment comprised one
third the number of days in each of the rst two course segments, the 5-day value for references to
gures and added diagrams was adjusted proportionately to a 15-day value, to more clearly
compare with the rst and second course segments.)
Researchers acknowledged that, just because a participant referred to a gure in her notes, it
did not necessarilymean that she had looked at the gure. Indeed, this possibilitywas corroborated
by some participants. Ursula, who was repeating the genetics course because she had failed it
previously, commented: Its not like I didnt read the textbook [last year]. But when I was
highlighting, it didnt mean that I was reading it. Okay, Im highlighting, but I wasnt
understanding. Now when I read [the text] over, I think, Why didnt I get this last semester?
(US; 3; 1213). A cross-check was made between textbook diagrams referenced in notes and
actual diagrams in the textbook. In notes for the rst course segment, 30% of referenced gures in
the textbook showed some evidence of a later visit by the participantsfor example, highlighting,
underlining, or writing. In the second course segment, this increased to 51%, and in the third
course segment it decreased to 37%. Because the textbooks were analyzed at the end of the
semester, however, it was not possible to determine when the textbooks had been marked.
Moreover, the researchers recognized that a participant looking up a gure and annotating it did
not necessarily imply that she had used the gure in her study, but viewed such annotation as
evidence of a thought trail.
The importance of classic genetics experiments.Dr. Bradshaws genetics course was organi-
zed around the accumulated understanding derived from classic genetics experiments. A few
participants who recognized the structure of the course responded like this one: I knew [they
were important] when we rst started talking about them. Thats how the course is organized
(MC; 4; 13). The majority of participants, however, did not recognize the key role of classic
genetics experiments in the course. This comment was much more characteristic of the group:
I recognized [their importance] just the other day [a few days before Exam 2] when I started
studying. As I studied each experiment, I realized how one experiment helps the next one (GL; 3;
The rst encounter that participants had with classic genetics experiments occurred midway
through the rst course segment with thework of Harriet Creighton and BarbaraMcClintock, who
showed that, when an exchange of genetic information (or recombination) occurs, it is
accompanied by a simultaneous exchange of chromosome sections. The inadequacy of some
participants notes for this topic became obvious when they considered a question on Exam 1:
Explain how Creighton and McClintock experimentally linked gene recombination and the
physical exchange of chromosome material. You may (and should) use drawings (Exam 1). As
one participant confessed in the second interview:
I read the book and I remember seeing that [about McClintock and Creighton] and I just
skimmed over it. It was in a box or something. And I was: Oh yeah, yeah, yeah. They do
corn and recombination. And we got to the test and that was the whole essay question. He
wanted diagrams and I just skimmed it. I didnt even remember enough to bullcrap it. It
was terrible. (JR; 3; 8183)
Shewas not alone in her reaction to the exam question. Only ve participants (n 23) got fullcredit for the question and included a diagram that correctly matched the content of the question.
Twelve others drew a diagram, but it was related to a different topic, not Creighton and
McClintocks work. Six participants drew no diagram at all.
802 BONNER AND HOLLIDAY
After Exam 1, participants reported that they had been generally unprepared for the exam
question that dealt with Creighton and McClintocks research because they had not understood
that these classic genetics experimentswere important to the professor, as reected by items on the
exam. Did participants learn from this experience and modify their notes with regard to the next
classic experiment in the course? That topic, the experimental work of Frederick Grifth, was
presented in lecture byDr. Bradshaw a few days after Exam1. The average percentage of adequate
representation of the Grifth passage in the original version of the notes (n 10) was 47%, aconsiderable increase from the average score of 27% for the original version of the designated
topic on the CreightonMcClintock experiment. Although the exam question based on the
CreightonMcClintock experiment encouraged students to include a diagram in their answer,
only one participant included a reference to a textbook diagram or an actual drawing of a diagram
of Grifths experiment in her original notes. Inclusion of one perhaps would have claried
participants understanding of Grifths research and been an indication of the type of carryover
they claimed they conducted throughout the course.
The experimental work of Meselson and Stahl was the topic of another designated passage
of notes that dealt with classic genetics experiments. Their experiment, which developed a
model to explain the process by which DNA replicates, was covered in one class period midway
in the second segment of the course (between Exam1 andExam2). The textbook (Russell, 1998)
presents the experiment over four pages, about half of which are devoted to diagrams. Because
an understanding of thework of these two researchers requires comprehension of the differences
and similarities among their three hypothetical models, the satisfactory set of notes included
specic details of those models. The notes of only six participants (n 16), however, includedinformation about Meselson and Stahls three models. In addition, although the transparency
transcript devoted little attention to the results of Meselson and Stahls experiments, only
two participants elaborated in their notes on these researchers experimental results. The
percentage of adequate representation of the passage in the original version of the notes of
participants was 30%. Only 10 participants included any diagrams in their notes or references to
A question appearing on Exam 2 indicated the level of conceptual integration that
Dr. Bradshaw expected for this topic:
Describe the Meselson and Stahl experiment that used equilibrium centrifugation
techniques to conrm the semi-conservative nature of DNA replication. Include
experimental techniques and results. Further, describe what the expected results would
have been if replication were conservative instead of semi-conservative. (Exam 2)
This question suggested that Dr. Bradshaw expected participants to develop aspects of the
experiment in a manner consistent with the satisfactory notes. An analysis of participants exams
(n 23) revealed that half of participants either included no diagram in their answer or drew adiagram that suggested a misunderstanding related to the explanation. Only one participant was
able to fully answer the question; moreover, she produced the only set of notes to include a full
explanation of the experiment.
