Note-Taking: Coordination

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Note-taking has been found to be an effective learning activity, though it is unclear why this may be. One hypothesis we are pursuing is that note-taking requires students to actively coordinate multiple versions of the same material. Previous research has found that simultaneously coordinating multiple sources facilitates learning (Wiley 2001). Note-taking often involves the creation of a separate representation of the learning material, which remains available for review while the student is learning new material. If the availability of multiple sources is responsible for positive learning outcomes, then note-taking methods such as highlighting, which does not produce a separate copy of the learning materials, should not produce similar learning results to copy-paste. This is a Coordinative Learning hypothesis of note-taking.

The study described here will compare two forms of note-taking, copy-paste and highlighting. They share a similar selection-based interaction. In both conditions, to record a note students select the important material with the cursor. In the copy-paste condition, students then copy the selection to a notepad. In the highlighting condition, students highlight the note, which changes its background. Notes are thus not available in subsequent pages.

For information on the note-taking project see the top-level page.


Note-taking: The act of recording ideas from learning material, either by marking up the learning material directly or creating a separate sheet of “notes.”

Select/ion: This term is used in the context of this study to identify the behavior of using the mouse and cursor to actively highlight a portion of digital text. Selection is first step for several online note-taking techniques, including copy-paste and annotation.

Copy-Paste: This is the act of selecting material, copying it to the computer clipboard (via a keyboard shortcut or menu), and then pasting it into students’ notes.

Highlighting: The act of creating a lasting distinction between the selected text and the main content. For example, through creating a yellow background or underlining the text.

Research Question

Does note-taking promote learning due to the creation of an always available copy-of the learning material?


There is a long history of research connecting note-taking with increased performance on learning outcomes. While some researchers believe note-taking gains are achieved when students connect learning materials with prior knowledge, there is little behavioral data to support such a thesis. Students' notes rarely show indications of material external to what they are learning. In fact, notes are often recorded verbatim. Still, there is evidence that note-takers perform better on tests addressing robust learning measures (Peper and Mayer, 1986), which should derive from such connective behavior.

It may be that generation effects are due to a process of coordinating multiple sources of information. Jennifer Wiley's work shows that students able to easily transition between multiple documents write better essays than students who view one page or document at a time. The notepad involved in note-taking may serve a similar purpose, allowing students to easily coordinate what they are learning with what they have already learned.

This study evaluates this hypothesis by comparing two note-taking tools, one (copy-paste) which uses a notepad with one (highlighting) that does not. If the coordination hypothesis is correct, students using the copy-paste tool should perform better on learning outcomes than students using the highlighting tool.

Dependent Variables


Note-Quantity: The total number of ideas students place in their notes is captured, as well as the number of words used to express those ideas.

Note-Wording: How students word their notes is recorded. Each ideas is either recorded Verbatim, Abbreviated, or in students Own words.

Completion Time: The time students take to complete the learning material is recorded.


Experience: After taking the final test, students are given a survey which solicits their reaction to the tool they used. They are asked to identify their most and least favorite features of the tools, and how they believe the tool affected their note-taking behavior.


Note: all tests include both multiple choice and free response questions. The multiple choice questions all involve solving problems (for example, given a response structure, which variables are direct causes of an effect, or which interact to produce an effect). In addition, some free response questions ask students to explain terminology used in the module.

Normal Learning, immediate: Students are given a test immediately after studying the material.

Long-Term Retention, Normal Learning: Students return a week following the treatment (which lasts between 30 and 90 minutes) to take this test.

Normal Learning, review: After taking the long-term retention test, students are given their notes to review for 5 minutes. Following this review period, students take a final test.

Independent Variables

Note-taking Treatment

Paste: Students can only create notes by copy-pasting material from the learning content to their notepad. Students can select as much material as they like in any single pasting action.

Highlighting: Students can create notes by actively highlighting course material. These highlights are seen with differently colored backgrounds, as would be the case with a physical highlighter.

Student Variables

SAT Score: All students are asked to provide their SAT scores, as in previous studies SAT-Math was found to be an important covariate.

Pretest score: Prior to the learning material, students take a pre-test similar to the normal tests described above.

Preferences: In the survey, students are asked how they prefer to take notes in their regular student-life.


Note-taking benefits students because it allows them to simultaneously coordinate two representations of the same material, the fixed one created by the content author, and their own set of notes.


If coordination is an important factor in note-taking, the highlighting tool should perform worse on learning outcomes than the copy-paste tool, as it does not involve the creation of a separate set of notes.



None at this time

Further Information

Wiley, J. (2001) Supporting understanding through task and browser design. Proceedings of the Twenty-third annual Conference of the Cognitive Science Society, (pp. 1136-1143). Hillsdale, NJ: Erlbaum.