In this edition of our Study Buddy series, we talk about the essential art of note-taking, and how to hone your technique so you’re not just taking information down, you’re taking information in.
Everyone absorbs material differently, and different students benefit from different learning styles. You can’t always control how your classes are run, but you do have some control over how you chronicle and retain each topic. The good news is there’s some research around student note-taking, that can help guide you to a better process, from lecture to test.
Let’s start with what your instrument of note-taking should be:
Laptop vs. Notebook: What’s Better?
You might find doing everything on your laptop – including taking notes – convenient, but here’s the inconvenient truth: You’re better off taking notes the old way, on paper. There are reasons for this, including both downsides to typing your notes and upsides to using a notebook. Both have studies to back them up.
One of the downsides to using your computer to take notes is obvious: distraction. When you open your laptop you’ve got the whole Internet at your fingertips… and fingertips tend to wander when your focus does. One study revealed that students using laptops for notes in class were engaged with non-coursework material a whopping 42% of the time!
Even if you’re not a tabs nomad, any email or message notification might pop up and interrupt your flow. In addition to distraction (check out our post of The Myth of Multitasking here) studies have shown students who take their notes on a laptop tend to transcribe material rather than process it, which can result in shallower learning and poorer performance on conceptual questions in testing.
The upsides of taking notes by hand begin with the converse of the above: the absence of online distraction and the tendency to take notes by concept versus transcription. But beyond that, there are some science-based reasons to choose paper over screen in note-taking. Handwriting notes is correlated with better memory of the material, for one. In fact, there’s reason to believe relying on digital means to store your information can cause long-term erosion of your memory skills in general.
Want it both ways? There are apps you can use to scan and digitize your handwritten notes, so you can organize them on your laptop and access them later. A “smart notebook” like Rocketbook comes with an app that transcribes your handwritten notes into type, so you can organize and access them easily for later review.
Speaking of Apps…
There are many apps and programs available that can help you take and organize your notes. Popular ones include Evernote, Apple Notes, and Bear, but there are dozens to choose from. Apps can be particularly helpful for students with learning differences who may have difficulty taking traditional notes. These apps can also help you pull research from the web, archive your handwritten notes, and share notes and materials with your study buddies.
We recommend using apps as a supplement to longform note-taking, for the reasons described above. You also might be tempted to utilize AI for your notes. There are already AI programs that can summarize a verbal lecture, article, or text. A word of caution: As this technology evolves and offers shortcuts and conveniences to students, don’t let it replace your learning. Make sure you fully engage with your study materials – having a truncated version summarized for you by a computer might save you time now, but won’t help your performance on test day.
Note-Taking Technique: Types and Tips
As we like to say: Different pen strokes for different folks. Once you’ve got your notepad and writing utensil, it’s time to decide how to use them. There are multiple schools of thought on the best technique for taking notes, but it really comes down to the individual. We’ve provided a quick overview of some popular styles of note-taking below. One might jump out at you, or maybe you’ll want to try them all and find the one that works for you. Maybe you’ll even invent your own hybrid technique, using a mix of the three types below:
This is probably the most familiar method to take notes, and there’s a reason it’s the go-to, particularly for the beginner note-taker. Outlining is merely creating a hierarchical structure of the information. While you might choose to develop your own hierarchy for outlining notes, feel free to keep it as simple as:
This style of note taking will encourage you to distill the points being made in the text or lecture, and will create a cascade of information to help you revisit it later. Its beauty is in its simplicity. Once you master your basic notes outline, you may want to add in some other techniques. For example, if your professor has a tendency to jump back to an earlier topic, you might leave space to go back and add to a particular area, or develop a numbering system so you know which parts of your outline relate to each other directly.
2. The Cornell Method
This is a notes system with an Ivy League reputation to back it up. It was invented by Cornell education professor Walter Pauk, and it’s essentially a variation on outlining. Here’s the method in five steps:
- Draw a horizontal line two-thirds of the way down the page.
- Divide the area above the horizontal line with a vertical line, leaving more space on the right.
- Use the top-left section to write keywords that come up in the material.
- Use the top-right section to add details about the keyword topics.
- Use the bottom third of the page to summarize the material as a whole at the end of your lecture or chapter.
This technique is particularly useful for subjects that deal with concepts and themes that lend themselves to summary. It may not serve you as well with material that involves a lot of memorization of terminology, formulas, and detailed minutiae.
This technique is great for visual learners, and also for material that is more abstract or cross-relates because it requires you to visually place each concept relative to the others. There are a few ways to organize your map:
- Top-Down: Write the overarching theme or topic at the top, then connect it to its sub-themes or -topics with a line, working downward.
- Center-Out: Write the overarching theme or topic in the center and encircle it with subtopics so they radiate out from the main topic.
Whichever map style you choose, remember to leave yourself enough space to fill out the whole map. You only have so much page space to work with, and this technique doesn’t lend itself well to continuing on to another page.
Effective note-taking may make use of all three of these techniques, as they best serve the material at hand, so feel free to mix it up!
Fun Fact: Doodling Is Cool
Doodling in class used to be a big no-no, like chewing gum or passing notes. Those days are gone, since a Harvard University study demonstrated that absentminded doodling while listening to a lesson or lecture may actually help you learn. In that particular study, participants who doodled recalled 29% more information than those who didn’t!
The hypothesis attributes this counterintuitive advantage largely to the strain the brain experiences while required to focus continuously. Doodling keeps the brain active when it would prefer to shut down, plus it provides stress relief that improves focus. And because doodling is by nature creative, it helps your brain think creatively about the educational problems and questions at hand.
Doodling during or between study is helpful, but it should be limited. Try to keep a doodle break under 30 minutes or, if you’re doodling during a lecture, keep listening. This is one of the ultra-rare examples of a multitasking win.
One Last Note…
All of the science and strategy of note-taking here is for the taking… or leaving. Find what works for you. Maybe you like to make your notes in color, or go back over your notes with a highlighter, or have a particular underlining technique.
Got bad handwriting? Who cares, as long as you can read it. Terrible at drawing? Doesn’t matter; this isn’t an art show. The more you tailor your note-taking skills to yourself, the more you can start to find some enjoyment – or at least satisfaction – in what might sometimes feel like a chore. And no matter how you take your notes, remember to go back through them. Typing them up, distilling them further or cleaning up your notes is a great way to reinforce what you’ve learned.
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