Note-Taking: Focusing On Quantity

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Note-taking research often limits the amount of notes students can take, believing that too much note-taking will be detrimental to learning. However, this belief has not been fully validated. Our own work has shown that the tools students use to take notes can affect the amount of notes students record. Specifically, students using a selection-based tool, which allows them to select material and paste it into their notes, record far more notes than students who type. This disinhibition of note-taking behavior provides the opportunity to explore the question of note quantity in greater depth.

The research described here will evaluate how the quantity of notes students can take affects learning. We hypothesize that restricting the number of notes they can record will require students to focusing\focus on the most critical ideas within the learning material. This will result in a deeper textbase, and increased performance on learning outcomes.

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.”

Selection: 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

How does the quantity of notes students record influence what they learn?


There is a common belief among note-taking researchers that "the amount of underlining must be controlled...otherwise a few subjects underline everything or underline nothing.” (Johnson, 1988). Due to this, most note-taking studies of reading have restricted the amount of notes students take, from 1 line per paragraph (Rickards & August, 1975) to 7 lines per page (Bretzing & Kulhavy, 1981). However, there is little rationale behind any specific restriction, and only one study comparing restricted note-taking with unrestricted note-taking (Santa et. al., 1979), which found that restrictions on quantity increased performance on tests where students were not allowed to review.

My own research has found that selection-based note-taking results in far more note-taking activity than other forms of note-taking such as typing. The research cited above would cite this as a negative behavior, though students using the tool performed equivalently on learning outcomes to students who typed. It may be, however, that they would have shown superior performance if they had limited the amount of notes they had recorded. This experiment evaluates this hypothesis.

Our previous data also provides us with the ability to create more rational restrictions on the quantity of notes students can take. As described above, previous research has created limitations at both the page level as well as the paragraph level. It may also be appropriate to attach restrictions to an entire module. Additionally, the form of a restriction may vary by page or paragraph. An information rich page may require more notes than a sparse one. This research will evaluate the behavior of effective self-restrictors in our previous experiments to determine the appropriate form of restriction.

This research will be explored using either a highlighting or copy-paste tool, both of which use a similar selection-based interaction technique. The specific tool will be chosen based on the results of a comparison experiment being conducted within the Coordinative Learning cluster. As in another note-taking experiment within the Refinement and Fluency cluster, restrictions will take two forms. Required restrictions will not allow students to take more than the maximum number of notes, and recommended restrictions will inform students when their note quantity has reached the threshold, and recommend a paring down of notes.

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


This is the basic note-taking text-editor. Built in javascript, the editor occupies the lower third of the screen, while the learning materials occupy the top of the screen. The functionality of various manipulations is described below.

Note-taking Treatment

Unrestricted Interface: Students can use the note-taking application to record as many notes as they like.

Restricted Interface: Students can only record a limited amount of notes using the note-taking application.

Read-Only: In this condition, students do not take notes, they are only allowed to read the material.

Context/Mediating Variables on Student Characteristics

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.


1. (Central Hypothesis) Restrictions on the quantity of notes students can take will improve performance on learning outcomes.

2. Restricting note quantity will decrease time on task.

Expected Findings

We expect restrictions to cause students to increase their focus on critical components of the learning material by forcing them to identify key ideas. This will result in a stronger understanding of the structure of the learning materials, and will thus improve their performance on learning outcomes.

In addition, restrictions will result in less note-taking activity, which will in turn reduce time on task relative to unrestricted note-taking. This would be a large win, as copy-paste note-taking is already more efficient than other forms of note-taking such as typing.



Note-taking project page

Further Information


  1. Bretzing, B.H., Kulhavy, R.W. "Note-taking and Passage Style", Journal of Educational Psychology 73, 2 (1981) 242-250
  2. Johnson, L.L. Effects of Underlining Textbook Sentences on Passage and Sentence Retention. Reading and Research Instruction 28, 1 (1988), 18-32
  3. Rickards, J.P., August, G.J. (1975) Generative Underlining Strategies in Prose Recall. Journal of Educational Psychology, 67(6), 860-865
  4. Santa, C.M., Abrams, L., Santa, J.L (1979) Effects of Notetaking and Studying on the Retention of Prose. Journal of Reading Behavior, 11(3) 247-260