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To Note or Not to Note, that is the Question…

We’ve all had this experience, you’re sitting in class (or if you’re really lucky, a parent conference) and the teacher is going over what is important for success in class, and they say…”you must take good notes”.

We’ve all heard this piece of advice, but what does it mean?  Why should we take notes, what is the benefit in it, and most importantly, what is the best way to take notes?

Why Should You Take Notes?

As it turns out, the human brain is wired to forget things we learn.  In fact, we begin to forget information as soon as we hear it.  According to researchers at Cornell University, twenty minutes after hearing something, we have already forgotten 47% of it and after two days we have lost 67% of that knowledge!  This is a scary statistic considering students are caught inside an educational philosophy of end of course exams that stress retention of knowledge over the long term.  The days of cramming and forgetting right after the test is taken are dead!  However, no one has alerted the students.  Students are still preparing the way they always have.  The hallway conversation goes a little something like this, “I have a test tomorrow, I better go ahead and start cramming, ugh, it’s going to be a looooonnnnngggg night!”.    While this might have lead to success for students in the past, this practice is not going to be the best strategy any longer.  Given the current state of education, students must be trained in skills that foster long term retention.  The first and most important tool in a student’s kit is effective note taking.  Note taking is important because it is a way for students to combat forgetfulness by providing resources to review the content of a lecture or lesson.  In fact, students who take notes and review the notes regularly will be able to recall 80% of the information contained in the lecture!  However, even though the benefit of note taking is clear, surveys show that only about 66% of all students take notes on a consistent basis.  Wow!

What Style is Right For You?

There are many note taking styles out there from the very structured (like Guided Notes and Cornell ) to more free flow styles (like mind mapping).

Guided Notes:  The guided note style requires participation and preparation by the teacher, in this system the teacher creates an outline with gaps for the student to fill in.  This style of note taking is great for younger children who are just learning how to take notes and will give them a great start in learning how to pick out important information to record for future learning.

Cornell Style Notes:  This note style works for older age groups like middle and high school.  In the Cornell style of notes you have a page that is divided into three sections.  Section one is used for main ideas and recall points.  Section two is used to elaborate on the main ideas. The last section is used to summarize the information received.  Cornell notes are not great for facts recall (that’s more of a guided notes thing), however students who take Cornell notes score higher on tests involving higher level analysis and synthesis type questions.  These are the questions that are typical for advanced level courses and end of course exams. When I coach clients on note taking, one of the things I tell them is that Cornell notes are really great when you are doing a reading assignment.  It is not my favorite for in class note taking.

Outline Style Notes:  Outline style is great for students who like organization and order.  It involves organizing the knowledge into a main topic with smaller secondary and tertiary topics.  The benefit of this notes style is it provides a clean and efficient set of notes that you can review later.

Free Style Notes/Mind Mapping:  This note taking style is best suited for in class lectures because you are making connections as the conversation is happening.  For free style notes, I always recommend that students focus on answering the following questions:

a. Definition of topic/concept.

b. What is the job of this particular thing?

c.  Why is this topic important?

d.  Drawing (if applicable)

e.  Steps (if it is a process)

Writing or Typing, Which is Best?

Research on how the human brain works suggests that the act of writing is more effective than typing.  When you put pen to paper, the areas of the brain that regulate thinking, language and working memory become active.  This unilateral activation is not seen in people who type information on a computer or laptop.  As it turns out the process of forming and connecting our letters actually helps our brain process and store the new knowledge we are being exposed to.

Now, before you rush out and buy an ink well and quill and enroll in that handwriting class you’ve been dreaming of taking, there are some problems with hand writing notes  that you should be aware of.  The major issue is that we cannot write as fast as we can type.  Most people can record about .4 words per second by hand verses 1.5 by typing.  When you factor in that the average teacher says 2-3 words per second you can see the issue here.  So the question then becomes, what is the best way to incorporate the act of writing with effective technology use?

Turns out there are many options out there.  Below are a couple of the ones that I recommend to my clients.

Option 1:   A combination of note taking coupled with a handheld digital recording device.  This system allows students to record notes digitally and provides them the opportunity to go back to the lecture later and fill in any gaps they might have had in their written notes.  This also works well to lesson anxiety over missing something important during the lecture.

Option 2:   Recording pen – The recording pen works like the idea above, but combines both items together into one, which, in my opinion makes it a more efficient system than option one.  However, recording pens and their ancillary supplies can become quite expensive so that needs to be taken into consideration when making the decision on what type of note taking device to use.