Changes in Note-Taking Strategies
In line with the CSTN, participants in the genetics course recognized the inadequacy of their
course notes after Exam 1 and began to change how they took notes. Their strategies consisted of
COLLEGE STUDENTS NOTE-TAKING STRATEGIES 803
Toward the beginning of the course, Susannah realized her notes were not sufcient. The
[printed] notes are just an outline, she stated. If I dont ll up the page with [extra] notes
everywhere, I dont know what it is [when I go back to study] (SA; 3; 32). Her strategy was
trying to jot downwhat he actually says [in class] . . . . I think I miss a lot of stuffinformation isying at you (SA; 3; 3335). A look at the original version of Susannahs notes indicates that she
followed up on her resolution. In her notes, the three topics in the rst course segment had a
percentage of adequate representation of 39%; the three topics written in the second course
segment were estimated at 70%. The percentage of adequate representation of Susannahs notes
for the third course segment was 100%. Shewas one of only four participants whose original notes
showed a steady improvement in adequate representation over the semester, and was the only
participant whose original notes scored that high at the end of the course.
Linda also targeted her course notes, explaining that her improved in-class note-taking was
the consequence of concerted attention to detail. She described how she learned to pay more
attention to the details of the course. When [Dr. Bradshaw] explains stuff, she said:
He asks for little details that I think wouldnt be importantlike what are the primers
made out of? I didnt think that would be important. I just thought youd have to know the
function of a primer. He brought that up again in class yesterday, and I was: Whoa, better
write that down. (LS; 3; 3132)
Linda commented at the beginning of the course that she preferred her notes to be little
jottings (LS; 1; 7). The percentage of adequate representation for Lindas original notes in the
rst course segment reected this preferenceit was only 17%. The percentage of adequate
representation for her original notes of the second course segment, however, increased to 55%,
possibly bolstered by her greater attention to detail. By the end of the semester, however, Lindas
percentage of adequate representation dropped to 38%.
Examination of the original notes of all participants for the seven designated topics indicated
that the overall quality improved to some extent. The rst course segment, a 5-week period that
extended to Exam 1, included three designated topics of notes. The average percentage of
adequate representation of the original version of these three topics for all participants was
estimated to be 31%; that is, participants included about one third of the information in the satis-
factory set of notes. For the three designated topics of notes in the second course segment, a 6-week
time period betweenExam1 andExam2, the average percentage of adequate representation for all
participants increased to 43%; that is, the notes included about one third more necessary
information than the notes of the rst course segment. However, for the single designated topic in
the third part of the course, a 2-week time period between Exam 2 and the nal exam, the average
percentage of adequate representation decreased to 25%, that is, the notes included relatively less
necessary information than notes at the beginning of the course. Again, as with the inclusion of
diagrams, the amount of necessary information included in notes appeared to decline in the last
weeks of the course. Although the reasons for the apparent decline are numerous, a common one
suggested by participantswas frustration. This comment from Josie,made a fewdays before Exam
2,was typical: [Genetics] isnt looking good.Honestly, Ive never said this about a class, but I just
want to pass it and get out of there. I dont know if I am (JR; 4; 12).
Like Susannah and Linda, Josie also decided that her notes would be a good starting place for
improvement after she performed poorly on Exam 1. Initially, she had not understood the
importance of the classic genetics experiments in the course. I thought [Dr. Bradshaw]was using
experiments as an example to support, but the experiment is what he wants us to know (JR; 3;
117118), she explained. Therefore, she focused on intensifying the postclass modication of her
804 BONNER AND HOLLIDAY
notes for the classic experiments, adding extra details on what she called summary sheets that
she kept in her notebook. Look at this, she exclaimed, ipping through sheets of paper covered
with drawings. She continued:
I went back [after class] and did this. These arent class notes. I hardly write down anything
from class. But I went back and wrote all of this . . . . For this [second exam], I didnt justread [the textbook]. I read it and tried to realize it in my headwhat was going on. And for
the experiments, I went back and drew them out . . . I drew them out so I can understand itand how I can remember it. (JR; 4; 3538)
Josie explained that learning how to do this was not easy. There are no cues at all [in lecture]
of whats more important, she said. It seems to be a huge run-on sentence. I cant pick out the
beginning of one and the end of another concept (JR; 3; 100101). The percentage of adequate
representation of her original notes stayed about the same. As her ability to select key points got
better, however, her notes showed consistent improvement over the semester, due to improved
postclass modication. At the end of the semester, Josie explained what she had done to make her
notes useful: I had to take this [information in the notes] and look it up [in the textbook] and
translate it (JR; 5; 64).
