Spatial awareness: taking advantage of your lazy brain

Last week, during breakfast, I poured orange juice in my tea. It got me thinking about the shortcuts our brains make every day, and how we can use them to our advantage when trying to improve our recall of new material.

tea and coffee jugs
Why do all these jugs look the same?

Mental shortcuts, and how they can ruin our morning cuppa

Here’s the situation – last week I took a well-earned summer break with my husband in the Lake District, and we were staying in a B&B. Due to covid-19 restrictions we were left in charge of serving our own breakfast, but the hostess had very kindly provided clear labels for everything. The milk was in a silver jug, and the orange juice was in a red jug. I am not colourblind, so this should have been a pretty easy distinction to make.

So why did I end up spoiling a perfectly good cup of English Breakfast tea? Because it was the sixth day we’d spent at the property, and up until this point the jugs had always been in the same position relative to each other. This morning, someone (I’m going to go ahead and blame my husband, because we were the only guests) had switched the jugs so that the milk was on the left, and the orange juice was on the right.

Human brains are inherently lazy, and my brain took a shortcut. The milk had been on the right for the last five days – why waste energy double-checking? These mental shortcuts, or heuristics as they’re often known, are hard-wired by evolution and hard to overcome. They are responsible for many of our worst decisions (to find out more, I highly recommend the writings of Dean Burnett) – but can we use them to our advantage?

Why do students make notes?

One of the first questions I ask students in their academic study skills lessons is:

“What is the difference between note-taking and note-making?”

After some discussion and examples, all students are able to distinguish between the relatively passive process of note-taking (copying from the board, filling in worksheets, highlighting key facts etc.) compared to the active, engaged process of note-making (concept-mapping, sketching, summarising and linking ideas).

Because of the tendency to want to make shortcuts, I know that when I ask students to make notes on a particular topic, they are likely to take the easy route – sentences and paragraphs of information, presented in a linear fashion. While they may not quite be copying from the textbook or revision guide, the layout will be very similar.

Linear note-taking is quick and easy to do, so it’s no surprise it’s the favoured technique of the time-strapped teenager. But, like so many of the decisions made by adolescent brains, it’s not particularly helpful in the longer term. Some of the keener students may go the extra millimetre and add in colour or highlighting, but my experiences with insulated jugs show that the brain can still ignore those visual clues. So how can we use our brain’s laziness to our advantage?

Boggy overgrown path
My time as an outdoor expedition leader has also given me experience of the ill-judged shortcuts people can make…

Making notes for review and retrieval practice

First, a confession. When I was a teenager, if someone told me to make a mind-map, concept map or (perish the thought) spider diagram, I would have rolled my eyes in disgust and resisted with every fibre of my being. But I’m a scientist, and everything I’ve read about the science involved suggests that students need to use space more creatively when making notes to revise from.

The image below shows a typical attempt at a summary for part of an A Level Chemistry topic on Group 2 elements and compounds:

Group 2 notes portrait linear
Portrait, linear notes – logically ordered and a perfectly good summary of the material

There are lots of good things about the notes. There are headings, subheadings, bullet points and underlining; only the key points are noted rather than copying of large chunks of text. This would be a great set of summary notes if a student wanted to know what the key points from the topic are. But now let’s compare it with a different layout of the exact same material:

Landscape orientation using a page divided into sections

What’s different about these notes? They contain exactly the same amount of the same information, with all of the text formatted in the same way. But the simple moving of information into separate locations on the page makes it much, much easier to make links in the brain, which in turn makes information easier to recall in the future.

Imagine you wanted to learn every equation, statement and explanation on this sheet of paper. Immediately you’ve given your brain a starting point to work from – it knows there are five topic areas to recall, and they are located centre, top left, top right, bottom left and bottom right.

Why landscape instead of portrait?

I could easily turn this question around – why do we write our notes portrait at all? I did some very brief research on this, and the only real reasons I could find were:

  • We’ve always used portrait for books, therefore it is cheaper to continue to use portrait
  • Something to do with animal skins
  • Something to do with the grain of paper

Since we’re not printing a book, there is no real argument for portrait. Meanwhile, landscape gives us a better overview of the relative positions of the different pieces of information on the page – it makes us move our eyes to different corners of the page.

Why not include more information?

There are two ways to interpret this question, but both really have the same answer. Why not include more detail or text in each segment? I would argue that my example above has the maximum amount of information, and had I really been making notes to prepare for a test I would probably have split this part of the topic into two separate revision sheets. Overloading the page with content will only make it harder to remember, not easier.

Alternatively, you might think that having more boxes on the page would be beneficial, but this would also lead to overload. Ideally, each notes page should have five separate areas, and each area should take no more than 10 seconds to review. This is where the real advantage lies…

Don’t these notes take a lot longer to write?

Absolutely they do, which is why so many students are put off by the approach. However, the reason they take longer is because your brain has to really think about how to condense parts of a topic into suitable ‘bite-size’ chunks of information. Your brain has to also pick out the most important and relevant information and decide what to include. All this effort is what makes the approach so successful – by the time you’ve created your summary, you have a much better understanding of how the material links together.

You then have a piece of paper which will take less than a minute to review. What do I mean by review? Look at the information in each section of the page, giving yourself 30-40 seconds. Turn the page over or cover it up, then try to recall the content from each of the five sections. You could speak it out loud, checking each section as you go, or for a real test try rewriting the sheet.


The more times you do this (making sure you space out your retrieval practice) the the more familiar you become with the content and the quicker your recall. Compare this to trying the same strategy with the first example set of notes, and you should see that the effort invested early on in note making will ultimately save you time when it comes to revision. You’re welcome!

And if you won’t take the recommendations from science, take it from a student I taught a few years ago. After consistently averaging an E grade for a term, she was persuaded to try this form of note-making along with regular, spaced retrieval practice. She had an A grade by the end of the year! I do love a happy ending, especially when it was brought about by good old-fashioned effort – and a few coloured gel pens.

coloured pens
Claire Costello-Kelly

Claire Costello-Kelly

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