Tuesday, April 26, 2011

Using partial notes to improve student performance

My own faculty center highlights a technique that I've used periodically: provide students with partial notes whose blanks they fill in. It's a good compromise between providing students notes and making them do all the work in taking notes.

Here's a description of a study about this technique:

It’s not news that students want notes provided by the professor – preferably well ahead of class time so that the notes can be printed out.  The more complete the notes are, the more students tend to like them.  But, do complete professors’ notes help students to perform  better? 
Research demonstrates that taking notes for oneself is an important technique for learning material because taking notes helps with encoding, or preparing information to enter working (short-term) memory, a necessary step on the way to incorporating information into long-term memory.  However, research has also demonstrated that students can miss up to about 50% of the relevant information in a lecture, discussion, or demonstration if they are concentrating more on recording than on attending.  So, hurried scribbling for the sake of getting information down to consider later is not effective note-taking.

Perhaps a happy middle ground is both possible and beneficial.  Two researchers tested the value of partial notes, using four sections of  an introductory psychology class that they taught as similarly as possible.  They assigned  “full notes” or “partial notes” treatments.  The full notes treatment included powerpoint slides with all information that would be presented in class.  The partial notes treatment included slides with titles, headings, and concept names, that students could fill in during class or during study time.  The researchers did not use a “no notes” treatment because they believed this might in fact disadvantage students, or at least lead to a strong perception of disadvantage.

The researchers used performance on exams and attendance as dependent variables.   They further split the exam performance into performance on lower-level (memorization) items and higher-level (conceptual) items.  They found that students with the partial notes treatment performed better than students receiving full notes – especially on exams that came later in the semester.  In addition, on the final exam, partial notes students performed better on conceptual questions.  Although the differences were not large, they were statistically significant.  Attendance was slightly (although non-significant) higher for the partial notes group, and these students were more likely to agree that having notes provided did not affect their attendance than were students who received full notes.

Because the partial notes students did better on the later exams in the class, the researchers speculated that the missing material might have helped the students to continue good learning habits such as close attention during class and reading outside of class – whereas the full notes students may have “slacked off” later in the term and relied more heavily on the notes than they should have.  This explanation was not tested in the experiment, but is a good hypothesis for follow-up.

So, if your students want notes from you but you are concerned that you may lose their attention and attendance, partial notes might be a productive way to go.
I can attest to the value of this technique. I've given students' "empty outlines" before class, with a few main points filled in and lots of blanks that they fill in based on the lecture and discussion. (One downside here is that this discourages any improvisation on your part that deviates from the full outline.) I've also done this with reading assignments, distributing partial outlines of readings before they're assigned. Students have reported this is useful not only in helping them understand the reading, but helps them develop better reading skills.

Have others used this technique, or variations on it? Have you found it successful or not?

(The study described here: Cornelius, T.L., and Owen-DeSchryver, J. (2008).  Differential effects of full and partial notes on learning outcomes and attendance.  Teaching of Psychology, 35, 6-12)


  1. Query: do you give these notes in hard copy form, and if so, who pays?
    I used to give all my students very full notes, hard copies. Then I was discouraged from doing this because of all the photocopying involved. Now, university policy is to send out electronic copies of documents whenever that's possible. This technique sounds interesting, but if I were to photocopy and give out extensive notes every class, it would probably be frowned upon :(

  2. Ben, in hard copy, yes. And while I'm generally in favor of electronic documents, I'll do this partial notes technique 2-3 times per term so as not to go overboard with copying. I think of it as a skill building technique for students as much as a comprehension tool.

  3. We're required to put some form of notes online prior to lectures, though not particularly prescribed what (powerpoint slides, handouts, etc). I think my current ones are probably too comprehensive and it has hit attendance, so was thinking of something like this.

    One problem is not making it like a childish 'fill in the blanks' game. Another is deciding how much to fill in or leave out. You could go anywhere between a blank page with just a few headings/titles to almost full notes but with the odd key word removed.

    Do the authors of this piece specify how partial the notes are or what works best?

  4. Michael - two or three times a semester would work well. I might try it. It isn't that I'm not allowed to photocopy, as long as I keep within reasonable (but undefined) limits.
    Ben ~Me - I used to put notes on-line after class for anyone who missed. Maybe I should go back to that, but it does encourage students to think that spending ten minutes reading notes is equivalent to one hour fifteen minutes discussing things in a class.

    Thanks to you both: its a useful suggestion.


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