Each of the 23 participants stated in interviews that postclass processing of notes was an
important part of her general use of notes. Did their notes support this claim? For those who had
submitted their notebooks at the end of the semester (n 20), it was possible to draw a comparisonbetween the percentage of adequate representation of their original notes (obtained immediately
after each lecture period) and their nal notes (collected at the end of the semester). It was assumed
that the difference between the two versions would reect the degree of postclass modication the
participant had conducted on that portion of her notes. (It should be noted that, because of the
studys design, there was no way of determining when the postclass modication had occurred.)
The analysis of the difference between the two versions of notes for all the participants who
submitted their notes at the end of the semester varied from one course segment to another during
the semester. In the three designated topics of the rst course segment, the average percentage of
adequate representations of the original and nal versions of the notes for all participants were
almost identical, 31% and 36%, respectively, suggesting that little postclass modication
occurred. In the three designated topics of the second course segment, the average percentage of
adequate representation for all participants was 43% for the original version and 61% for the nal
version, suggesting that participants devoted more time to processing their notes after lecture. In
the third course segment, the average percentage of adequate representation of the original version
was 25% and improved to 60% in the nal version. There appeared to be no further increase after
the second course segment.
Some participants, such as Susannah and Josie, altered their note-taking strategies using
rather traditional methods such as targeting their in-class notes or their postclass modication of
notes. Others developed more idiosyncratic strategies. Bonnies progress through the semester
illustrates the latter approach. She described how she set a goal for herself after she failed the rst
examto see how it all ts together in the genetics course (BT; 3; 16). Bonnie was asked to
describe her focus. He might give you a phrase; she stated further:
But you have to know everything that comes under that phrase, and every specic part of
that phrase. Like he might give a scientists name. But you have to know the experiment
the ins and out of the experimentand he didnt write that down [in the transparency
transcript]. (BT; 5; 3941)
COLLEGE STUDENTS NOTE-TAKING STRATEGIES 805
Bonnies targeted focus was to capture these ins and outs. But where did she locate them? She
replied that she found them in her textbook and transferred the information to her notes. The
content of Bonnies notes did not corroborate her answer, however. The percentage of adequate
representation for the rst course segment was 38%. The notes for the second course segment
notes taken after she had made the resolution to t it all togetherhad a percentage of adequate
representation of only 49%. Indeed, in the notes that she submitted at the end of the semester, the
nal 17 pageswere stapled together inwhat appeared to be a completely random sequence. Bonnie
said that she had targeted developing the big picture in her genetics course, but, to the researchers,
it did not seem to be coming into focus in her notes.
The discrepancywas partially explainedwhenBonnie described how she integrated her notes
and her textbook with the use of what she called her study cards.When she read the textbook to
supplement deciencies in her notes, she did not add information to the notes themselves, but
wrote it on her study cards. As she explained the strategy she employed when she studied, it
became apparent that the process she had developed during the semester was complicated:
When I studied, I compared my notes to somebody elses notes, instead of just studying my
notes. And when I talked about it with someone else in my study group, I took their notes
and put them on my study cards. So my study cards are a combination of my notes and
someone elses notes. (BT; 5; 2830)
When Bonnie described her cards, it sounded as though that they were an assembly of
Dr. Bradshaws transparency transcript, supplemental information from the textbook, and the
notes of other students. But even that, it was learned, was not the whole situation. She explained
what frequently happened when she studied with Patty, another student in the class:
If Im studying with Patty out loud, I dont even look at my study cards. If Im with Patty,
she repeats her notes and when I give her more information she adds to her notes what I
say. She repeats it over and over and over again. Im hearing her say it. I never look at my
study cards when Im studying at her house because she repeats her study cards, with both
of our information on them. (BT; 5; 3336)
Bonniewas intent on tting it all together, but the concepts were physically represented on
dozens of cards, each a collage of facts from various sources. Some information was not even
found in her collection of cards. Bonnie had developed a reasonable targeted strategy but the
results sounded like a tenuous representation, at best. When she gathered up her set of study cards
and went home, where was the big picture she had labored so hard to t together? She had taken
aim with a targeted strategy, but had perhaps not chosen the one that would contribute to her
overall academic success.
The strategies implemented byBonnie, Josie, Linda, and Susannahwere a hit-or-miss attempt
at improvement. Each participant decided to target some problem area, for example, the classic
experiments. Some, like Josie, ended up with manageable summary sheets, each adequately
explaining one of the experiments; others, like Bonnie, found themselves with stacks of study
cards, collectively holding only part of the big picture. Sometimes the four participants
correctly focused on what was important to a topic, and other times they completely missed it. For
example, although many participants mentioned the challenge of understanding the concept of
RNA translation, Susannah was the only participant whose notes suggested that she had worked
through the problem. She also specically alluded to the key diagram in the text in her discussion
of the problem. The selectivity that characterizes the undergraduate note-taker (Van Meter et al.,
1994)the ability to recognize information that is either unfamiliar or importantdescribed
806 BONNER AND HOLLIDAY
these four participants to only a partial degree. In many cases, they recognized whenmaterial was
unfamiliar, but had difculty noticing when it was important. In this regard, they were
representative of the majority of the other participants.
