Taking notes is one of the most important skills we can develop as students and lifelong learners. Throughout education, our teachers continually urge us to give note-taking our best efforts, and not without good reason. Writing things down, in particular when done by hand, is indispensable to learning and delivers numerous benefits such as:
- Better comprehension of difficult concepts. You can engage with the content and distill it to language you can understand.
- Mental clarity. Systematically writing things down irons out your thoughts and organises information into a coherent format.
- Information retention. A passive reception of new information is unlikely to become long-term knowledge. Taking notes, however, builds everything from facts and figures to academic arguments into your memory.
- Boost to creativity. Effective note-taking encourages you to record your own thoughts, recognising links between concepts and between concepts and the wider world.
- Encourages independent learning. Forgoing the need to rely on teachers and the internet to provide summaries, your autonomy in acquiring knowledge is strengthened.
That last point requires further emphasis. You can take note-taking far beyond the classroom. We all know that self-education beyond our school/university curriculums bolsters intellectual capital. Personal development resources champion reading as a core activity for lifelong success. However, passively flying through books and articles is of little use, and must be supplemented by an effective note-taking practice. Writing anything from a brief summary to a more thorough exploration focuses your attention on key themes/lessons/arguments and, should you go a step further by responding to the author’s message, encourages critical thinking.
In other words: taking notes throughout formal education facilitates learning as a continual, lifelong goal. Our age of technology bombards us with information. Notetaking, in turn, acts as an antidote for overwhelm and captures the quintessence of it all.
However, effective is a key word. And what exactly distinguishes effective note-taking from a waste of time? Why do some students spend hours writing out pages of information to no avail and mediocre grades?
I think the answer lies in technique and engagement. Bad note-taking feels easy: it creates the illusion of productivity, an escape from more demanding revision techniques such as past papers and flashcards. Good note-taking fully engages the brain, demanding you synthesise, organise and review the topic in question, and leaves you with a wholesome understanding. As stated by LifeHacker, ‘notes are tricky, because you want to keep things simple, and get down only the amount of information needed to help you recall it later’.
Because we all learn in different ways, not every note-taking method will work for you. Finding one that does requires experimentation and practice. However, there are several dos and don’ts we can all keep in mind, whether in school, throughout your career, or recreational learning, to make taking notes a worthwhile and fulfilling habit.
(DISCLAIMER: keep in mind that I am still a student myself, and far from being an expert in this topic. Everything in this post is based on my opinion, experience and research, so do take my advice with a pinch of salt!)
The Dos of Taking Notes
I’m mentioning this at the start because writing your notes once and discarding them is time wasted – you are likely to forget most of what you’ve learned. Review your notes within 24 hours to consolidate the information and refine any weak areas.
Rewriting or improving
Rewriting and condensing notes is a good idea when preparing for exams. Notes taken from speech or within time constraints can be messy and unfiltered; to optimise your learning, return to these and arrange them into a neater format, removing redundant information and thinking about the content at a deeper level.
On the other hand, some people prefer to ‘airbrush’ old notes as opposed to writing them from scratch. When writing from a book or a lesson, leave enough space to add extra information, perspectives and links when you come to review your work. A personal preference of mine is using post-it notes to expand on ideas or add extra insights based on different sources.
Clarity and readability
If you’re like me and haven’t been blessed with Tumblr-worthy handwriting, increase readability by leaving sufficient space between words and sections. Don’t pack too much writing into a small area. While spending hours on presentation shifts your focus from the core of the learning process and is not something I’d recommend, ruminating over what a sentence is trying to say can be just as much of a disruption. At the very least, strive for legibility.
Keeping them concise
When you read, you should strive to do so in as much detail as possible. You should strive to understand different perspectives on an issue and submerge yourself in perceptive analysis. This is why the best teachers always provide background information and link concepts/topics to the wider world: to enrich understanding and show the relevance of knowledge beyond an exam paper.
The purpose of notes, however, is not to replicate books, articles and lessons/lectures word-by-word. In fact, where many students go wrong is trying to do so. They blindly copy everything they see, therefore missing out an opportunity to synthesise information and understand the broader point an author is trying to make. Notes should act as overviews for future reference, as verbal prompts and cues. I.e., reading a two-sentence summary of an author’s argument should help you recall further developments that can be made to said argument, evidence and criticisms.
To streamline your note-taking process, be selective about what you write down, searching for redundancies and ways reduce paragraphs to sentences and sentences to phrases, or even words.
Organising your notes has several scales. Firstly, the page in itself should be organised and arranged into a practical structure. Don’t write out blocks of information without a clear indication of where they link. Include headings and subheadings. Use numbered lists and bullet points. Reserve a space for key terms. Organise your notes in a way that works for you (more about this below), but remember that poorly formatted notes with little regard for compartmentalisation – the allocation of information to different categories – will translate into mental clutter.
