Note-Taking: Restriction and Selection

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We are conducting an investigation into the relationship between note-taking and learning in online courses. The literature has shown that the process of taking notes can have a positive impact on long-term retention. Our completed studies indicate that the features included in online note-taking applications can have an effect on these process benefits. Analyses of our results have led us to explore the effect of selection-based note-taking on both behavior and learning.

We are exploring two hypothesis regarding the effect of note-taking on learning. First, we believe that note-taking encourages active processing, and thus long-term retention, when it requires students to attend to the critical elements of the learning material. This results in increased feature validity of the mental representation. Our second hypothesis is that note-taking facilitates long-term retention when it involves the creation of additional representations of concepts. These two hypotheses fit in with the fluency and coordinative learning clusters, respectively. Our studies are designed to evaluate these hypotheses by comparing note-taking tools offering different functionality.


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

Can we improve learning outcomes in online courses by changing the way students can take notes?


Note-taking research has shown that the process of taking notes can have a positive impact on long-term retention. Our preliminary studies have provided strong evidence that the features included in online note-taking applications impact how students take notes. We have also found that these differences can affect learning in several ways. These differences provide an opportunity to learn more about note-taking. Our main research question regards how and when note-taking increases long-term retention. By addressing this question, we have the opportunity to develop note-taking applications that encourage active processing and retention.

There is extensive research on note-taking in both the educational psychology and educational technology fields. About half of note-taking studies have shown the process of note-taking to be beneficial to learning. Three-fourths of studies find that notes are a valuable resource when they can be reviewed (Kiewra, 1991). The cause of note-taking benefits is unclear, however. It has been attributed to rewording or summarizing, but experimental results are equivocal.

Note-taking technology provides new ways of studying note-taking, and provides investigators with more control over the note-taking process. This gives us the opportunity to study note-taking in further depth, perhaps elucidating the circumstances in which note-taking is beneficial. Unfortunately, few researchers have taken advantage of this opportunity. Most note-taking technology is developed to simply mimic paper-based practices, or provide new ways of taking notes.

These new devices have been shown to change the way students take notes, reinforcing the need to study how note-taking practices affect learning, if at all. Our investigations our a first step in doing so.

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.

Restricted Paste: Students can only create notes by copy-pasting material from the learning content to their notepad. Students are restricted to selecting 90% of the words of any single sentence they are selecting.

Typing: Students can only create notes by typing directly into their notepad.

Selection-Tool: Students can only create notes by choosing one of the 3 options made available when they select learning material.

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.


1. Attention/Fluency-Refinement: Note-taking benefits students when it requires them to focus on the critical components of the ideas they are recording. Restricting the amount of material students can select in any individual selection behavior will increase the attention paid to critical features of the learning material. This will result in improved retention compared to unrestricted selection.

2a. Coordinative Learning/Rewording: Note-taking benefits students when it involves the creation of a new representation of the learning material. This new representation must be reworded.

2b. Coordinative Learning/Additional Representation: 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.


- Copy-paste takes less time to produce the same learning results as Typing. Though copy-paste trends towards forgetting more at a delay than Typing, this effect was only significant in our first study.

- Students who copy-paste do better when they take less wordy notes. This is not the case for other tools. This provides some evidence for the attention hypothesis.

- Usability issues impaired our ability to directly address the attention and coordination hypotheses. Students disliked both the Selection and the Restricted-Paste tool, and used them less than the more standard Typing and Copy-Paste tools.


The current study was ineffective in directly evaluating the fluency and coordinative learning hypotheses described above. The learning and behavioral differences between the novel and standard tools may have been due to a lack of user-friendliness rather than having anything to do with questions of attention or coordination.

Focusing: While the interface designed to evaluate the fluency hypothesis was not effective, the experiment did provide evidence to support the focusing hypothesis. Students who used the unrestricted copy-paste tool performed worse when they recorded wordy notes, while the same was not true for other tools. It appears that selection-based note taking requires students to focus on the critical components of the ideas they are recording in order for it to be effective.

Coordination: There was no direct evidence to support the coordinative hypothesis in this study. However, all of the tools we have used so far have had students take notes in a separate window or sheet of paper. Therefore all get additional representations. A future study will address this limitation.


Note-Taking: Coordination

Further Information

The following is a reference to a conference paper regarding our earlier study contrasting handwriting, typing, and copy-paste.

Bauer, A., Koedinger, K. Pasting and Encoding: Note-taking in Online Courses. IEEE International Conference on Advanced Learning Technologies (ICALT 2006), 5-7 July, Kerkrade, Netherlands.

- Bauer, A., Koedinger. K.R., Selection-Based Note-Taking Applications, ACM Symposium on Human Factors in Computing Systems 2007, in submission