Linear note-taking has been the traditional method of capturing knowledge for generations of students.
That needs to change.
The origin of linear notes
When I was in high school, I remember falling asleep in history class because the teacher always made me write copious notes. For that teacher, “engaged student” meant writing notes during class.
The fact that I fell asleep (which cognitively suggests I was definitely not engaged) just meant I was lazy or lacking focus.
This view is long outdated and is completely incompatible with our modern understanding of learning and the human brain. Unfortunately, many teachers continue to encourage students to take notes in a linear format.
Linear note-taking involves writing down information in a sequential way. It is often from one side of the page to the other, sometimes using bullet points. Despite the vast majority of people writing notes this way as a norm, it is outdated and can also be detrimental to the learning process.
Knowledge isn’t linear, so why is our note-taking?
600 years ago, an invention transformed the world as we know it.
And we’re still suffering from the consequences…
In the 15th century, the printing press revolutionised knowledge dissemination. Prior to this, knowledge was primarily shared through the oral tradition, and creating handwritten manuscripts was a slow and laborious process. However, with the printing press, it became possible to produce books quickly and efficiently, making knowledge more widely available than ever before.
As books became more widely available, linear note-taking became more popular. The linear organization of books reinforced the idea that knowledge was a series of discrete steps or points that could be easily organized and categorized.
However, this linear view of knowledge is not accurate.
In reality, knowledge is often more complex and multidimensional than a linear organization suggests. The relationships between different concepts are rarely straightforward and often require a more complex understanding of how they relate to one another. This is particularly true in today’s rapidly evolving educational landscape, where knowledge is constantly evolving and changing.
Moreover, the popularity of linear note-taking can lead to students focusing more on copying down what is being said or written rather than engaging with the material itself. This can cause disengagement and demotivation, leading to worse outcomes in terms of retention and understanding.
The role of a learner
The role of a learner isn’t to commit linear information to memory in a linear format. Rather, learners should be encouraged to engage with the material in a way that allows for a deeper understanding of the underlying concepts.
To promote higher-order thinking, teachers should encourage their students to engage with the material in a more complex way. This can be achieved through the use of more interactive note-taking methods, such as mind maps or concept maps. These methods allow learners to connect ideas and concepts in a way that is more reflective of the true nature of knowledge. By using these methods, students can engage with the material more meaningfully, leading to better learning outcomes and higher levels of engagement.
Beware of using non-linear methods with lower-order thinking. It is common for lower-order thinkers to use non-linear methods, such as concept maps or even cognitively optimised “chunk maps” that we teach in our program, but use the technique incorrectly. What’s important is not the technique that is used but how learners think and process information. Note-taking should help learners think at higher orders, with some note-taking methods facilitating this process more naturally and powerfully.
Promoting good note-taking in students
To help learners with note-taking efficiently, we recommend teachers to…
- Clarify new terminology and their definitions
- Encourage students to compare similarities and differences between ideas
- At the end of a learning event, encourage students to map out relationships between new terminology learned
- Teach using non-linear notes and role-model higher-order structures as you teach instead of focusing on details in a linear sequence
Many teachers can struggle with teaching non-linearly because they themselves are unfamiliar with higher-order learning and thinking. In these cases, it is beneficial for the teacher to first train their higher-order learning skills to translate this into their teaching. This approach to teaching is much more time-efficient for both the teacher and students.
Note: it is not helpful to withhold information and resources from students. You do not want students to feel as if they need to desperately write everything down because they will miss it. This is an illusion of learning. Students should feel they can focus on processing and thinking about new information at higher orders instead of acting as a human photocopier.
The current state of note-taking is insufficient for the complex nature of learning in today’s educational landscape. Linear note-taking, which has been traditionally used, is ineffective for deep learning and understanding. We recommend that teachers not only promote non-linear, higher-order learning in their students but also demonstrate and role-model this kind of thinking in their teaching methods. Doing so creates a more engaged classroom, improves learner outcomes, increases metacognition, and drastically reduces the workload for the teacher as students improve their ability to think critically, make connections, and help themselves.
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