Van Meter et al. (1994) described student notes evolving over time. It is an apt choice of
words. Species evolve when they are subjected to stressesthe greater the stresses, the more
signicant the evolution. The genetics course was chosen as the focal course for the present study
because the literature and the anecdotal evidence provided by previous biology departmentmajors
indicated that students would nd it challenging. If the design of the current research had included
only student interviews, the study would have provided a corroboration of the CSTN (Van Meter
et al., 1994), but little else. The design of the current study, howeverits longitudinal nature, its
naturalistic setting with student academic accountability, its examination of notes and textbooks,
as well as interviewsenabled researchers to develop amore complete understanding of the note-
taking process for the participants.
One particular area of this understandingwas what made this particular course a difcult one.
When Van Meter et al. (1994) distinguished between easy-to-take-notes courses and difcult-to-
take-notes courses, they concentrated on the circumstances of the lecture situation, such as the
pace and organization of the instructor. They also mentioned that one of their manuscript
reviewers suggested an alternative explanation for course difcultyit might be that courses in
which it is more difcult to take notes are simply more difcult courses. That reviewers
suggestion may have been borne out in this present study. Participants generally began the
semester commenting that the course material was not particularly challenging; for example, one
participant stated: In lecture theres never any time when I dont know where things are coming
from (CL; 2; 34). By the midpoint in the semester, however, comments were more along these
lines: [The course] is hard because its a lot ofmaterial and you have to put the pieces together and
for me its been difcult to do. This is a part of this and that is a part of that. Doing things like that
are more difcult than memorizing something (PS; 3; 1518). Coupled with the inherent
challenge of the course content, however, were limitations in participants self-regulated learning
that kept them from doing as well as they had hoped, from recognizing the weaknesses in their
academic strategies, and from noticing the discrepancy between their theory of note-taking and its
day-to-day application. Although it is not possible to separate completely the part played by the
course itself and the role played by participants deciencies in SRL strategies, it appeared that the
SRL limitations may have more profoundly determined the participants success in the course.
Limited Prior Knowledge
The CSTN (Van Meter et al., 1994) states that note-taking is greatly affected by prior
knowledge in the content area of the course; participants concurred. Although participants
claimed that they could easily detect from instructors cues what the important concepts would be
in a course, examination of their notes revealed two areas that suggested this was not always the
case: the use of gures and the importance of classic genetics experiments.
Participants only began to pay attention to diagrams after Exam 1 (possibly after the
CreightonMcClintock question suggested using one), and demonstrated an appreciable increase
in attention to gures in their notes between Exams 1 and 2. Perhaps because this was a more
mechanistic problem, participants found it easier to address. After Exam 2, however, the inclusion
of diagrams went into an apparent decline, which will be addressed later.
COLLEGE STUDENTS NOTE-TAKING STRATEGIES 807
Nowhere in the present studywas there greater support for the importance of prior knowledge
than in participants understanding of how Dr. Bradshaw used classic genetics experiments in the
course. Participants initially thought the references to early geneticists were unimportant details;
they eventually discovered that the work of those early geneticists constituted a substantial part
of the course material for which they were responsible. I had an epiphany, Bonnie declared,
as well as:
I understand this. I can do this. I see how this all comes together. You need to understand
the conclusions of how thing happen. It took [this biologist] three peoples experiments to
gure out what to do. It took me all four people to understand this [particular concept].
(BT; 4; 2426)
Participants had been told byDr. Bradshawwhat to expect in the course. Indeed, the rst page
of the transparency transcript was a list of important geneticists and their contributions to the
discipline. As with many students, however, the participants real introduction to course
expectations apparently was not in the syllabus, but in Exam 1. Unfortunately, for many, the
realization came too late.
Participants tended to improve in their focus on classic experiments beginning with Exam 1
and continuing throughout the semester, but the percentage of adequate representation for the
designated classic experiment passages (the third, fourth, and fth passages) never exceeded 47%
in the original notes and 52% in the nal version. The lack of specically targeted strategies may
explain why the average adequate representation of the nal notes of designated topics remained
stalled as the semester progressed. Perhaps the participants could not improve the quality of
postclass modication because they did not understand the particular aspect of genetics enough to
know what would be necessary to improve their notes. Although the subject matter still revolved
around the same basic concepts of genetics, the precise nature of the topic they were learning was
different enough from their prior knowledge to bind them in a classic self-assessment catch
22they were so unskilled in an aspect of a domain that their incompetence made it difcult for
them to realize their weaknesses (Kruger & Dunning, 1999).