The organisation of notes should also take place at a ‘macro’ scale. This involves arranging subjects and topics in different folders, using dividers and decluttering by scrapping any you are not planning to use. Some people like to create an index at the start of each notebook or folder. Whatever system you pick, physical disarray must be avoided. Not only will it needlessly disrupt finding the right notes at a later date, but plunge your mind into chaos seeing as physical organisation reflects how information is stored in your mind.
Finding a method/structure that helps memorisation
The central purpose of note-taking is information retention and comprehension. Therefore, when testing out different strategies, focus chiefly on what helps you better understand and recall tricky concepts. Ignore what everyone else is doing and tailor your methods to your preferred learning style, building from a framework to something more personalised.
For example, the Cornell method, which was designed by Dr Walter Pauk of Cornell University and involves organising your page as displayed in the image below, or the use of tables/charts may benefit people who memorise structure. For instance, recalling the headings of a table and how it is organised reminds me of the information assigned to each row/column. Visual learners thrive of flow diagrams and mind maps. Linear note-taking methods (the use of subheadings followed by bullet points) helps anyone who learns chronologically.
To summarise: picking a logical structure, whatever it may be in light of your learning style, reinforces your recall (visual layouts are simpler to remember than plain text) and must be given thorough attention.
The Don’ts of taking notes
Spending hours making your notes look pretty
I think we’ve all experienced the envy of entering Pinterest and Instagram to photos of notes that resemble Louvre masterpieces in comparison to our chicken scratch. We gawk at expansive stationary collections and designer notebooks. The same phenomenon applies to bullet journals, to the extent that we forget their chief function as planners and outlets. But there is no correlation between aesthetically pleasing and effective. Assembling a structure and assigning memorable colours to key words and concepts may be a valuable investment of your time, but an hour spent on bubblewriting titles in accordance with the standards of social media certainly isn’t.
Using notetaking as your only learning/study technique
When done correctly, taking notes is a critical skill, but should not be used as a standalone method when preparing for exams or learning in general. After all, knowing does not equate to understanding, let alone the ability to apply your knowledge in an exam situation. Students who spend all their time making notes enter the exam hall from a position of disadvantage relative to those who combine note-taking with active learning strategies such as flashcards, past papers and teaching the content to someone else.
Mindlessly and passively copying everything down
As opposed to concise, while sufficient to stimulate an association in the learner’s mind, notes brimming with redundancies and needless detail are a perilous endeavour, emerging from the trap of transcribing resources word-by-word.
Regurgitating information is not a high-level skill; learning should culminate at a deeper competence. Therefore, focus on rephrasing arguments and facts in your own words (while, of course, keeping them true to the meaning). Only write down statements without which the topic wouldn’t make sense. To further enhance the practice, add your own insights: what interests you about a particular topic? Can you spot flaws in the author’s reasoning? Can you detect links with something else you’ve read?
Now, this is on the controversial side, seeing as digital note-taking has numerous benefits, ranging from reduced paper usage to improved organisation/clarity for those whose handwriting is on the messier side. But from other perspectives, the old-fashioned method far outstrips its modern counterpart. It engenders deeper focus and facilitates information retention by narrowing the gap between you and the content, while lessening the chances of procrastination. Distractions are, after all, much harder to avoid when your favourite YouTube channel is just a click away.
Try to find a balance that works for you as an individual, and the subject/s in question. I favour handwriting my notes, for it helps me process information and retain a higher degree of flexibility. Typing them out in the final stages pulls everything together in a visually clear format. Therefore, experiment and see at which stages of the learning process typing and handwriting are at their most beneficial.
Put simply, you don’t want to find yourself in the situation of having done hours of research for an essay, just to spend hours more retracing your sources once the writing process starts. When using books/textbooks/journals/articles, write down the author’s name, the title and the page number (if applicable) before taking your notes. This will allow you to maintain academic integrity with greater ease and lessen the incentive to write everything down, by giving you a precise source to refer back to for further detail on the topic in question.
To summarise: good notetaking skills can be a priceless asset to you as a student and as a learner throughout life, aiding everything from your career to your personal and intellectual development. However, like with any set of skills, they take effort and dedication to develop. Certain mistakes, which often create the illusion of productivity, can easily undermine your efforts. So, if taking notes seems to suck up time without delivering a clear benefit, step back and reconsider your approach. Analyse where you’re going wrong – is it poor organisation, or passivity, or the inclusion of redundancies? Look to maximise the involvement of you in the notetaking process, whether by thinking deeply about the material or systemising your layout to an individual learning style.
Let me know in the comments: are you someone who enjoys taking notes? If so, how do you make this as effective as possible?
Furthermore, would you be interested in a post about my note-taking process/favourite note-taking methods?