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Learning to learn 03: Note-taking

Note-taking is an attempt to engage in a conversation with an author or speaker.” – Shane Parrish


Why take notes?

There are two good reasons to take notes:

  • Notes extend your memory because you’re able to capture more information than your working memory can hold.
  • Notes enhance your focus because you’re too busy listening, analysing, and writing to think about checking Twitter.

Another important point to consider when deciding on whether you should take notes is to understand that it isn’t so much the taking of the notes that matters but the later revision. If you’re taking notes simply to capture the information that’s on the slides, or that you can read in a book, you’re not adding much value to your learning strategy because you can probably find that information somewhere else.

But when you revise and elaborate on your notes after the lecture you’re actively engaging with the most important concepts that were presented, linking them to supplementary material, highlighting areas you don’t understand, identifying words that need defining, and consolidating information in your own mind. Combined with subsequent revision of those notes, you’re establishing these new ideas in your long-term memory, which is what really matters when it comes to learning.

And finally, there’s some evidence that, if English isn’t your first language, improving your note-taking skills might be an additional benefit for your learning. Students who are trying to translate lectures in real-time while also trying to learn new disciplinary concepts are at a serious disadvantage when they also have limited writing and note-taking skills. Improving your general writing ability, and your note-taking skills in particular, may lead to to a more general improvement in learning as well.

How should you take notes?

Questions to consider while taking notes:

  • What am I trying to remember?
  • How am I going to use this information?
  • What do I plan to do with the notes later?

Taking notes is not simply about writing down as many words as possible and believe it or not, there are entire schools of thought devoted to improving how we record experiences in our lives. While there are many note-taking systems – each providing different advantages and disadvantages – one seems to be more popular (although I’m not sure if this translates to more effective) than others for academic work.

“The Cornell method provides a systematic format for condensing and organizing notes. This system of taking notes is designed for a high school or college level student. There are several ways of taking notes, but one of the most common one is the “two column” notes.”

Notes from the lecture (or any other source) are written in the note-taking column (right hand side), usually including the main ideas and avoiding long sentence (use symbols or abbreviations instead). Relevant questions or key concepts are recorded as soon as possible in the left hand column.

A common trap that many students fall into is to capture irrelevant information and develop questions that are only tangential to the main concept being presented. This can make you feel like you’re moving forward simply because you’re taking notes, rather than focusing on capturing only what is important. The Cornell method, by limiting the space available – especially in the left-hand column – aims to keep your focus on the most important concepts.

Tips for taking better notes

  1. The first tip is simply this: Always take notes. It will help to keep your attention focused (see here for the value of focused attention) and provide you with a structure for your later revision of the lecture.
  2. Students tend to record only a few of the most important points that are presented in a source, without taking complete notes. This may be because of our limitations in capturing speech.
  3. Students tend to leave out crucial details when taking notes, like the worked examples that are provided in the session, even though examples can be vital to understand the main ideas. Make sure that your notes are detailed.
  4. Listen to the lecturer for note-taking cues that signal that important information is coming up. These signals might be a change in tone, or posture, or sometimes as clear as, “What I’m going to say next is really important.”
  5. Taking notes is only the first part of the process; review is the second. But revising your notes between writing and review may be just as important. This is when, immediatley after the lecture, you go through your notes and add additional detail that’s still fresh in your mind, before you review and elaborate on them.
  6. Replay video, audio or other recorded content. If the material you’re taking notes from is available as a recording, make sure to go through it again to update your notes and make sure that the major points have been captured. If recordings are not provided, you could ask the lecturer if you can record the audio of the session.
  7. Take handwritten notes even when you have a laptop. You’ll be more cognitively engaged with the material, leading to better recall and understanding. You’ll also be able to capture visual information from the slides e.g. graphs, images, etc. more easily than trying to take photos and then incorporate them into your notes later.

Taking notes by hand or by keyboard?

You may be wondering why anyone would ever take notes by hand if they have a laptop available (and lecturers are increasingly allowing students to use laptops in class), since most people can type faster than they can write. But this is one of the main misconceptions about note-taking i.e. that it’s about the fidelity of the information that’s captured.

Yes, taking notes with a laptop will probably result in more information being recorded. But taking notes by hand engages a different part of the brain, resulting in more analysis and interpretation during the process. It’s controversial but there seems to be some evidence that taking notes by hand leads to better recall in the long term.

The answer, as usual, is that it depends on the context and reason you’re taking notes. If taking notes by hand, consider using a large format, hardcover, ring-bound notepad as these are generally easier to write in than small notebooks. If using a laptop consider using a plain text editor as this is less distracting since you don’t spend any time trying to format your notes but can rather focus on structure and content. Whatever note-taking app you’re using, make it fullscreen to avoid distractions in other tabs and popup notifications.

What to do with your notes

It’s often the case that notes are taken during a lecture and then ignored or left unrevised until they’re “needed”, usually the day before a test. But this defeats the entire purpose of taking notes, which is to help you encode the most important information in your own long-term memory. And this is only possible through actively engaging with the notes, both immediately after the lecture and at regular intervals afterwards. The purpose of reviewing the notes fairly often is that it gives you an opportunity to link concepts from different sets of notes to others from across modules.

If you used the Cornell note-taking method and need to review the material for a test, you can cover the note-taking column (on the right) while attempting to answer the questions you posed in the keyword column (on the left).

We’ll discuss this process in more detail in a later module on Retrieval practice.


Resources

You can download a summary of these notes in English or Portuguese.*

Slideshow presentation from classroom seminar (PDF and PowerPoint)

Additional readings

Newsletters

  1. Newsletter 1 (module summary)
  2. Newsletter 2 (note-taking is active)
  3. Newsletter 3 (paper or digital?)
  4. Newsletter 4 (conclusion)

If you found this module on habits useful and haven’t yet signed up for Learning to learn, consider subscribing to the newsletter here. The weekly newsletters include reminders and short readings on the topic for the month. You can unsubscribe at any time.

If this is the first time you’re visiting the Learning to Learn project, you may also want to review the first two modules, on creating good learning habits and improving your ability to focus and avoid distractions.

* Thank you to João Paulo Venâncio (Professor Adjunto Principal) at the Curso de Licenciatura em Fisioterapia, a physiotherapy programme at CESPU (ESSVA) in Vila Nova de Famalicão, Portugal. We are extremely grateful for his contribution to this project.

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