Final Thoughts:

It goes without saying that note taking, just like anything else, is a very personal choice.  My suggestion is to try all of the options and find the one that works best for you.  It is not recommended that you choose your note taking style based on what “looks easiest”.  Some of the note taking styles are more involved and take a little more time on the student’s part, but if the payoff is a minimum of 80% on your test, isn’t discovering your style worth the work?

If you have tried all the styles above and none of them feel right for you, please feel free to contact me for further advice and coaching as you might need something more tailored to your personality.  The ideas I have gone over today are the note taking styles that work for the vast majority of students.  However, they are not the only ideas out there!

posted by samantha in Education Advice,Parenting Tips,Understanding the Human Brain and have No Comments

Choking Under Pressure: Why Performance Anxiety Exists and What We Can Do About It.

We’ve all had an experience in life where we were so nervous and afraid to fail that all we could think about was how nervous we were and how badly we expected to fail.  It’s called performance anxiety.  It is defined as fear of a situation or circumstance, like a big presentation at work or a big test at school.  Anything we consider high stakes can cause us to have anxiety.  This anxiety actually impacts our brain’s function and causes us to do worse on a task then we would have if we weren’t so consumed with worry.

This problem is most frustrating when it impacts our children in the classroom.  For students, learning to overcome test anxiety can mean the difference between passing or failing a course. I recently read an article in the Journal Science, which gave me some perspective on how the brain deals with performance anxiety, how it hinders performance and how to help alleviate the stress. I encourage you to try this strategy with your child.  It will decrease your child’s test anxiety and more than likely lower the stress level in your home.

How Does Test Anxiety Impact the Brain?

Test anxiety impacts an area of the brain called working memory.  This is a critical area for thought processing.  When a student has performance anxiety, this area is fully consumed with worries about failing, leaving little working memory to process calculations and questions on a test.  In experiments involving test anxiety, those students who were not given a coping strategy showed a twelve percent drop in their scores in comparison to students who were asked to use a strategy to help alleviate their stress.

What Can You Do?

Researchers have found significant benefit to having students write about their worries just prior to the test.  Students that engaged in this expressive writing strategy for ten minutes before the high stakes test actually performed five percentage points higher than their peers who did not use the writing strategy.

So it appears there is significant benefit for students to be given an opportunity to write about their fears before they take a test.  It will free up their working memory and give them an opening to demonstrate the knowledge they have gained.  Ultimately, this strategy could transform your child’s opinion on a particular area of study, and quite possibly give them the confidence and courage to pursue a career in a high demand field like science or technology.

For more information, or to get additional test taking strategies, email us:



posted by samantha in Education Advice,Parenting Tips,Understanding the Human Brain and have No Comments

Brain Longevity: What to Do to Keep Your Smarts for the Long Haul

Welcome to the Youth Education Alliance’s blog for brains! In this first segment we are going to discuss what you can do to be sure that your brain stays healthy and working at  its best your entire life.

Research shows that to maintain your mental edge throughout your life, you must train your brain!  When your brain learns a challenging new skill, it literally rewires itself creating thousands of new connections.  To stay healthy you must form a habit of lifelong learning.  This will slow down or eliminate the decline in mental acuity typical of old age.  For those of you who want to avoid the decline and stay sharp, we present: YEA! Youth Education Alliance’s suggestions for maximum brain fitness.

You know you’re building connections when you are physically or cognitively challenging yourself, the task should be difficult but achievable with practice (very easy tasks do not actually help your brain build its connections).


1.  Switch hands on everyday movements (use your opposite hand):

a. Brush your teeth or hair

b. Dial the phone

c. Operate your computer mouse

2.  Involve your whole body in a new skill

a. Learn a sport

b. Learn yoga, tai chi, etc

c. Sculpt (or play with clay, especially good for children)

3.  Travel

a. Taking a vacation is good for your brain, the novel area allows you to navigate in a strange place as well as interact with new cultures, and you are relaxing too! All  brain friendly activities!

4.  Hone Your Senses

a.  Do simple tasks that incorporate more than one sense at a time

–  Get dressed; brush your teeth or hair with your eyes closed

–  Communicate using visual cues only (no words)

–  Listen to music while smelling flowers or incense

5.  Change your routines

–  Take a different path to work

–  Order different meals at your favorite restaurants

–  Shop at a different grocery or clothing store

6.  Read regularly & play word games

–  scrabble

–  crosswords

–  bingo

–  learn a new language

The most important thing to remember is that your brain is a muscle; you must give it daily exercise to keep it healthy!

Join us next time when we discuss exercise and diet and how your habits in these areas shape not only your brain, but the brains of our children as well.


posted by samantha in Understanding the Human Brain and have No Comments