Learning Necessary Note-Taking Skills (The Hard Way)

As a high school student, I rarely took notes and pretty much only carried my textbooks home for show. Honestly, I don’t know who it was I was keen on impressing with my fake study habits, as my parents weren’t in the habit of breathing down my neck and all of my friends knew damn well that I tended to do my homework at school the following day, usually in the hall five minutes before it was due.

In high school, my study habits and note-taking skills had little or no time to really blossom. If I had been under more pressure or had gone to a larger or more competitive high school, it’s possible that I would have been ready to take notes as speedily and efficiently as my fellow freshmen could the first day of class at Cal State.

My first week of college was an excruciatingly eye-opening one for me. The professors all started right in with the lecturing, no first-day coddling and explaining and handing out of textbooks, just some syllabi and immediate lectures. This caused me to have big, wide, freaked-out eyes that looked around the lecture hall in a panic as I realized everyone else was as ready to start the lecture-giving, note-taking, student-teacher relationship as the professor was.

I was not ready, and would get so behind writing down one all-important professorly sentence that I’d totally miss the next few crucial statements or explanations, and would only know that I’d missed something that was probably pivotal to my understanding of the whole concept, but I’d have no clue exactly what the precious bit was. And you can really only ask the person sitting next to you “What did he just say?!” once, or you risk pissing everyone off and looking like an idiot (which I was, as I hadn’t used my four years of high school wisely and learned how to effing learn before I waltzed into the post-secondary phase of my education.

Once I’d made it past the academic probation hurdle, I got to bask in the crushing defeat of realizing that while I may have been just smart enough to have gotten away with not having to apply myself in high school, I possessed nowhere near the intelligence it would take to glide through college without fine-tuning my study skills. Trial by fire sucks, but it is effective. I didn’t enjoy having to tell my parents that I’d just blown a semester’s worth of their hard-earned money, nor did I take any pleasure in having to admit to myself that I was going to have to work my ass off in college just like everyone else.

The end result of many years of college-level note-taking and learning was this: First of all, I was never going to excel at the freakishly quick and complete note-taking style a lot of other students seemed to have; it was like they all went to some secretarial school at night and learned shorthand, unbeknownst to me. Also, I only have time to listen to a lecture once, so no audio-recording lectures and re-listening to them for me. Which meant that I had to figure out how to listen to the whole lecture, not lose chunks of pertinent info while struggling to write verbatim every line that spilled from the professor’s lips.

My perfect solution was to take limited key-word notes in class. I’d read the chapters that were to be covered before class so I had an idea what the instructor was talking about and what I was or wasn’t clear on. What the lecture didn’t illuminate further, I’d jot down. My lecture notes were basically like a shopping list of stuff to look up in detail and learn completely later. And by “later” I mean that same day, as soon after class as possible.

I learn information best by having a question, reading about it, writing down the info, and reviewing it later. Anything I couldn’t grok through the text, the lecture, or my own research (I inherited my Grandfather’s science reference library, and all the stuff not written in German is quite helpful) I’d force from the brain of the professor during office hours. If they didn’t explain it so I could understand it in class, I’d make them do it again on paper until it made sense.

It’s such a waste to have spent a few years getting really good at something, and then to never again have a reason to use it to that same degree. The learning how to learn I’ll use for the rest of my life, but not so much with the note-taking. It’s all right—it was satisfying to have learned how not to suck at being a student and to never again have to feel like the least prepared doof in the room.

Further Reading and Resources:

Five Best Note-Taking Tools

The Art of Taking Science Notes

How To Improve Note-Taking Skills

Posted by Alexa Harrington

image credit: eileen barroso

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  • Comments (2)
  1. Ah! A subject of great intrigue to me. So I now burden you with a few comments, but no self-advertising.

    The type of notes you take depends on which type of course it is – read the book before to discuss in class, or the learn enough in class to read the book. Chad Orzel who blogs Uncertain Principles on ScienceBlogs explains the distinction pretty well, IMHO.

    I am also of the opinion that you have to take notes for nerd courses with pen(pencil) and paper because no one can use a drawing program and an equation editor fast enough to take those notes on a laptop.

    If it is a course you can do computer notes with, I would recommend you look at KeepNote http://rasm.ods.org/keepnote/ It is the best product I have found and it is open source as well. Also comes in flavors for all three main OS.

    Like you I did not develop notetaking skills until college. Simply put, they were not necessary in high school. But I have not ceased to use them since. I take notes of/in books I read and I keep notebooks. But then I also use algebra (and calculus and a bunch of other maths) every day.

    I would close by offering that notetaking requires one to develop mental multitasking at least to the twofer level. You need to be able to listen to what the lecturer is saying and think about it critically while taking down enough of what is said to be intelligible later. If you can learn to do this, you can be a successful note taker. If you can learn this well enough to get ahead of the lecturer and offer helpful suggestions you can do even better.

  2. Effective note-taking is definitely something that can easily be lost in the mix these days. With the advent of more research tools that (purportedly) make life easier, we do shortchange our rudimentary skills a bit. Your story is a good lesson-learned for incoming freshmen who could benefit from identifying whether they are quick note-takers, and, if not, pinpointing courses or professors who can provide a more reasonable lecture pace.

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