Effective note taking

We are asked about note taking quite often. Instead of teaching note taking skills, or teaching you to be a better student, I think it is best to show how superlearning skill set can improve your note taking. The basic premises: try to take notes in a form that your brain can easily retain. In fact I think simple notes are the best kind of notes. The information you write down is x8 more likely to be remembered. For general note taking you can also review this article and these resources, more tips here.

The notetaking can be done in observe-record-review cycle, which is very similar to preread-read-analyze cycle we use. Just like prereading increases our focus and builds up curiosity, we can increase our observation skills by being mindful/focused, watching for clues/keywords, asking questions and visualizing/doodling. When recording it is probably best to separate the taught material from our own thoughts, and try not to minimize our thoughts involved. While reviewing, we should address our thoughts as we find fit.

Just like prereading helps you read better, anticipating and visualizing the lecture may raise your curiosity and increase retention. Searching the web for controversies or for the history of key figures and events will also help the retention. You can do this both before and after the note taking process. Look for connections with other subjects you know, what to learn or even want to do. Sometimes, especially if there are handouts, it is best not to take notes but doodle instead. Doodling activates visual processing and doubles retention and focus. Occasionally simply writing keywords down increase the retention due to active physical process involved in such writing.

Being a superlearner, you know quite well what works for you. If you remember mindmaps, try to take notes as spidergrams/mindmaps, and if you remember mental palaces either use tables or linear notes. Since linear notes and outlines are very simple to make, maybe you should stick to them, while some prefer Cornell Notes variation. Do not try to use any fancy notetaking system. It is simply not worth the effort, but do leave some empty space and use some minimal common abrebiations. Some people reread their notes during weekends after the lectures and generate higher level more complex notes. This is an active and hence more efficient notetaking method. If you still struggle with visual markers, use them only during this active processing stage.

It is important to keep the structure of the subject in your head, and it will not necessarily match the structure of your lecture notes. Sometimes after you finish the course, it makes sense to summarize it differently, using a different (non-linear) flow of the material and your own words. When restructuring content, it is important to focus on keywords that generate the visual markers. If you do not feel that you actively create visual markers, the visual markers may be created and linked subconsciously as you process the material. Do not be surprised if simply by reordering the material you will remember it.

The hardest part of notetaking is staying focused. The lectures are typically excruciatingly slow and linear, while we are fast visual thinkers. If the attention leaves the argumentation, we may have hard time understanding it. I found several tricks that work for me:

  • Try to look for loopholes in explanation and how it can be improved
  • Try to ask follow-up questions and write them down separately
  • Doodle mindlessly
  • Breathe  mindfully
  • Origami
  • Exercise some muscles in non-conspicuous ways
  • Look for non-verbal clues or generate eye contact
  • Ask questions when allowed
  • Use underlines and embellishments just to pass time

I did not test these methods with other people, so I do not know how much of this applies.

Note taking should be viewed as means and not as a goal, so if it is not very good you should not obsess about the process. If you lost the lecturer at some point and reconnected later on, mark these points in your notes and complete from other students or other resorces.

Notetaking is about observation, recording and reviewing. Personalize and optimize each according to your learning skillset. Do not obsess about the process, but actively and systematically improve your notes.



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