Note taking

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The most valuable learning resources are the ones you create yourself, since the process of creating the resources reinforces the knowledge and skills you are gaining. A good set of notes from your classes is an essential tool for your success. How should you go about creating a “good” set of notes?

Two things to avoid

1. During a lecture, do not try to write down word for word what the faculty is saying. Cognitive load theory teaches us that our working memory has a limited capacity – making it extremely difficult to focus both on listening to the teacher and writing down what they are saying at the same time.

2. After the lecture, do not store your notes away, only to bring them out again just before an assessment. The real value of notes is in the process of reworking them and rewriting them after the class. This is a key part of processing the important information and transforming it into knowledge in your long-term memory.

Creating a “good” set of notes

1. Make sure you are well prepared before the lecture. Do any pre-reading or tasks the faculty asks for. Consider what you already know about the topic. Consider how the topic fits in with what you have already learned on the course, and what you have learned in other courses.

2. During the lecture, identify the key points the teacher is making, the key concepts he or she is explaining, and note these down. Learn to listen out for “signposts” in the teacher’s discourse, phrases like “this is a major concept” , “to sum up”, “a good example is…”, “this is important because…” and so on. This type of phrase characterizes the information and allows you to make a judgement about whether it is important or not.

3. After the class, in the evening or the following day, write your notes out again. Use mind maps or diagrams to show how ideas, and concepts fit together. Highlight in different colors if you find this helpful. Look again at notes from previous classes to see connections between previous information and new information. Referring constantly back to previous notes will reinforce your learning and make recalling information much easier when you need it (during exams for example).

4. Organize and store your notes throughout the course in a logical and easily accessible way, so that you can come back to them when you need them

5. A widely used technique is the Cornell note-taking system. Two short videos from Cornell University explain how to use this technique. However there are many ways to take notes – the important thing is to find the way that suits you best.

Typing or handwriting?

This is down to personal preference, but most people still write more quickly than they can type and there is some research evidence that the act of physically writing can help to fix information more securely in the long-term memory. A compromise might be to handwrite notes during a class and then write them up in electronic form afterwards. This would have the added benefit of reducing social media distraction during class. Another possibility would be to use tablet software which transforms handwriting to word processed text.

Using other people’s notes

Some students share lecture notes, circulating them between classes, handing them down from semester to semester. This may help if you have missed a class but using other people’s notes is not ideal practice. The real value of note taking is the way it forces you to process information, to fix it in your long-term memory, to recall it to your short-term memory, in other words, to learn. By using other people’s notes, you miss out on this key benefit. Other problems include the fact that you have no guarantee of the quality of the notes, important points may be missing, the information may be misrepresented, incorrect or simply out of date.