Limited Goals and Strategies
Participants recognized that their success in the genetics course required the development of
improved note-taking strategies. Throughout the course, however, their ability to modify their
note-taking was affected by limitations of their goal-setting. At the beginning of the course,
participants goals tended to be generic and grade-based: dowell in the course or get at least a
B. After Exam 1, participants continued to describe goals that were grade-based and, for some,
overly optimisticfor example, to get aBon the next test (CL; 3; 42),when they had not passed
Exam 1. In addition, when participants explained their revised goals after they received the
midterm grade, they often spoke in terms of turning things around (JR; 3; 25), or digging
themselves out (SA 3; 28).
Generally speaking, participants with broad goals faced at least two challenges: how to
accomplish the goal and how to get regular feedback during progress toward that goal. Howdo you
get a B on the next test? How do you knowwhen you have turned things around or when you have
dug yourself out? Feedback from these generic goals only arrives after the test has been graded or
students are out of the hole, not in a regular manner that permits students to adapt what they are
doing; by the time they receive the feedback, it is too late to adapt. Moreover, participants with
overly optimistic goals were frequently disappointed when those goals were not realized. If the
808 BONNER AND HOLLIDAY
goalwas to get a B on the next test and the examgradewere aB, the student could easily interpretthe test results, however positive, as failure. Althoughmanydiscussed the need for changes in their
note-taking, they apparently did not recognize the importance of incorporating that need as a
Throughout the semester, some participants stated goals that were specic, incremental,
performance-based, and realistic. Participants reported goals such as taking better notes, regularly
reading the textbook before class, keeping up with course vocabulary, working on problem sets,
reviewing lecture notes routinely, and asking questions of Dr. Bradshaw. By formulating and
working toward more realizable goals, they reaped at least two benets: they could identify when
they had made progress toward that goal and the work that they were accomplishing enhanced
their understanding of the course, making them believe that their efforts were worthwhile. Josie
and Bonnie, for example, could point to their study sheets or study cards as evidence that they had
made progress toward reaching their goal; moreover, their improved notes enabled them to do
better on the course tests.
This goal limitation may help to explain at least two declines in the participants overall
performance. Although both the number of included diagrams and the quality of notes as reected
by the percentage of adequate representation improved from Exam 1 to Exam 2, both decreased
from Exam 2 to the end of the course. In the fourth interview, participants were asked to
characterize themselves with three descriptive words. Slightly more than 50% of them (n 18)suggested either frustrated or overwhelmed. Although it is not possible to draw a direct
correlation, it appears in many instances that participants who used such descriptions were those
whose goals tended to bemore generic and overly optimistic. Students withmore inadequate goals
apparently did not resign (Van Meter et al., 1994, p. 334), or quit, but may have resigned
themselves to not doing well and reasoned that additional expenditure of effort was not
worthwhile. Participantswithmore specic and incremental goals, however, continued to improve
the quality of their notes throughout the semester. Moreover, they could acknowledge the effort
they had expended and admit that it was worth it (WL; 5; 42).
Participants ability tomodify their note-takingwas also limited by the strategy array towhich
they could turn when note-taking modications were required. As a consequence, a participant
might speak of the need for translating notes into her own words and might spend considerable
time and energy trying to do so, but have little to show for her effort. In many cases, this occurred
because the strategies were inappropriate to the task. For many participants, the note-taking
changes put into practice involved writing more information on their study cards, arguably an
unsophisticated academic approach. Other than the use of study cards and summary sheets, no
participant appeared to develop any other modication of her note-taking practice.
Limited Self-Observation During the Course
During the performance phase of the genetics course, self-regulated note-takers focus on and
monitor strategies that they are employing. Many participants, however, apparently failed to
notice that their notes did not exemplify the hallmark characteristics they ascribed to them. After
Exam 1, the course notes improved, but in many cases the improvement did not appear to be
targeted toward any specic aspect of the genetics course, or to be derived from any particular part
of Exam 1. For example, average percentage of adequate representation for notes about the classic
experiment ofGrifth, discussed in class immediately after Exam1,was almost double that for the
classic experiment of Creighton and McClintock, discussed in class prior to Exam 1. Interviews
suggested, however, that most participants were not aware of any connection between the two
topics. Clares comments during the fourth interview, about a week before Exam 2, are indicative
COLLEGE STUDENTS NOTE-TAKING STRATEGIES 809
of this situation. After she described how she planned to prepare for Exam 2, she was asked how
she intended to study the classic geneticists who might be included on the test. I would make
[study] cards for themtheir major achievements, if they came up with any techniques, some of
the detail in their experiment, what they studied, what they found, she reported (CL; 4; 4546).
But, when Clare was asked when she had recognized that the course was focused on these classic
genetics experiments, she candidly replied: I dont know that I ever thought about it before,
probably until now that you made me think about it. I knew that was going on, but I never really
thought about it in class before (CL; 4; 48).
