Note taking in e-learning, by John Curran

I’m a serial note taker. Put me in a training event or a conference session and I’ll be scribbling away on my freeform unlined paper making notes – all sorts of notes. I write down key points, web links, book references, even make small diagrams.


Sometimes I even mind map. I also run two ‘notebooks’ (well sheets if I’m honest) one that relates to the material being delivered and one to capture wider thoughts that may have been sparked off by that material. These notes are usually down to connections that pop-up in my big picture brain – so for example I might have a business development idea, a blog post idea or simply a useful concept that I will follow-up at some future time.

You may have realised by now that I still prefer pen and paper for note taking. Others are happier tapping away on their laptops or more recently on their tablets (sometimes to the annoyance of others).

What role does note taking play in learning?

Now I’m not the only one who takes notes at ‘learning’ events so clearly note taking has a role to play in our processing and understanding of the material being presented. Even when the presenter/trainer tells us that the ‘slides’ will be available ‘at the end’ I still take notes – though I notice some people breathe a deep sigh of relief , put down their pen and relax a little in their seats. Sometimes a presenter will even handout slides at the start ready for us to make notes in the little lined area next to each slide. I hate this – that little lined area is way too constraining for my free range approach.

For me taking notes is a key part of the learning process – the material is presented, some things seem particularly relevant or interesting so I write them down, other things cause some synapses in my brain to fire and a few new connections are made and these new insights are noted down too. At the end my notes are not always completely coherent but there is usually enough for me to take my learning further later even if it’s only looking up the web links and buying yet another book on Amazon. Of course sometimes I never look at my notes again but the act of making those notes in the first place signifies a deeper connection with the material than if I just sit there watching and listening. I guess that, in some small way, the act of note taking turns me from a passive learner into an active learner.

So, if we find notes useful in a face-to-face environment why not also use them in e-learning? Most people don’t seem to. Maybe the fact that they have control over the speed of the delivery and because they can repeat bits notes are less relevant. Links and book references are even handled automatically – generally they are just one click away. A few years ago I worked on an e-learning programme for an NHS Trust and we discovered that nurses were much more likely to make notes compared to doctors.

When I was working on e-learning projects back in 2001 one of the popular innovations was a live notepad which was built into the e-learning programme. The idea was that it would be pretty useful if the learner could make notes in the e-learning as they went along. In practice of course pretty much no one used the built-in notepad and it gradually became extinct – though you do occasionally still see it around.

So is note taking in e-learning relevant or useful? Are we missing a trick by not considering how this relatively simple activity contributes to the overall learning experience?

Is there any research on the benefits of note taking?

A quick search on the web reveals lots of research on note taking and also on note taking systems (such as the Cornell System Research, of university level students in particular identifies two key purposes of note taking. Encoding and external storage.

“With regards to learning, note-taking benefits have been placed in two categories: Encoding and External Storage (Carter & Van Matre, 1975). Encoding benefits are accrued through the act of note-taking. The act of recording an idea in notes facilitates learning, regardless of whether the notes are later reviewed. External Storage benefits are derived from students reviewing their notes. In this case, notes are useful as documents that can be reviewed prior to tests.”

For me the concept of encoding is the one that drives my note taking. The writing down and/or visualisation of ideas and concepts helps me to ‘see’ the material from my own experiential viewpoint. For me it’s about being able to connect the new material satisfactorily with the stuff I already know.

So should note taking be encouraged in e-learning?

So two questions to finish and hopefully to encourage some debate. Firstly, should we bother about whether our e-learners make notes or not? Secondly, if we do see the value in encouraging note taking what devices can we employ from a learning design perspective?


Author: John Curran

John is a passionate advocate of online learning. He has worked with a wide range of clients on e-learning strategies and has developed over 100 e-learning courses ranging from fire safety through to selling skills and management development. He also has considerable experience of online learning platforms and has been involved in the design and development of a number of online learning portals. His mission is to use the latest web and mobile technologies to free learning from the confines of the classroom.
Twitter: @designedlearnin


  1. Sam Burrough says:

    Hi John, really liked your post today, probably because it’s something I’ve been thinking about quite a bit recently. I saw this book in Foyles a few weeks ago ( ) have a look if you’ve got time. Basically it aims to expand the vocabulary of children by getting them to draw relevant doodles to help them remember the meaning of the words. It give step by step instructions on how to draw them and it’s presented in a really attractive style.

