What Do You Do When You Take Notes?


Wednesday, 7.22pm

Sheffield, U.K.

Neither comprehension nor learning can take place in an atmosphere of anxiety. – Rose Kennedy

In my last post we looked at the how the task of taking notes is as hard as playing chess at an expert level – it’s a cognitively demanding task. But what do you actually do when you sit down to listen and take notes?

Imagine you’re just listening to a person talking, perhaps in a lecture. People speak around two to three words a second (Piolat et al, 2005). You’re not going to remember every word but the sentences and phrases they say will stick in your mind for a bit (Cowan, 1998). This is verbal working memory and it’s sometimes called short-term memory or immediate memory.

Now, think of what you do when you take notes. While spoken speech is around two to three words a second writing is closer to 0.2 to 0.3 words per second, which means we’re going to miss quite a lot of content. Our ability to produce notes depends on how fast we transcribe information. We can speed up how fast we transcribe by using contractions, abbreviations or even shorthand, although few people learn shorthand outside of professions like journalism. We can speed up transcription even more by typing notes and these days you have AI systems that will transcribe on the fly. We’re getting closer to the point where we can have a verbatim transcription of everything that is said.

Transcription speed comes, however, at the cost of comprehension. It appears that speeding up transcription by typing rather than writing, for example, results in a lower level of understanding (Mueller and Oppenheimer, 2016). The words pass through your ears and out through your fingers but little remains in your brain. Slowing down, paradoxically, means you have to engage more with the content. Rather than just writing everything you hear down you have to listen, pick out and remember what is important and write it down before you forget, while still listening to new material that’s coming in.

These three elements: working memory; production; and comprehension, seem to have an important role in the act of note taking. The context in which you’re taking notes, however, also makes a difference. In an academic environment, for example, the reason you take notes is to support your learning which is measured by how well you do on tests. Transcription fluency – how well you take down what is said in the lectures – seems to matter more than working memory – how much you remember (Peverley et al, 2007). But in other situations such as a company meeting you may need to keep track of several streams of thought and results may be different. Taking notes from a book or paper you’re reading poses different challenges yet again.

In the next few posts I need to go into these three elements in more detail – looking at working memory, production and comprehension and how that might inform approaches to developing our personal approach to note taking.


Karthik Suresh


Cowan, N. 1998, “Visual and auditory working memory capacity”, Trends in cognitive sciences, vol. 2, no. 3, pp. 77-77.

Mueller, P.A. & Oppenheimer, D.M. 2016, “Technology and note-taking in the classroom, boardroom, hospital room, and courtroom”, Trends in neuroscience and education, vol. 5, no. 3, pp. 139-145.

Peverly, S.T., Ramaswamy, V., Brown, C., Sumowski, J., Alidoost, M. & Garner, J. 2007, “What Predicts Skill in Lecture Note Taking?”, Journal of educational psychology, vol. 99, no. 1, pp. 167-180.

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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