Throughout the semester, it was not unusual for a participant to have difculty answering a
question that probed her understanding of a particular note-taking strategy that she regularly
employed. A few days prior to Exam 2, for example, Josie was describing how she prepared
ashcardswithwhich she could study. In themiddle of explaining how shewould prepare the cards
to study for the genetics exam, she stopped abruptly. After a long pause, she acknowledged, I
cant use ashcards at all [in genetics]. I [already] knew that about my philosophy course and my
sociology course, but I didnt realize that about genetics until just now (JR; 2; 5657).
It was recognized at the outset of this study that interviews with participants about their notes
would not be entirely neutral in outcome.What had not been anticipated, however, was the almost
therapeutic effect that the conversations had for many participants. Apparently, the interviews
provided many participants not only a forum for a metacognitive conversation, but an awakening
to the necessity of such a conversation. In the nal interview, participants were asked if the time
they had put aside to take part in the study had been a liability. If I hadnt done it, one participant
responded, I would have never had an opportunity to sit down and think about [taking notes].
I would never think about how I learn, or how I put things together inmy head if I didnt have to tell
someone else (BT; 5; 66). Apparently, she was not speaking only for herself, because, generally
speaking, participants did not seem to be aware that students must turn their observation inward
and watch themselves take notes, study, take tests, and carry out the other tasks inherent in being a
student. Students who engage in such activity greatly improve their chance of succeeding; those
who do not have a diminished possibility of doing well.
Limited Self-Reection After the Course
When a course is completed, self-regulated students evaluate their performance and decide
whether the strategies they thoughtfully put into practice should be continued in courses to come.
Many participants, confronting the immediate need to change their note-taking and study habits,
did not have the luxury of conducting a carefully controlled experiment as the weeks of the
genetics course progressed. Rather, they used amyriad of new strategies when they took notes and
studied for Exam 2 and the nal exam. Susannah explained her end-of-the-course study strategy
modication. I wrote out more information on study cards; she also said:
And I wrote out the information on them differentmore like I thought it would be on the
test. I read a lot more from the [text] book to clear up problems. I read after every lecture
now. I took notes from the book and made study cards for that, too. I studied for the
[second] test through the week before. The day before it, I studied for 7 hours. I didnt
know if any of this would work, but I knew I had to do something. I gured that was all I
could do. (AS; 4; 1522)
Susannah and many other participants tried to develop new strategies that would enable them
to succeed in the course. However, like an investigator who has run an experiment without a
810 BONNER AND HOLLIDAY
control, theywere left with little data-based feedback at the end of the semester.When the genetics
course was over, how would they know which of the many changes that they had implemented
brought them success? Therefore, many left the course knowing that they may have done
something to improve their note-taking, but could not articulate specic details.
In addition, many of the participants declared that they would probably not continue to
implement their newly developed strategies in their next course. I wouldnt continue if I didnt
have to because this is a lot of work, one participant acknowledged; This took so much of my
time from my other courses, that if I didnt have to go back and take these detailed notes from the
text, I wouldnt (JR; 5; 7778).
Only one participant could look back on the strategies she had implemented in the genetics
course and view them in a truly positive light: I thought this course was a stepping stone to the
courses that Ill have later, she stated; This denitely is one of themost challenging courses that
Ive had so far. Im denitely going to take what Ive learned from this course to other courses
(SA; 5; 59).
A New View of the Undergraduate Note-Taker
Aweaving together of the CSTN (VanMeter et al., 1994) and the framework of self-regulated
learning (Schunk, 2005; Zimmerman, 1989, 1998) produces a new view of the undergraduate
note-taker. The successful application of the CSTN is epitomized by self-regulated note-takers
(SRNs) who competently integrate goal-setting and strategic planning in the forethought stage of
an academic course. Their goals are well dened and their strategies are specic. Once the
semester begins, the performance of SRNs demonstrates an interaction between self-observation
and self-controlthey keep track of how successfully they implement particular strategies. SRNs
do not resign (Van Meter et al., 1994, p. 334) in response to lower-than-expected performance
on exams, but evaluate course notes in the light of course tests and make necessary adjustments in
note-taking strategies to improve performance on later tests. They have an extensive array of
sophisticated note-taking strategies and a set of beliefs of which they are metacognitively aware
and about which they can speak articulately. SRNs are sensitive to the range of their prior
knowledge, and can easily detect where a concept or a skill ts into the existing pattern of their
understanding. SRNs are proactive, often identifying a problem in its incipient forman Aha!
experienceand solving it before it gets out of control. At the end of the course, SRNs engage in
self-reection. They evaluate their performance and assign causal signicance to the results; they
respond with satisfaction or dissatisfaction to their performance and decidewhether to change the
performance in the future. SRNs can take the experience gained fromone course and apply it when
they are challenged by another course in the future.
Participants in this present study were, for the most part, not SRNs. Rather, they were typical
note-takersTNsrepresentative of a large group of undergraduates who populate our science
classrooms. Like their SRN counterparts, they also had the forethought to make plans prior to
beginning the genetics course. Their goals, however, tended to be genericget a Band their
intended strategies were untargetedstudy real hard. Once the genetics course began, TNs
self-control was limited because of the narrow array of strategies at their disposal. In addition,
their self-observation was limited, keeping them from monitoring their performance adequately.
