How Hard Is It To Take Notes?


Wednesday, 8.33pm

Sheffield, U.K.

All things excellent are as difficult as they are rare. – Baruch Spinoza

In my last post I looked at why we take notes and ended by asking how difficult it really is to take notes.

Difficulty in this context really refers to cognitive complexity – the challenge our brain faces when we need to carry out an activity like note taking. But how do we figure out whether something is cognitively complex or not?

One way to approach the question is by asking how much of our available conitive resource – brain function – is being dedicated to a particular activity. An elegant way of doing this is by designing a dual task experiment.

It works like this – imagine you’re watching television and your child shouts for you. How long does it take you to respond? Now, if you’re watching something like a TED talk and taking notes, and the same thing happens, how long does it take to respond this time?

A dual task experiment is based on this idea and sets up a situation where you work on a primary task and then have a secondary task that interrupts you at random intervals. For example, your primary task may be to listen to a lecture and take notes. The secondary task is that each time a speaker makes a sound you have to press a button. The idea is that the more engaged you are in the primary task the longer it will take you to react and complete the secondary task. The control in this situation is how fast you do the secondary task on its own – that is just wait for the speaker to sound and hit the button when you hear it.

Piolat, Oliver and Kellogg (2005) measured how long it took to react to an interruption when taking notes and compared the reaction time to other activities. They found that you would respond in around 150 milliseconds if you were reading a text but that rose to around 370-380 milliseconds when taking lecture notes. Activities like planning, revising, translating and composition were even more demanding, getting closer to 400 milliseconds. What interesting is that notetaking was even harder than playing chess at an expert level – even players who were engaged in a game that’s considered to be pretty difficult responded faster than people taking notes.

So it’s fair to say that taking notes is hard to do. It follows that getting better at it must be something worth doing. But how do you go about getting better at note taking – what are the activities that are involved and are they ones that can be practised and improved? Let’s look at that in the next post.


Karthik Suresh


Piolat, A., Olive, T. & Kellogg, R.T. 2005, “Cognitive effort during note taking “, Applied cognitive psychology, vol. 19, no. 3, pp. 291-312.

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