Some Notes on Notes

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I used to love back-to-school shopping as a kid. Fresh pencils and pens, maybe a new pencil case, and, of course, new notebooks. Those wonderfully unblemished and perfectly blank notebooks that just beg to be seen as metaphor: the open mind waiting to be filled with knowledge; the blank slate that every student begins the year with; the … well, ok, ok, I’ll stop waxing figuratively now.

Let’s, in fact, talk literally about the many hours you’re going to devote to note-taking in class (whether in person or remote learning), busily filling up those new notebooks of yours. Even if you’re in a tough class with lots of homework, the time you spend in class taking notes is a large proportion of the total time you’re putting into any class. And too many students simply aren’t using that time as efficiently as they could. Making the most of your class time through effective note-taking is key to managing a busy workload, and mastering these skills in high school will pay off not only now but also in college.

Don’t try to write down everything your teacher says.

Studies have shown that using a laptop for taking notes isn’t nearly as effective for learning as taking notes by hand. Why is that? Research suggests that it isn’t a function of the screen or the paper, but of what is actually recorded: you can type much faster than you write, which tempts you to simply transcribe. Taking notes by hand, however, requires you to make decisions about what you’re going to write down. You need to decide what’s important and what’s not. You need to paraphrase. You need to really engage with the material, and that engagement leads to a deeper understanding and more effective learning.


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Let there be a method to your madness.

Explore the various note-taking methods out there and decide which you like. Even better, be flexible in your note-taking and use the best method for the kind of information you’re getting.

  • Outline method: You’re already familiar with the structure of a formal outline, and that makes it easy for you to use. Moreover, many teachers even structure handouts and slides with roman numerals and capital letters. If that’s the case, following that outline in your own notes makes sense. But be sure to leave room for some extra underlying points that you can fill in later with information from your textbook!
  • Cornell Method: Here’s one you maybe haven’t heard of. The idea is this: you break up each page into three sections as shown below. There’s the main section for the notes you take during class, a left column for you to note key words and questions, and a bottom section for you to summarize the main ideas on the page. One of the main benefits of this method is that it’s not just a way to take notes, it’s a way to study. Summarizing the information at the bottom of the page cements your understanding of what’s happening and gives you a quick way to see the big picture. Filling the left-hand column with keywords and questions gives you a great way to review your notes. Simply cover the right hand side and test yourself to see if you can answer the questions and define the keywords.

  • Mind Mapping: Mind Mapping is a cool way to depict relationships between different concepts that aren’t easily expressed in a classic outline. In this method, you write the main idea in the middle of the page and then place adjoining concepts or ideas around it. You can then connect them with different types of branching or arrows to show different relationships or patterns. And forming relationships between disparate facts is a great definition of what learning is! Here’s an example mind map to give you a flavor for what’s possible:

The best note takers take notes twice. 

If you’re really serious about having the best set of notes you possibly can, you’ll want to rewrite your notes after class. You can use that opportunity to answer any questions that you wrote down during class. You can add information from your textbook. You can reorganize the material to fit your understanding. You can include a table or a figure that you couldn’t quite make the time for in class. And what’s more is that you’re re-engaging with the material. Study after study has shown that the key to learning more effectively is repetition, and rewriting your notes a day or so after you take them provides exactly that.

I wish you the best in your classes this year and hope that these tips help you learn not just more but also more efficiently!

Aaron Golumbfskie

Senior Tutor & Education Director

Aaron is the Education Director at PrepMatters and has logged more than 20,000 hours of one-on-one tutoring, helping teens change their self-images and achieve success, whether on standardized tests or in academic classes. He continues to tutor every day, but, realizing that individual efforts only scale so far, he hopes to serve even more students by spending much of his time leading the train...

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