TNs adjusted their note-taking after less-than-desirable performances in Exam 1, but in a
nontargeted manner. TNs, like the SRNs, did not resign, or quit. Many, however, seemed to
discontinue or diminish their practice of new strategies toward the end of the semester, resigning
themselves to less than optimistic results in the course. Their arsenal of strategies appeared to be
limited and their metacognitive awareness of beliefs seemed to be underdeveloped. TNs were
COLLEGE STUDENTS NOTE-TAKING STRATEGIES 811
aware of their prior knowledge, but frequently recognized the insignicant piece of information
and not the larger picture. They seemed to be reactive. A problem occurredan Oh, no!
experienceand by the time they solved it, it was too late. As a consequence, for the majority of
TNs, the development of new note-taking strategies was not an a priori plan of change. I didnt
know if [the new strategies] would work, one participant admitted, but I knew I had to do
something (SA; 4; 9). But, which of the changes in note-taking ultimately contributed to the
greatest portion of her success? Which strategies would be worthwhile to continue in a future
course, and which should probably be abandoned? Limited self-monitoring during the semester
apparently contributed to limited self-reection upon the semesters close.
Implications for Teaching, Advising, and Research
Several implications for teaching and advising can be drawn from the present study. First,
students in Van Meter et al.s (1994) study, corroborated by participants in the present study,
describe the key role played by prior knowledge in their success in taking good notes in a course.
Therefore, an informal assessment of prior knowledge (e.g., as suggested by Angelo & Cross,
1993) might assist students at the outset of a new course or a new topic within a course. Students
might also benet from exercises that encourage them to continue the assessment throughout the
semester. Second, academic advisors may greatly assist their advisees by more overt involvement
in helping them set and assess their goals. These goals should be specic and assessable, taking not
the form I will write better notes, but I will supplement my class notes with extra diagrams
from each days genetics lecture. These goals should also be aimed toward incremental
improvement, not I will get an A on the next exam instead of a D, but I will score at least a 75
on the next quiz instead of a 50. Third, because undergraduate students may not possess the full
arsenal of strategies ascribed to them by the literature, they may benet from overt efforts by
faculty to introduce them to strategies that are specically related to particular topics or to discuss
possible options. Hofer et al. (1994) suggested that undergraduatesmay particularly need this type
of intervention in a course out of their major. This study suggests that they may also be aided by
strategy development when theymove to upper-level courses in their ownmajor. Fourth, early in a
course, well before the rst exam, students may need opportunities to assess their original class
notes for accuracy, completeness, and organization, and to assess the quality of the postclass
processingof their notes. These opportunities could beprovided invariousways, using, for example,
short and simple classroom assessment techniques (e.g., Angelo & Cross, 1993). Students could be
given a brief amount of time to compare notes on a particularly complex lecture topic to see how
colleagues processed their notes. In general, studentsmight prot from the ongoing incorporation of
metacognitive conversation with both their academic advisors and college professors.
The present study also has implications for research both in the design of future note-taking
studies and in possible research questions. The students in VanMeter et al.s (1994) study claimed
that the characteristics of accuracy, completeness, and organization were inherent to their notes;
theydescribed how they incorporated their textbook into studyingwith their course notes; and they
explained how they reconstructed their notes with sophisticated strategies. All of these practices
imply a thoughtful application of the CSTN. Analyses by Van Meter and others, however, were
limited to participants comments about their note-taking strategies. In contrast, the present study
had the advantage of comparing what participants said they did to the evidence provided by their
notes. This comparison suggested that the participants, and possibly students in general, may not
consistently apply the CSTN in their courses. Therefore, a strong recommendation to researchers
planning future studies of student note-taking is to include not only interviews, but a thorough
examination of students notes and course materials.
812 BONNER AND HOLLIDAY
Several research questions are suggested by this present study. First, did the differences
between talking the talk about note-taking theory and walking the walk occur because the
genetics course was a difcult course? Were the differences a result of the participants in the
current study being all women? To resolve this issue, similar studies should be conducted in
courses that students do not perceive as difcult, and in courses of varying levels of difculty with
enrollment of both male and female students. Second, how do students metacognitively explain
their changes in note-taking strategy? To answer this question, students should be involved in
longitudinal studies that engage them in ongoing metacognitive discussions. The present study
strongly suggests that the typical student would not have sufciently developed self-regulatory
skills to answer the question unassisted. Third, how do students view their note-taking? Is it a
mechanistic processsimilar to the role of a court stenographer? Or is it a more thoughtful
processsimilar to the role of a translator, turning the words from the language of the professor
into the students own words? To begin to answer this question, studies modeled on Pressley and
Aferbachs (1995) read-aloud protocol may help researchers to get inside the thought
processes of undergraduatesa return to the DiVesta and Gray (1972, 1973) process/product
consideration of note-taking, but from the students point of view.