    It struck me as an interesting way to make all types of learning more engaging, but in particular it could be used to make webinars, online classrooms or whatever you like to call them, more engaging and memorable. Imagine if you came up with some simple doodles for your key learning outcomes and showed step by step instructions on how to draw them by the side of your main slide content. It may be too prescriptive for some but I think it could add an extra dimension to making something that can be quite passive, more engaging.

  2. (English as a second language) Thank you John for this question. Indeed I have been working too from 1998 to 2000 on CD rom learning projects and I can remember we would try to incorporate some note taking facilities. It was aimed at kids though.
    I think we can all recognize in the behaviour you describe when facing a learning event. I carry on taking note even if the slides are available. I want to have my own understanding and story of the event, not the speaker’s.
    I worked for an elearning company for 4 years and very few clients asked for this feature. We very seldom propose it too. In fact we did it most when we were designing serious games as learners would have to take note of interview results or specific hints to carry on.

    I agree with the encoding added value of note taking. Writing down things help us to really “engrave” the knowledge”. But we could also say that taking 5 minutes after the end of a learning event and try to sum up in our own words would help if done properly (meaning really taking these 5 minutes).

    in fact, it is not from my point of view a matter of bothering whether learners take note or not, it’s about facilitating their way to encoding their learning. Nowadays in most courses, I assume this is more or less the role of the evaluation quiz online at the end to validate. But I agree it is not satisfactory for people loving to put in their own words what they experienced. Tomorrow, it should be more about offering them places and tools to either store their thoughts or share them. (I always want to discuss the event just after with a colleague or a friend, it’s like going to the movie then review all the film together, I hate going alone…).

    I would then go for a kind of public place online available during and after the e-learning event so people can encode by sharing their thoughts on the topic, typing down what they just went through. And why not being able to scan our mindmaps and all scribbling to upload this à part of the experience. To be able to associate a “standardized course” with our personal enhancement.
    I am not sure it is the same as note taking but it is for me the best translation of it.
    Your thoughts?

  3. very interesting idea and the book looks great. Thanks for sharing!

  4. Sam – Glad you liked the post – I enjoyed writing it! Like all writing it also made me think a lot more about why note taking is important and why as learning architects we should be encouraging it – in online as well as offline learning. I just hate that moment when at the start of a presentation people ask ”Will the slides be available?’. Normally I say yes but it’s good to take your own notes anyway. Love your idea (based on that wonderful book reference) to artificially get the audience involved in notetaking. Must try that I think – would certainly work for me as a very visual person.

  5. Anne-Laure – I agree that in e-learning we probably rely on the final quiz to ‘engrave’ the learning but of course it’s a very poor way to do this – the engraving will not be very deep for sure! Your idea to create a sort of space to share ‘notes’ and make connections is interesting. I have always thought that after a presentation it would be so interesting to see the notes everyone made (I admit to sometimes peeking at the notes of the people sitting around me). I have used discussion and assignments in online learning to try and encourage some of this but I think there is scope for something more clever…now you have got me thinking! Merci encore!

  6. Dave Middleton says:

    Hi John, really enjoyed this posting. I am interested in the differences between face to face and online teaching. I’ve just started a blog to start putting my thoughts down ( But I was sitting here reading your blog and I looked down and balanced somewhat precariously on my lap is an old fashioned notebook, which also contains notes from articles that I have written. I too have been involved in some design of courses and we found the electronic notebook was hardly ever used. I think there remains a place for a mixed economy in these things. Even eith the advent of more mobile devices it seems that the portability of paper still holds sway. I take my notebook on the train, into coffee shops and use it at home. I don’t need to plug it in, or worry about whether it is sunny or not. The only thing that can go wrong is I run out of pages (but then theres always the margins) or the pen doesn’t work. Many thanks for the thoughtful posting.
    Dave Middleton

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