There’s A LOT of bad note taking advice out there. Some of it’s well-meaning. Some of it is half-true but important parts have been lost. Others are just bits of advice that get parroted around the Internet until no one knows where they came from.
Well today my study buddies, I’m going to debunk these myths and kick 5 pieces of bad note taking advice to the curb – and teach you what to do instead so you can create great notes that save you time AND give you better results.
5 pieces of bad note taking advice and what you should do instead
1. Handwritten notes are better than typed notes
Some studies have shown that students who handwrite their notes have a better understanding of their material than students who type their notes. This isn’t strictly untrue, but it doesn’t give the full picture.
What these studies found is that students who type their notes tend to write verbatim (word-for-word), whereas students who handwrite their notes are more likely to summarise the material and paraphrase it in their own words. It’s a lot quicker to type out a piece of text than it is to handwrite it word-for-word so students who handwrite their notes are more likely to summarise to save time.
Therefore, it’s not really the format of note taking that matters – handwritten or typed.
What’s more important is that you write your notes in your own words. I touch on this more in this blog post, but when you condense your study material into a summary in your own words you are picking out what’s important, engaging more of your brain, and developing a deeper understanding of the ideas.
2. Write down everything you hear in a lecture
It’s pretty much impossible to write down everything you hear in class. And even if you are a super-human typist, your brain is likely to tune out so you’re not actually taking in the concepts – just mindlessly copying them. This method is also likely to stress you the eff out because you’ll almost certainly miss an important part.
While it would be lovely to have your notes completed in class, for most fast-paced lectures, you’re going to have to complete your notes afterwards.
So, during class, focus instead on active listening. Listen to a point then, if it seems important, note it down in your own words. Concentrate on the additional points made by your tutor that are NOT on the slides, in the pre-reading or in the handouts/resources. Note down any stuck points or ideas you don’t understand and ask your tutor after class to elaborate on them.
It may also be possible to record the audio of your lecture – with permission from your tutor first. Even if you do this, be sure to take some notes during class to help you remember what the key points were.
Then, after class, complete a good set of notes in your own words using your in-class notes and any other slides, handouts, or resources.
3. Only write down the things you don’t know
I hadn’t heard this one until last week until two separate people emailed me and stated that they've been told they should only write down the things they DON'T already know - gah!
The aim of note taking is to create a clear, accurate record of the most important parts of your subject material. These notes should be a summary of the main texts and be written in your own words to deepen your understanding and start the process of increasing your recall ability so you can use them effectively to write essays and prepare for exams.
Only writing down what you don’t know is bad note taking advice for a few reasons:
a. you’ll likely forget the stuff you do know – which may be important
b. writing essays will be harder as you won’t have a clear summary of the key essay-relevant points
c. exam revision will be harder and your results lower because you’ll be revising details that may or may not be important
d. what you don’t know will shift which makes this a poor basis for your note taking content.
Let’s ditch this bad note taking advice and instead focus your note taking on writing down a summary of the important things – whether you know them or not.
4. Revise for your exams by re-reading your notes
Another piece of bad note taking advice - re-reading your textbook or your notes. This is a waste of time because it’s a passive technique which means your brain isn’t engaged. Re-reading seems like a safe, easy technique but that doesn’t make it a good one. Yes, if you re-read a passage 100 times you’ll probably memorise most of it. But to pass an exam you need to be able to UNDERSTAND the ideas and then RECALL it without your textbook in front of you.
Instead, once you’ve created a good set of notes, focus on active techniques such as:
- testing with flashcards
- testing with quizzes
- completing past papers
- discussing ideas with a friend.
5. Condense your notes into flashcards
I LOVE flashcards and I think every student preparing for an exam should create them. But not all flashcards are created equal. I was taught you should condense your notes into bullet points or diagrams and write them on index cards – this is bad note taking advice!
A GOOD flashcard is a double-card with a question or a term on the front and the answer or the definition on the back. Flashcards are useful for learning the relationship between two pieces of information, and then testing your knowledge of that information multiple times until you understand and can recall it on demand in an exam.
Flashcards should NOT just be a summary of points – that’s bad note taking advice. Writing lists of bullet points on your cards and then carrying them around with you may feel productive but you could be using your time much more effectively. As you know, re-reading is a passive activity so, instead, focus on active revision techniques that involve testing your knowledge.
Turn your notes into flashcards. Pick out some simple questions and write these on the front and the answers on the back. Or pick out important terms you need to know – write these on the front and the definitions or descriptions on the back.
Then test yourself. See if you can accurately recall the answer/definition without looking at it. If you can’t, re-test yourself or go back and strengthen your understanding or recall of the original material.