Some professors might object to the preceding pedagogical suggestions on the grounds that
they contradict the very nature of students learning being self-regulated. Furthermore, if the
typical undergraduatewere an ideal self-regulated student, these faculty-based strategies probably
would not be necessary. This study, however, strongly suggests that the average undergraduate
does not have themetacognitive skills so readily available to the ideal self-regulated student. If this
is the case, there is a need for faculty to design courses that help students learn how to learn as well
as to learn the actual content. Self-regulated learning is not learned all at once any more than the
subject matter whose acquisition it fosters is learned all at once. Studentsand teachersmust
come to understand that self-regulation is a journey, not a destination.
1In this and subsequent quotations, the initials identify the speaker, the rst numeral identies the
interview, and the following numeral sequence identies a particular statement within that interview.2Not all 23 participants submitted their notebooks after each lecture; therefore, the total number of sets
of original notes analyzed for each lecture period varied from day to day.
Questions for Interview 1
When in school did you rst begin to take notes?
How has your note-taking style changed over the years?
How do your notes change from course to course?
What is a good set of notes for you? A bad set?
What is the purpose of taking notes?
When do you take notes in class? How do you know whats important to take down? What is
the structure of your notes?
Do you always take notes? When do you not take notes?
What do you do with things in your notes that you dont understand?
Do you paraphrase when you take notes or do you write down information word for word?
Do your notes change over the semester?
COLLEGE STUDENTS NOTE-TAKING STRATEGIES 813
Do you take notes even when you are very familiar with the information being presented?
How does note-taking affect your ability to think about information during class?
How does class size affect your note-taking?
What conditions make it easier for you to take notes? Harder?
How do you use your notes when you study?
Do you study with others? Under what conditions?
Do you understand other peoples notes? Do you ever borrow other peoples notes?
Questions for Interview 2
How would you evaluate your success in the genetics course so far?
What do you base that on?
What is your goal in the genetics course now?
What are you doing to reach that goal?
What has been the most helpful thing youve done so far in studying genetics?
How do you know?
Has there been any part of the course so far that has beenmore difcult for you to understand?
What has made it more difcult?
Have you done anything different to try to understand it?
How do you like the genetics course so far?
Do you feel comfortable in class?
Have you done anything to change your note-taking in the class?
What do you think happens when you study?
Is it possible for a person to become smarter, or does a person always remain at the same
degree of being smart?
Questions for Interview 3
How would you evaluate your success in the genetics course so far?
What do you base that on?
What is your goal in the genetics course now?
What are you doing to reach that goal?
What has been the most helpful thing youve done so far in studying genetics?
How do you know?
Has there been any part of the course so far that has beenmore difcult for you to understand?
What has made it more difcult?
Have you done anything different to try to understand it?
How do you like genetics so far?
Do you feel comfortable in class?
Have you done anything to change your note-taking in the class?
When you study, do you have a specic goal in mind?
When you study, how do you know that you know?
What keeps you going when youre taking a course that is very challenging for you?
Questions for Interview 4
How would you evaluate your success in the genetics course so far?
What do you base that on?
What is your goal in the genetics course now?
814 BONNER AND HOLLIDAY
What are you doing to reach that goal?
What has been the most helpful thing youve done so far in studying genetics?
How do you know?
Has there been any party of the course so far that has been more difcult for you to
What has made it more difcult?
Have you done anything different to try to understand it?
How do you like genetics so far?
Do you feel comfortable in class?
Have you done anything to change your note-taking in the class?
Are you preparing to study for the second test any differently than you did for the rst one?
How did you know to make those changes?
What three words would you use to describe yourself in the genetics course at this point?
Do you have any plans about preparing for the nal exam?
When you plant to begin to study?
Questions for Interview 5
How do you think you did on the nal exam?
What do you base that on?
How did you prepare for the nal exam?
When did you begin?
What did you do?
What content did you focus on?
What was the hardest part of the course for you to learn?
What made it difcult?
What did you do to learn it?
Did you use the notes supplied by Dr. Bradshaw?
Where they of any help to you?
How helpful was the textbook in your studying?
How did you use the text? Did you buy it used or new?
Are all the markings in it yours?
Do you plan to keep it?
Do you usually keep your textbooks?
Did you make any changes in your note-taking style during the course?
What? Why? When?
Do you think you might continue to use any of those different ways in the future?
Did you make any changes in your studying strategies during the course?
What? Why? When?
Do you think you might continue to use any of those strategies in the future?
What were the most helpful?
How do you think you did in genetics as a course?
What do you base that on?
Did you learn anything about yourself as a student as a result of taking this course?
How did you learn that lesson?
What three works would you use to describe yourself at this point?
Has participating in this study kept you back in any way from doing as well in the course as
you might have done otherwise?
COLLEGE STUDENTS NOTE-TAKING STRATEGIES 815
What kind of educational background do adults in your family have?
Are you a resident or a commuter?
Did you work during the semester? On or off campus? How many hours a week?
Do you have any other major responsibilities that take up your time during the week?
The authors thank Steven Cain for his contribution. The author also thank the three
anonymous reviewers for their reactions and suggestions.
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