Monday, June 20, 2011

Social media & learning – note taking on steroids

With all this talk about social media and learning, we may be missing the essential benefit, which is simple note taking and the sharing of those notes. Social media is notes on steroids.

I’m a note taker, whether it’s at talks, conferences, in margins of books or thoughts captured in my notebook. On top of this I write the equivalent of notes on Twitter, Facebook and longer blog posts. It’s a lifelong habit. I’m therefore astonished, when giving keynotes and talks at learning conferences, to see learning professionals sit there and NOT take notes and worse have no means to take notes.

In addition, articles on ‘learning how to learn’ or ‘metacognition’ often disappoint me, as they seem vague and lack the sort of direct advice that really does lead to a dramatic increase in retention. With this in mind I want to recommend something that I’d put at the top of any list. It’s simple, it’s obvious: it’s NOTE TAKING and its amplification through SOCIAL MEDIA.

Why take notes? Several reasons:

1. Increase memory

Studies on note taking (with control groups and reversal of note takers and non note takers to eliminate differences) show overwhelmingly that not taking increases memory/retention. Many aspects of increased memory have been studied including; increased attention, immediate recall, delayed tests, free recall, MCQs, remembering important v less important knowledge, correlations with quality of notes and deeper learning. Bligh (2000) has detailed dozens of studies in this area. Wittrick and Alesandrini (1990) found that written summaries increased learning by 30% through summaries and 22% using written analogies, compared to the control group. Why does note taking increase retention? First, increased focus, attention and concentration, the necessary conditions for learning. Second, increased attention to meaning and therefore better encoding. Thirdly, rehearsal and repetition, which processes it into long term memory. All three matter.

2. Increase performance

If you take notes AND review them, you do better on assessments (Kiewra 1989, 1991). Interestingly, Peper and Mayer (1978) found that note taking increased skills transfer and problem solving in computer programming and science (1986). Shrager and Mayer (1989) found similar effects in college students, learning about cameras. It would seem that note taking allows learners to relate knowledge to experience.

3. Detail & structure

As to the best type of note taking, it’s the most information in the fewest words. Students tend to miss lots of important information (even omitting negatives!), with as little as 50-10% of the important points noted. Detail does matter. Research also shows that mind maps are fine for conceptual structure bit not so good for detail. They are also difficult to construct during a lecture. There is also evidence to support the use of colour and/or lines with symbols that have classificatory meaning (EX – example, D- definition etc). In other words, the evidence for simple mind map productivity is very thin. Interestingly small breaks for revision of notes during talks increases performance as does revision in pairs (O’Donnell 1993).

4. Further learning

Notes offer the opportunity for further learning through rewriting. Notes that are spread out so that further work can be included and self-generated questions are also useful (King 1992). This points towards further reflection and study. This is important and leads to my next point that learning can be massively amplified through the use of social media.

5. Tweet it – seed it

I’d contend that the amplification of notes is the best way of using social media in learning. Note taking can be transformed into a social learning experience for yourself and others through social media. Tweets during a talk or conferences session brings it to life, captures the salient points and let’s others know what’s going on. Then there’s the amplification through retweets. In addition, links can be included. But its strength (limited characters) is its weakness, as further exposition is usually needed. Tweckling is OK as long as it doesn’t become useless carping!

6. Blog it - log it

This, I believe, is a far more useful social medium for learning. Blogs are personal voices and it forces you to write a structured and considered piece, enhancing your own learning, as well as sharing that learning with others. In addition, it opens up the discussion for further comments, often further expanding your learning. I find I gain a great deal by reading other blogs of the same event, to capture points I’ve missed. There’s also the bonus of archiving. One has a searchable database of knowledge.

7. Evernote - remember everything

Tools like Evernote point towards single. searchable repositories that work on all of your devices, for the capture, storage, organisation and recall of learning. The fact that people grab web pages, screenshots and photos adds to its richness. On top of this there's YouTube for video capture, podcasts, RSS and chat rooms. All can be seen as expansions of not taking.


