By Sarah-Jane Peake

Think back, if you can, to your time at university. How did you spend your days on campus?

In all likelihood, your time was taken up with trying to process a deluge of new facts in lectures, seminars, tutorials and practicals. Afterwards, if feeling particularly diligent, you may have strolled across to the library to pour over a seemingly ever expanding reading list.

So much information! But were you ever shown how to better understand what you were hearing and reading and commit it to memory?

If you were like me, you were probably left to your own devices to develop, through a process of trial and error (possibly involving more error than trial), study practices that seemed to suit how you learn.

But maybe there was a nagging voice in the back of your mind saying that you could be going about it more effectively…

A recent survey conducted by Sonocent has found that for many students this nagging voice is more of a deafening roar.

Of the 1,000 students and recent graduates aged 18-30 surveyed, 34% cited ‘not studying properly / effectively’ as one of their three major regrets from university.

And with the survey revealing that only a small proportion had received any instruction into how to perform core study skills, this is perhaps little wonder. When asked whether they had been taught how to properly revise, source information or deliver presentations, the vast majority of the sample answered ‘no’ (71.1%, 74.1% and 78.6% respectively).

But for me, as an assistive technology trainer working primarily in higher education, what really jumps out from the survey is that just 25.6% of the students and recent graduates had received any instruction into how to take good notes.

I help students use technology to support revision, essay composition and other vital study skills. And I know that without effective notes to draw upon none of these skills can be performed to a high standard.

In fact, the very act of taking notes is central to learning. As Claire Brown, associate director of the Victoria Institute at Victoria University, Melbourne, wrote in a recent article for ‘The Conversation’, we humans “tend to lose almost 40% of new information within the first 24 hours of reading or hearing it”. But with effective notes, “we can retain and retrieve almost 100% of the information we receive”.

And what makes for effective notes? As Claire explains, “the most effective note-taking skills involve active rather than passive learning”, where the student does “things with the material they are engaging with (reading, writing, discussing, solving problems)”.

How many students are doing all this when they take notes? And how many are just scribbling down what they can in lectures and seminars, then trying to fill in the blanks when they come to revise or write essays by borrowing notes from coursemates and cribbing from text books?

In my experience, the majority of students fall squarely into the latter camp. Without being shown effective note-taking practices, they struggle because note taking is a highly complex task, one that research has shown demands greater cognitive effort than playing chess. There’s just so much to do at once! Students must listen, try to understand what they are hearing, summarise and reword, all while keeping up with the speaker and deciding which pieces of information they will need to refer to later.

In recent years, universities have begun to make recordings of lectures available to students via virtual learning environments such as Blackboard. But while this ensures students have a comprehensive record of everything that’s said and demonstrated in a lecture, capturing information is only one part of good note taking.

For note taking to facilitate learning, students also need to synthesise the information they hear by building connections between new information and what that they already know.

True understanding and improved recall can only happen when a student engages with the information, summarising and organising it. Note taking models such as the Cornell Note-Taking system were developed by academics who recognised this. Here students write questions or keywords in the left-hand column of a page and summarise the main ideas and content of a lecture in their own words in the right: engagement, summarisation, organisation.

Studies show that Cornell and other note-taking systems successfully aid students with understanding and recall. So shouldn’t we be showing all students how to apply them as part of the curriculum? In my view, this should happen at school so that students are better equipped to cope with the self-directed nature of learning in further and higher education, where so much academic instruction is spoken.

The survey results actually fill me with a great deal of optimism. Think how much more our students could achieve with just a little simple guidance in how to study smarter?

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