You can make note taking easy.
It was my first semester in college and I was ready to start kicking-butt in class. I was convinced I was going to give up on my lazy habits and become a “good student.” Little did I know, it was my lazy habits that could make class easy.
I experimented with a number of note-taking strategies. I played with the Cornell Method. I mapped my mind so many times it’s hard to believe I still couldn’t remember where anything was in there. I took my laptop to class (and always focused hard enough to take a note or two.) Every strategy I tried for note-taking failed miserably.
It was out of frustration that I discovered the first step to my solution.
I couldn’t take another class of taking notes. I hated it. I just gave up because the notes never seemed to help anyway. Instead, I just sat down in class. I kept my hands away from my pencil. And… I listened. Instead of scrambling to write the words down, I just listened like it was a friend talking to me.
I can still remember the results today. Later that first week our teacher handed out a pop-quiz. I aced it without even stressing. My mind was blown. What have I done!?! Just listening to the words my teacher told me had given me a score 10-15 points more than what I’d expect.
I continued to experiment with this listening strategy. Eventually, I learned it’s flaws. Sure… listening is great for learning. I could usually get away with only listening if I was tested in a couple days but after a week or two my memory would start to fade and I’d understand why I needed notes…
Here is what I discovered:
Why You Don’t Film Class
I’m sure you’ve had this idea before. I’ve certainly had it before.
Why don’t you just film your teacher giving the lecture? After class you can rewatch it a number of times. Eventually, you’ll know it all. Heck, you don’t even need a video. All you need it an audio recorder. Right?
This strategy may sound good but I’m going to tell you why it sucks.
Class is too damn long! Imagine listening to the lecture 2 or 3 more times. Now listen to it another time. Then another… This won’t help you learn the information. At best it’s going to hypnotize you into thinking you’ve learned the information. (For the regular readers, it’s not using any active recall. It’s just giving you false confidence!)
More information isn’t your goal with taking notes from class. If more information was your goal then it would be best to film it.
Your goal with note-taking is to capture better information. This is the better information you want to focus on:
What Notes Are Used For
1. Key Points
You don’t need to record every date or figure in your notes. You just need to write down enough information to find the information you need later.
Your notes are not your chance to write your own textbook. You have a limited amount of time. You might want to think about your notes as an outline for writing your own textbook. Sure… you need to write the important major points down but you don’t need to add information you can look up later.
Notes should not be your study material. They should just be a study guide. They should point you to the parts in your textbook that matter most for the class. (This applies 95% of the time. There are times when I’d make an exception. Special thanks to Katie for bring this up. Congrats on Brown!)
2. Teacher Emphasis
This is the most overlooked advantage of note-taking.
Whenever your teacher emphasizes a point, it’s a safe bet you’ll be tested on it. Some teachers go as far as saying, “this will be on the test.” Write that stuff down!
The best resource you have for setting priorities is your teacher. In class, your teacher is probably laying those priorities out.
Some teachers write their lecture notes while directly looking at the test they plan on giving. Point by point they’ll mention everything that’s important (and avoid the mass of the information that won’t be tested.)
When it comes time to study, your first priority should be the points your teacher emphasized.
Make this easy while you’re taking notes. Underline important stuff. Or star it. Or build ornate boxes around it. Or color it pretty. Or do whatever it takes to remind you what your teacher thinks is most important.
3. Retain focus
This advantage isn’t always worth the effort.
Note taking may help you keep focused on what your teacher is saying. If it does then make sure to set a pace where you can take advantage of it. If it doesn’t help you focus then follow the strategies I’ll be recommending later and keep your notes minimal.
Classic Notetaking Systems
There are a ton of good notetaking systems that can be used.
The strategies I’m going to recommend can be used with virtually any notetaking system. For a more thorough explanation of these strategies you should check out this site.
Here are the main ones I’ve experimented with:
The Cornell Method
The Cornell Method consists of splitting your page in two sides. On the right side you write the majority of your notes. In the process, leave plenty of space to expand on the information later. Emphasize “keeping up” more than writing full thoughts out. (I’ll go into more detail about “keeping up” later.)
On the left side you can write cues to help you remember what’s on the right side. These are essentially headers in most cases.
After class you should expand on the right section of your notes. Try to fill in the blank spaces with information you failed to write the first time through.
