Blue Line

Taking Note of Note Taking

September 24, 2013  By Brent Snook

995 words – MR

Taking note of note taking
A scientific-based investigative tool

by Sarah MacDonald, Brent Snook and Zak Keeping

In the August/September 2013 issue of former senior federal prosecutor Brad Smith made a very compelling case that note taking is a useful tool for prosecuting cases successfully. In short, he pointed out how well note taking enhances perceptions of an investigating officer’s credibility when testifying and subsequently assists in proving the facts of a case.

Note taking is also valuable to the investigative process. To understand why it is a useful investigative tool, we first need to consider briefly how memory works. Once an event is attended to (i.e., an investigator listens to an account from a witness), there are three main stages of the memory process.

The investigator must encode the information into memory, store it and retrieve it at a later date (e.g., to answer questions about the interview). Not all information will survive throughout this three-stage process and there are a number of factors that can reduce the likelihood that it will be stored successfully and retrieved. During note taking tasks people might (a) not pay attention to all information or (b) not rehearse the information that was attended to. Without attention and rehearsal the memory may not survive.

Taking notes can safeguard against the two previously-mentioned threats. Note taking promotes the encoding of information because it increases attention, organization of that material and elaborative processing of ideas (<Einstein, Morris, & Smith, 1985>). Taking notes also facilitates storage through the act of reviewing the noted information ().

Investigative interviewing is a demanding mental task requiring much attention and memory for many details. Negative consequences may arise if an interviewer fails to remember or comprehend what an interviewee said. For example, forgetting may prevent interviewers from identifying the people, locations, actions and times that require detailed probing. Poor note taking may also reduce the ability to identify important discrepancies in case facts (e.g., the accounts of witnesses compared against the account provided by the suspect).

Although empirical research on the value of note taking for investigative interviewers is lacking, there is a wealth of knowledge about its effectiveness from other domains such as education. A number of empirical studies have reported its positive effects on memory. For example, gathered 57 studies that investigated the performance of note-takers compared to listeners – neither group had the opportunity to review their notes – and found that those who took notes outperformed those who did not in how well they comprehended the material. Recent preliminary research in the investigative interviewing context (by the second author of this article) has shown that note-takers recall more information than listeners and this effect is more substantial when people take quality notes.

Furthermore, and demonstrated that giving people the opportunity to review their notes resulted in even greater benefits than just taking notes. also provided evidence that reviewing notes multiple times is more beneficial than reviewing them just once. Research also suggests that the type of notes can affect the level of effectiveness that note taking has on memory for details.

<Kiewra, DuBois, Christian, McShane, Meyerhoffer and Roskelley (1991)> found that participants who organized notes under headings recalled more information than those who used a conventional style of note taking (e.g., a bulleted list of details in chronological order). Additionally, showed that note taking is especially beneficial when the note-taker has a limited amount of prior information on the topic. This is important for interviewers because oftentimes suspects or witnesses are providing previously unlearned information.

Reviewing notes is also thought to have a positive effect on the relationship between the interviewer and interviewee. The accurate summarizing of notes aloud by the interviewer is thought to show active listening and genuine concern for what is being said. Further, summarizing provides the interviewee with the opportunity to expand upon and confirm what was said <(Shepherd, 2007)>.

Together, the abundance of research on note taking supports its value as an investigative tool. Not only can it add credibility to an officer’s statements, it may be able to help improve investigations by facilitating recall and comprehension of investigative details.

Although additional research into its benefits for investigative interviewing of witnesses and suspects is ongoing, our initial findings are consistent with the many positive conclusions about the value of note taking that have been made in other areas.


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Shepherd, E. (2007). Investigative interviewing: The conversation management approach. Oxford: Oxford UP.
Smith, B. (2013, August/September). Note taking can make or break a reputation or a case. Blue Line Magazine, 20-21.


Sarah MacDonald ( is a third year PhD student, Zak Keeping ( is a psychology honours student and Brent Snook ( is a professor of psychology, all at Memorial University of Newfoundland.

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