Class is over. Michael sighs, leans back, and stretches his fingers, which are cramped from nonstop writing. He briefly surveys (with virtuous pride) what he’s done in his spiral notebook over the last fifty minutes. Mission accomplished, he thinks. No one can accuse him of sleeping through class! He slams the notebook shut, shoves it in his backpack, and heads off to lunch, soccer practice, and the rest of his day.
Fast forward to the night before the big test. Michael settles into his study chair and opens his notebook marked “American Government.” He stares blankly at what seems to be an alien language.
“Am cvc pblc—nt wrg, but overrtd.” Then, in capitals, “EXECUTIVE, LEGISLATIVE, JUDICIAL.” Then randomly, a triangle. Wait—did he label the triangle? No, next to it is a note about something completely irrelevant—“buy gym socks. 2 pr.” Maybe on the next page? That’s a list of people who might be Supreme Court Justices—or they could be Speakers of the House. Who knows? The rest of the pages are much the same. Most are not completely filled. There is little coherence to bind what snippets of information Michael can decipher. His virtuous pride dissipates into thin air.
Jan, who sits two rows behind Mike in class, always takes notes on her laptop. Her keyboarding skills are good; she’s fast and rarely makes mistakes. When Jan opens the document titled “American Government,” lack of information is not a problem. There are pages and pages of content. Clarity is not an issue for Jan either. Terms are spelled and defined correctly. Sentences are complete. So why is Jan frowning? Perhaps it’s because she realizes she’s essentially looking at almost full reproductions of every lecture. Nothing is summarized. Nothing is categorized or organized. There is simply a glut of information.
Note taking techniques are as individual as the person taking the notes, but notes are only valuable when they help you to remember the lecturer’s message correctly. What are the problems facing the two students above? Well, Michael’s handwritten notes are largely undecipherable. Lacking clarity, they cannot transmit even basic information. Jan’s pages offer a wealth of facts. However, they give no indication of the relative importance of individual concepts. Like a textbook with every line highlighted, the notes cannot help her determine on what to focus.
Who is in the better situation? Interestingly enough, according to Katrina Schwartz, it is probably Michael! In an article called “Taking Notes: Is The Pen Still Mightier Than the Keyboard?,” Schwartz examines whether using a laptop to take notes in class gives a student any advantage over using the old-fashioned notebook and pen. Presenting information from experiments conducted by researchers Pam Mueller and Daniel Oppenheimer, Schwartz emphasizes the most important step of all note-taking techniques: processing. Michael is “selecting” material as he writes, not just blindly copying. He could benefit from writing more clearly, but he is actually interacting with the information—and ironically, is likely to retain more than Jan with her pages and pages.
So what to do? Should we haul our computers to the recycling center and head to the mall to pick up jumbo packs of pens? Not necessarily. Below are a few note taking techniques:
- Speed is not your friend. Schwartz outlines a few ideas for making computer notes more effective. The simplest of these is slow down. Just because you can keyboard at a speed that leaves your laptop smoking doesn’t mean you should. The research points to this: Slowing down helps you to interact with the material more.
- Take a cyber-break. If you always go to class with your laptop, then follow Schwartz’s advice and trade it for a pen for one day. Not being able to record as quickly will probably be irksome at first. See above.
- “Chunk” (group) related information. You can organize information by separating it into major points, minor points, and examples. If you have trouble distributing the lecture’s content into these categories, ask your teacher to clarify the material.
- Notes are not fine wine. Don’t leave them untouched in your laptop or notebook to “age.” Review them right away. Add anything you remember. Rewrite them! (Note: Rewriting notes is a surprisingly effective way to impress information on the brain. However it is time consuming and best reserved for a class where the material is particularly challenging.) Think of yourself as leaving a set of instructions for your future self. Your goal is to be as clear as possible for that future you.
- Experiment! The perfect note-taker has not yet been born! Try something new. If you are studying subjects (such as math or science) that lend themselves to diagramming, create graphics next to your written notes. Ask friends what works for them. Consult with your teachers. Even if you are satisfied with your note-taking habits, do something different occasionally. There is always a way to make your process better.
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We invite you to call A+ Test Prep and Tutoring at 215-886-9188, or email us. Consult with one of our Client Service Directors. Nathan Rudolph, Anne Stanley, and Susan Ware are available to answer questions, provide solutions, and assist you in achieving your educational goals.
*Photo credit: Gosheshe