Probing Memory and Connecting New Concepts to Old Neural Networks: Note taking as an Invaluable “Active-Learning” Tool to Stimulate Reading Comprehension.

The act of note taking can be viewed as a freewriting, or exploratory writing, exercise. There are different activities one can undertake to promote free writing as an active learning tool and note taking can be viewed as a subset of that among other strategies. It’s important to note that all these different kinds of writing-to-learn low stakes exercises all tackle a different side of the writing-to-learn process the brain engages in. As a result these writing tasks stimulate different parts of the brain. Kellogg (2008) explains that the frontal lobes of the brain, which seldom reach full maturity until age twenty-three to thirty, are needed for complex writing tasks that require writers first to wrestle with advanced, “domain-specific” knowledge and then to read their emerging texts from the audience’s perspective. The strain on working memory can be reduced, Kellogg argues, by earlier scaffolding exercises that encourage students to take notes, generate ideas during pre-writing or to make an outline. These different kinds of tasks apparently activate different parts of the brain.

Another study by biologist James Zull (2002), shows that all new learning must be linked to preexisting neural networks already in the learner’s brain. Teachers can’t simply transfer a concept from their own brains into students’ brains, because a teacher’s neural networks are the products of his or her own life history and don’t exist within the learner’s brain. Consequently, the learner must build the new concepts on neural networks already present. Informal writing assignments aimed at helping students probe memory, connect new concepts to old networks, dismantle blocking assumptions, and help understand the significance of the new concept are particularly valuable. Note taking is therefore the ideal method of adding information to concepts that are already present in neural networks and to connect new concepts to old networks.

One note taking strategy is to, as an instructor, show students the instructor’s own note-taking and responding process. Just as it helps students to see a skilled writer’s rough drafts, it helps them to see a skilled reader’s marked-up text, marginal notations, and note-taking system. Bring in a book or article full of your own margin notes and underlinings, along with entries you made in your note system. Show the students what sort of things you write in the margins. Explain what you underline and why. If your reading is part of a scholarly project, show them how you take notes and how you distinguish between what the author is saying and your own reflections on the material.

Teach students “what it says” and “what it does”. A helpful way for students to understand structural function in a text is to show them how to write “what it says” and “what it does” statements for each paragraph (Ramage, Bean and Johnson, 2009; Bean, Chappell, and Gillam, 2011; Bruffee, 1993). A “what it says “statement is a summary of the paragraph’s content— The paragraph’s stated or implied or implied topic sentence. A “what it does” statement describes the paragraph’s purpose or function within the essay: for example, “Provides evidence for the author’s first main reason,” “Summarizes an opposing view,” “provides statistical data to support a point,” or “uses an analogy to clarify the idea in the previous paragraph.” These “what it does” statements are helpful ways to condense ideas accurately by getting to the core of an argument during the note taking activity.

Another productive method which John C. Bean advocates, is the “marginal notes” approach, where he claims that every time one has the urge to highlight or underline something, one should instead opt to: “write out in the margins why you wanted to underline it. Why is that passage important? Is it a major new point in the argument? A significant piece of support? A summary of the opposition? A particularly strong or particularly weak point?” (Bean 177). The margins should therefore be used to summarize the text, ask questions, give assent or to protest vehemently. The goal here is to get students to carry on lively dialogue with the author in the margins. Additionally, this approach can spark a class discussion if students are asked to read from their margin notes. This strategy promotes an active learning approach wherein the note taking process itself addresses noteworthy problems with the object of study, i.e.:  unclarities and points of interest gradually will manifest themselves in the margin notes. These noteworthy items eventually could lead to compelling research topics, which form the basis of strong research questions.

Another helpful tool when taking note are the “graphic organizers”. For some students representing a text visually is more powerful than representing it through marginal notations, traditional outlining, or even summary writing. Graphic organizers can take the form of flowcharts, concept maps, tree diagrams, sketches or drawings. Robert and Roberts (2008) give their students choices in how they want to represent their deep reading of a text (on a given day students might submit a summary, a page of notes, or even a song) but they particularly recommend graphic organizers.

Another method that benefits this act of active learning quite well in generating a deep creative engagement with the primary text of study is the “Cornell Method,” which takes the following approach:

  1. Record: During the lecture, use the note-taking column to record the lecture using telegraphic sentences.
  2. Questions: As soon after class as possible, formulate questions based onthe notes in the right-hand column. Writing questions helps to clarify meanings, reveal relationships, establish continuity, and strengthen memory. Also, the writing of questions sets up a perfect stage for exam-studying later.
  3. Recite: Cover the note-taking column with a sheet of paper. Then, looking at the questions or cue-words in the question and cue column only, say aloud, in your own words, the answers to the questions, facts, or ideas indicated by the cue-words.
  4. Reflect: Reflect on the material by asking yourself questions, for example: “What’s the significance of these facts? What principle are they based on? How can I apply them? How do they fit in with what I already know? What’s beyond them?
  5. Review: Spend at least ten minutes every week reviewing all your previous notes. If you do, you’ll retain a great deal for current use, as well as, for the exam.


Bean, John C. Engaging Ideas: The Professor’s Guide to Integrating Writing,      Critical Thinking, and Active Learning in the Classroom, 2nd ed. San Francisco, CA: John Wiley & Sons, Inc, 2011.

Bean, J.C., Chappell, V., and Gillam, A. Reading Rhetorically. (3rd ed.) New York: Longman, 2011.

Pauk, Walter. “The Cornell Method.” How to Study in College 7/e. Boston: Houghton Mifflin Company, 2011.

Ramage, J.D., Bean, J.C., and Johnson. J. The Allyn and Bacon Guide to Writing. (5th ed.) New York: Longman, 2009.

Roberts, J.C., and Roberts, K.A. “Deep Reading, Cost/Benefit, and the construction of Meaning: Enhancing Reading Comprehension and Deep learning in Sociology Courses.” Teaching Sociology, 2008, 36, 125-140.

Zull, J. E. The art of Changing the Brain: Enriching the Practice of Teaching by Exploring the biology of Learning. Sterling, Va.: Stylus, 2002.