For studying, use the cues on the left side of the page and cover the information on the right side. Try to remember the information on the right side using only the cues.
Notice how this note taking strategy emphasizes active recall for learning. First, you’re recalling stuff you missed in class. Second, you’re recalling to study those notes.
I recommend this note taking strategy if you want to keep active in class. This isn’t ideal for minimalist note-taking. It’s best for those who prefer to take notes to stay focused.
The Outlining Method
Cornell notes are great for studying (as long as you can keep up.)
The Outlining Method can be simple and minimalist. I typically use it when keeping up with the teacher is impractical.
This is the strategy I grew up and learned. It’s essentially outlining your teacher’s lecture. When your teacher brings up a new topic, make a heading. Add a subheading. Then add the minor points neatly organized below them.
Traditionally, this can be just as tough to keep up with as the Cornell Method. My recommendation is to use this differently. As I’ll say a number of times in this article, focus on the key points. This is particularly true with outlining.
The Mapping Method
When you’re committed to keeping your notes simple, use the mapping method.
If you’re doing it right, you’ll have plenty of time to sketch up your notes while listening closely to everything the teacher is saying.
Write your notes and then draw lines of how those notes connect to each other. Pick the size of what you’re writing based on how important a point it is to understand (or how big of a point it is.)
You’ll end up with classic map of ideas with circles and lines connecting them all over the page. They look good. They’re usually effective to help you listen. They’re not too complicated. The only problem is you’ll probably end up taking fewer notes than you could. (I usually consider that a positive.)
Also, if you end up having too much fun with this then you could easily get distracted and stop listening! That’s a big problem. Don’t do that!
The 3 Secrets Of Quality Notes
These three principles can help guide you through your note taking process.
They’re focused on two important distinctions:
One: Listening to (and hearing and understanding) your teacher is dramatically better than losing focus to write notes can.
Two: It’s way easier to remember what your teacher said when you have notes that you can retrace your teachers thoughts with.
1. Limit your notes
Don’t write too many notes.
How many notes are too many?
If you’re writing full sentences then you’re writing too many notes.
If you’re writing exact quotes then you’re writing too many notes. (You’re not a stenographer.)
If you look up at the teacher every few minutes to try and catch up with what the teacher is saying because you were distracted then you’re writing too many notes.
If you’re fingers are sore (and you don’t have a medical condition) you’re writing too many notes.
If you never put your pencil down in between points your teacher makes then you’re writing too many notes.
Any of these sound familiar? You’re writing too many notes!
Remember, it’s not how much you write down that matters. What matters is “what” you write down. Two hundred minor points are worthless compared to a single valuable one.
How can you fix this?
It can be difficult to learn what to write down while taking notes. It’s a learning process. In the long term, you’ll need to practice to figure out what’s important. Eventually, it will click.
That doesn’t help in the short term though. In the short term just use one of these strategies:
- Put the pen down in between every note. Take a breath before you pick it back up and make sure it’s important.
- Skip notes. If everything looks important to you then nothing is important. Stop writing notes and listen every few minutes.
- Don’t write down any point until your teacher mentions it twice. Long term, this is risky. Short term, this will help you get only the important stuff.
- Go through the motions of listening. Look at the teacher. Nod once in awhile. Act like you’re listening intently. Force yourself to put notes on the back burner.
2. Listen more than you write
Notes are best used as cues to remember what you heard listening to the teacher.
Never write longer than you listen.
People aren’t good at writing and listening. While your brain is thinking about the previous point and writing it down, your teacher is moving on. If you want to keep up then you’re going to have to treat note-taking as a supplement and not a goal.
3. Use your notes as a guide (not a resource.)
Notes are not a resource you should be trying to learn directly from.
They’re just a study guide.
They can help you find the important points that your teacher emphasized. Then you can use other resources to actually study the details of the subject.
Cornell notes are a reasonable exception but you need to be damn sure you kept up with the teacher to use them. If you were struggling to keep up with the points your teacher was making then it’s best just to use your notes as a starting point.
Did your teacher mention something?
It’s just that simple.
Don’t get caught up in the weeds of notetaking. It’s a simple process.
The more complicated you try to make your notes, the more you’re going to miss the most important strategy you have: listening.
Listen to the teacher first. Take notes second.
How A “Dum” Guy Got Straight A’s
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