Date of Award

Spring 1-1-2019

Document Type


Degree Name

Doctor of Philosophy (PhD)

First Advisor

Alice F. Healy

Second Advisor

Eliana Colunga

Third Advisor

Michael C. Mozer

Fourth Advisor

Michael C. Stallings

Fifth Advisor

Tamara Sumner


The fact that research on note taking extends as far back as the early 1900’s is unsurprising as it is a practice that is ubiquitous throughout our lives. Note taking helps us to retain information even when there is no opportunity to review the notes. This phenomenon is known as the encoding effect or the note-taking effect. Much of the research investigating the note-taking effect focuses on the impact of note-taking media or note-taking strategy on the size of the effect. However, there is no consensus on the cognitive mechanisms underlying the note-taking effect. When discussed, there are three primary hypotheses of cognitive processing during note-taking: generative processing, cognitive effort, and sustained attention. After thoroughly comparing these hypotheses, there were only three unique cognitive mechanisms that required further investigation: generative processing, summarization, and sustained attention. Therefore, the purpose of this investigation was to compare the separate effects of the three cognitive mechanisms in relation to the note-taking effect.

Two experiments were designed to compare generative processing to (a) sustained attention and (b) summarization. Generative processing is the active construction of associations between novel information and prior knowledge. Generative processing is most cited as the explanation for the note-taking effect. Summarization forces the learner to identify the most pertinent information to create a coherent synopsis. This process thereby facilitates retention and comprehension. Sustained attention, in this context, is selectively concentrating on novel information while ignoring all irrelevant distraction. Experiment 1 in the present investigation, through the measurement of task-relevant and task-irrelevant distraction, found that sustained attention is positively related to retention and generative processing is negatively associated with retention. Analyses of the content of the notes revealed that students are more likely to take summary style notes when not given specific instruction and moreover, the rating of summary style is positively correlated with performance on the retention test. Experiment 2 found that generative processing impeded and summarization facilitated retention. Therefore, although most cited for the benefits of note taking, generative processing appears to be detrimental to retention. This conclusion was deduced from both internal (distraction reports) and external (test performance) measures.