My mind is weird. I can remember when Augustine was born, but not where I put my keys. I know my wife’s birthday, her social security number, and the phone number she had when we were in high school, but for the life of me I can’t remember what she wants for Christmas or what I’m supposed to be doing around the house this weekend.
You can see how that might cause problems in a relationship. But it’s particularly a challenge for students. You’re investing tremendous time and money in what you’re learning. The information you gain is a treasure. Where are you going to keep it? Maybe your brain is better than mine: you never forget anything and you can just keep all that valuable information in your head. If so, count your blessings, and I hate you.
But if your brain is more like a bucket with a bunch of big holes punched through the bottom, you probably need a different plan. Otherwise, you can pour into your brain all the information you want, but most of it is just going to leak out all over your shoes and make a mess on the floor
So what are you going to do to make sure that you retain all of that precious information? Easy. Store it somewhere else.
Get a Better Bucket
To do that, you’re going to need two things:
- A system for taking notes.
- A system for storing/retrieving notes.
Without those two things, you will forget/lose far too much valuable information. And the key is that you need both. You could have the greatest note-taking system in the world, but if you can’t find what you need later, those amazing notes aren’t going to do you any good. Similarly, a top-notch database is pretty useless without some content.
But the main point is that you should be taking notes, a lot of notes.
So the next couple of posts are going to take a look at taking notes. And we’ll start by asking some questions to figure out whether you have the right note-taking system.
Before I jump into it though, I’d love to hear from you in the comments. How do you like to take notes? Have you tried anything in the past that didn’t work for you? If so, why didn’t it work?
Finding the Right System
Telling someone how to take notes is a little like telling them how to kiss their spouse. It’s rather personal and everyone does it differently. I know some people who swear by their old school pen-and-notebook systems, replete with coded symbols and informative doodles. Others go high tech: pounding out their notes on laptops, scribbling them on iPads, or just encoding them directly into the brains through neural implants. (Okay, not yet maybe. But soon.) And from what I can tell standing at the front of the classroom, lots of students mix in a little of both.
So it really isn’t a question of finding the perfect note-taking system, if such a thing even exists, but finding the one that works for you. So here are some quick questions you should be asking yourself about your note-taking system. And if you already have a preferred way of taking notes, as most students do, you can use these questions as a diagnostic, a way of checking to see if your current system works as it should.
1. Does it distract me from learning?
A good system should be a tool more than it’s a temptation. Obviously that’s a concern with laptops and iPads. If you find that you’re checking email or Facebook more than you’re taking notes, your note-taking system has become a toy rather than a tool. Stop using it.
But distractions come in all sizes. For me, the old pen-and-paper system was its own distraction. All that white space just cried out for something to fill it. So I obliged with whatever came to mind, which rarely had anything to do with what I was learning. And the very slowness of manual note-taking meant that I often struggled to write what I wanted while still paying attention to the lecture.
So don’t assume that distraction = technology. Know yourself and find a system that will keep you engaged in your learning rather than pulling you away to something else.
2. Does it fit your learning/thinking style?
Everyone processes information differently. I’m a pretty linear thinker, which means I love outlines, an orderly progression of ideas that combine to form a clear argument (ideally). So my favorite note-taking systems are ones that lend themselves to creating good outlines. (I’m particularly fond of collapsable outlines so I can quickly move change the level of detail that I see and gain a more birds’ eye view of my notes.) Others are more visual, sprinkling their notes with circles, arrows, and other symbols, and many take notes that are more summative, focusing on the big ideas more than outlining the flow of thought. The former will need a note-taking system that works well for visual elements (probably paper or a tablet of some kind), while the latter could use just about anything.
The key here is to remember that your note-taking system is meant to serve you. And you’re different than the people next to you. The girl on your left may have a shiny, new tablet, and the hipster on your right is rocking his battered moleskin notebook. But neither of them is you. Figure out how you like to process information, and find a system that fits.
3. Does it fit the class?
One thing many people forget is that teachers are just as unique as students. And a teacher’s preferred way of presenting information in class will impact how you take notes just as much as your own learning preferences. So your note-taking system needs to fit both you and the class.
For example, suppose you have a teacher who is big on class discussions, group projects, and case studies. In a class like that, a laptop can quickly become a problem, a barrier to interactive learning and a hassle as you move from one group to another. And a paper notebook can be a challenge if the prof likes to blow through detailed lists faster than the human hand can travel.
So keep in mind that you may need more than one system, adjusting your notes to your learning environment. Ideally, I think that you should come back later and incorporate them all into one system, but I know that’s often difficult.
4. Will it last?
If you do it right, you’ll be investing a lot in your notes. Not just time, but knowledge. A well-designed and maintained set of notes can be a precious resource for the rest of your life. But will it make it that far?
This question only matters, of course, if you’re willing to think beyond the end of the semester. If you’re just learning to pass the class, skip this one. If you’re learning because you think you’re gaining something that will stick with you forever, then you need to know if your bucket is going to be around long enough.
For me, this question raises issues with both high tech and low tech solutions. On the high tech end, you need to ask whether you’re saving your notes in a format that will still be around in 10 or 20 years. Are you stuffing all of that information into some proprietary format that you won’t be able to access when the company goes out of business? Not good. Granted, in our rapidly changing world, there’s no way of guaranteeing that any company will still be around that long. But you can be pretty sure that even if Microsoft Word dies, someone will make sure we can still read .doc files. And the same with .pdf and other major formats. If your system is smaller and less well-established than that, I’d think twice about trusting it with all of my precious notes.
You might think that paper is a safer solution for the long haul. And it is in a way. No matter how much technology changes, you’ll probably still be able to read. (Whether you’ll still be able to read your own handwriting is a separate issue.) The question here is not whether you can access your notes 20 years later, but whether you will. Paper notes are cumbersome, and they record information in ways that can be notoriously difficult to retrieve. So most people I know with paper notes keep them safely stored away in a box or bookshelf, not ever touching them unless they need to be moved so you can get to something you actually use.
What’s My System?
I’m sure some of you are wondering, but I’m not going to answer the question. Not yet anyway. First, since the whole point of this post was to argue that there is no perfect note-taking system, I don’t want to finish by focusing on just one way–mine.
But it’s also difficult for me to answer the question until I’ve talked about the three different kinds of notes that students need to take:
- lecture notes
- reading notes
- research notes
Those are very different kinds of notes, and for me at least, they require three slightly different ways of taking notes. But we’ll talk about that more in the next post.
[This post is part of our Back to School series, exploring a variety of things we can do to get the new school year started right. Follow along and let us know what you think.]