Note-taking represents the operation of “working memory” – the interface between our attention, our sense of “relevance”, and any task (or even a subconscious “future agenda item” for that matter) we have in mind. In everyday life, most of us take notes very sporadically, only when we want to retain something that we’re sure we’ll forget otherwise – a telephone number, an appointment time, the title of a book or a url. For second language learning, note-taking – as a representation of working memory – can be used productively to build attention, memory, and recall.

What do we, as second language learners, do when we watch or listen to something longer than say a couple of minutes: a talk show, an interview, a lecture? If it’s interesting, we may feel we’re “getting into” the content, engaging with the speaker, absorbing ideas and details, appreciating “the presence” of the speaker and his or her “story”.

And what do we “take away” from the experience? Mostly, it’s an impression, a feeling, maybe a key idea or two that really resonated with us. And then, as we enter into another experience, our memories of that event will begin to fade. This is a normal process of memory, freeing up space for new experiences.

If we want to retain more than a few fleeting images or a few key ideas, we need to “trick memory” in some way, “force” it essential to retain more than it would normally. Enter: Note-Taking.

For language learning, note-taking can become an essential learning processl. It’s not just the act of zooming in on what we’re watching or listening to and noting to ourselves that “this is important.” It’s the connection to other notes we are consciously taking and the intentional review+reconstruction process afterwards.

If you want to use your encounters with language to learn from more deeply – and more permanently – it’s vital to take notes! And the good news is: it doesn’t really matter what note-taking system you use, as long as you do adopt a “system”.

Here are some of the systems that note-takers use:

• Outline method 

Main points, supporting points, and details are differentiated through indention, which allows students to focus on hierarchies of information, while reducing reviewing and editing time.

 • Cornell method

With this method, listeners divide a note page into 3 sections representing different “phases” of comprehension. All notes from the class (“new information”) go into the main note-taking column. The smaller column on the left side is for comments, questions or hints about the actual notes, which can be filled in during or after the lecture. After the lecture, the student is encouraged to take a moment to summarize the main ideas of the page in the section at the bottom. This action is intended to consolidate learning, and speed up the review and study process. 

• The Boxing Method

The “Boxing Method”, a term coined by a contributor to the GoodNotes blog emphasizes grouping and linking of textual notes. All notes that are related to each other are grouped together in a box, as the listener decides on these groupings while listening, with no limit on the number of boxes the note-taker decides to create. A dedicated box is assigned for each section of notes which aids in follow up review and discussion. 

 • The Visual Method 

The visual method encourages the listener to stray away from traditional text-heavy notes. With visual note taking, the note-taker creates sub-sections and organizers, draws structures, and creates images to make the words and concepts easier to understand and recall. 

 • The Mapping Method

This method works best when a lecture does not seem to follow a logical order – notes are divided into branches allowing students to establish relationships between the topics. The main topic is written at the top of the map and subtopics are “branched” to the left and right as students move down the page. 

So get yourself a notebook – yes, it has to be a notebook, not just a page in Word on your laptop, as there seems to be some strong “encoding effect” in using your hand and arm to inscribe the notes. When you’re in a situation where you are listening for an extended period – it can even be watching a TV show – try taking notes. And – super important – review them one day later, then two days later, then a week later. You’ll find your benefits from the initial event multiply!

Research Notes: These various note-taking methods have been shown to be effective for students, though no one method has been demonstrated as superior to the others (Bui & Meyerson, 2014; Carrier et al., 1988). The key to effective note-taking seems to be in the intention of the listener, during encoding, to identify, review, edit, and retain key information from the lecture — and to the have the opportunity to do something meaningful with the notes afterthe lecture (Peverly et al., 2104; Rost, 2006; Siegel, 2018). Further, all of these methods are best practiced with handwriting on paper, rather than on computer keyboards. It appears that handwriting, because of its more active engagement by the listener during the “encoding process,” improves retention of the material notes (Mueller & Oppenheimer, 2018). 

About The Author

, Note-Taking Represents Working Memory, Lateral Communications
Michael Rost, principal author of Pearson English Interactive, has been active in the areas of language teaching, learning technology and language acquisition research for over 25 years. His interest in bilingualism and language education began in the Peace Corps in West Africa and was fuelled during his 10 years as an educator in Japan and extensive touring as a lecturer in East Asia and Latin America. Formerly on the faculty of the TESOL programs at Temple University and the University of California, Berkeley, Michael now works as an independent researcher, author, and speaker based in San Francisco.