While preparing a training session on conducting effective webinars, I read The New Virtual Classroom by Ruth Colvin Clark and Ann Kwinn. When I give presentations, I always have handouts for note-taking ― in part, because I always take notes when I’m in a learning environment. I was really surprised by what the authors had to say about note-taking in webinars and other learning events.
Estimated reading time: 3 minutes
When I attend a good webinar I type notes at my computer and use Snagit® to capture visuals that are particularly good. (Okay, I check email too.) I’m never sure if I am going to get the instructor’s slides at the end of the session and I want to remember the salient points. I got into the habit of taking notes during my formal education. I’m pretty sure when I studied instructional design, I learned that the act of writing thoughts in your own words helped process new information and integrate these ideas with information stored in long-term memory. I’ve been a devoted note-taker for many years.
When I deliver training, I use handouts to facilitate learners’ note-taking and draw attention to important concepts. I was interested to find out if The New Virtual Classroom authors had specific recommendations for webinar handouts.
Clark and Kwinn say note-taking during instructor-led events adds irrelevant cognitive load! They cite studies on note-taking that say:
- Student notes are ineffective because they are incomplete. Notes usually have fewer than 40 percent of the important lecture ideas.
- Note-taking provides no significant learning benefit for adult learners with higher-order learning goals.
- Note-taking demands more mental effort than reading or other learning assignments.
How could my ideas about note-taking be so wrong? Could note-taking really increase cognitive load? After thinking about it, I realized that when you take notes, you are recording what was just stated while the instructor is continuing on to the next thought. Your attention is divided. That accounts for the cognitive load increase. Wow, I had not thought about it that way before.
I’ve got to reconcile this new advice against note-taking with the knowledge that we can only store five to nine chunks of information in working memory. Presentations to professional audiences often have more than nine things to remember. That’s why I write things down — because there are lots of things I want to remember.
When we offer workplace training, our ultimate goal is to improve performance on the job. Work or job aids enhance transfer of learning to on-the-job performance. Handouts recommended in The New Virtual Classroom include :
- Step-by-step procedure guides
- Summary tables
Handouts outlining important concepts with places for minimal note-taking are a good solution. A few quick notes allow learners to personalize or add context to the speaker’s notes.
When I think about it, I refer to notes when studying for a test or preparing training. When learning is informal, I rarely go back to notes. The most effective learning takes place when you devote your full attention to the subject. Taking notes may not be as important as I previously thought. That doesn’t mean I won’t create handouts, but I will make sure they minimize note-taking and serve as good job aids.