Note taking increases learning, results in deeper learning and leads to further learning. Social media is essentially an amplification of this process, it multiplies these effects through both personal and social learning. So in the search for an actual example of social media in learning, note taking has been researched and evaluated to be extremely powerful.


Sue Gibbs said...

Good stuff - but spot the missing "e" in the following bit:

Studies on note taking (with control groups and reversal of note takers and non note takers to eliminate differences) show overwhelmingly that not taking increases memory/retention.

Robyn McMaster, PhD said...

Thanks for teaching me more about note taking on steroids. I have recently seen the added value doodling brings. It forces your brain to go beyond the notes and adds more retention.

dicrompton said...


I really related to this post. One of my colleagues still uses short hand to take notes. Because of this she unequivocally provides the best recap of content/events when she’s transcribed details. And I’ve always been a note taker, thinking this a necessary step in order for me to learn and capture key details. Thanks for the insightful post and I’ll now look at note taking with fresh eyes!


jay said...

Yes, yes, yes. I'm an inveterate note-taker, too, Donald.

I used to fill up journals with notes, sketches, mind maps, and reminders. Most of that has migrated online (although sketching is still not as easy on line as with a pen.)

When people ask where I find time to blog, I explain that I simply use the time I once spent jotting things down in my journals and notebooks. Now that I write in the open, thousands of people read my notes. They give me pointers to new material -- and tell me when they think I've gone off the rails. Note-taking is no longer solitary.

I had an experience similar to yours with non-notetakers. Addressing a class of entering MBA students at the University of California Berkeley, I explained the value of note-taking; not a one picked up a pencil. That brings me to a conundrum I've love to see you grapple with in Plan B:

Why are the preponderance of students, workers and citizens so short-sighted? Most people seem happy to sacrifice the long term for the short. Notes? Not today, thank you. It's as if a reward in the future does not warrant investing a tiny bit of effort in the present. I don't get it.

PS I find bookmarks a powerful way to store pointers to information that are in essence mini-notes.

When I encounter a lengthier item I want to retain, I will often copy it to my Learnstream.

Realtime mind mapping is getting easier with the latest iPad apps.

Unknown said...

Nothing to do with the post, Donald, but thought you might enjoy Murdoch on education:

Brownie said...

Rest assured Donald that some of us still take notes. I found the sessions invaluable and couldn't contemplate walking away from them relying on my memory or the speed of my texting to nudge my aging brain into action at a later date.

Dave Brown

Lindsey said...

Hey Donald,

Sorry for an unrelated comment, but I couldn't find any contact info on the blog, and I wanted to ask you about a possible guest post. Please drop me an e-mail!



Paul Richardson said...

Dead right. I was listening to the material world broadcast about the digitisation of Darwin's annotations of the books he owned. These not only give us a valuable insight into his ideas, but perhaps indicate that this way of working was key to his own way of thinking. Darwin's notes are here: and my own thoughts on this topic are here:

Unknown said...

Is it OK to use a pencil tp make the notes?!

Unknown said...

I really like the idea of using social media for note taking AND sharing thoughts. I might test this on a few of our courses. I will let the students have their own bloggs for note taking and reflective thoughts. This way they can also do exactly what you described about comparing notes from the same learning sessions.

Ryan Madanick, MD said...

This brings up an issue we see at our medical school and many medical conferences/lectures, where the slides are now readily reproduced such that note-taking on factoids is often decreased. Has this yet been studied?

Donald Clark said...

Ryan - some observations:

1) Lectures are the problem, not note taking
2) Record lectures for student access later - it increases attainment
3) Adopt Mazur techniques - type his name into Google

Rob W said...

Hi Donald,

It's interesting that you find Evernote useful. I tried it for a while and whilst I found it great initially, I soon reverted back to pen and paper.

The ease of opening up a notebook and jotting a few things down hasn't been replicated by computers yet.

steroizi said...

this is a good thing because we can see more relevant results from these social media sites, makes things easyer

AMINA ADO said...


Thanks for the link on Murdock on Education.

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