At College you are daily bombarded with important new material. So you furiously make notes in every lecture, creating mounds of paper that you’re not sure what to do with.
There is surprisingly little research and teaching on taking effective notes. This is my effort to remedy that, even if you’ve done it for years.
There are just a couple things to do before, during, and after the lecture. They aren’t hard; they are profitable.
And – important note! – don’t attempt to do everything I have listed here. You have neither the time nor the energy! Instead, as often as you can, do a bit to prepare, work to engage during lectures, and then pick something to revise as you can. Don’t set yourself goals you cannot maintain. And always be encouraged – even a bit of these three steps will significantly improve your learning.
If you build a house, you need a framework to hold it together. Then you can attach the walls, ceilings, and roof to it. Only then do you get a house.
So, too, with note-taking (and reading, and all learning, in fact): You need a scaffold or a framework to build upon. Similarly, any preview or knowledge you can bring to class will help you learn more, however rudimentary.
So before a lecture begins, spend a couple minutes activating your thinking on the lecture content. Pick just one of these:
- Skim your notes from the last couple of lectures.
- Read (or skim) readings for the lecture.
- Explain relevant readings or recent lectures to a classmate.
- Read or skim a relevant section of the Bible.
- Whatever else helps you prepare.
By doing just one of these for a couple minutes, you are building your framework for learning. And if you can prepare even a little for some or most lectures, then that is you will reap great returns.
The pen is mightier than the computer!
Such was the conclusion of two high-powered psychologists in a 2014 paper (reference at end). What they found was that university students who type their notes often go on autopilot, typing nearly everything, processing even less and retaining very little. But students who write their notes by hand cannot write so fast and must be selective. This process of being selective requires engagement and mental energy. It forces you to omit less important material and focus on the more important material. And it helps you learn and retain the lecture content.
In fact, Mueller, one of the authors of the study, concluded that
even if notes are incomprehensible, ‘The content is better in your brain than it would be otherwise’ (Mueller 2016 NPR Interview)
So seriously consider taking hand-written notes. (Besides, it will remove digital distractions, which greatly undermine our attention.)
After: Revise to retain
After you’ve prepared and taken careful notes, you’ve got papers to file away until you return and cram just before your exams.
But now let me show you a better way:
Instead of filing and forgetting, here are a few low-energy, high-return practices to ensure you retain this new material and don’t have to cram for exams:
As soon as you finish your class:
Write a couple hashtags: At the top of your paper, scribble just a couple key words for the lecture. These will make it easier to sort through when you come back.
Within a few days:
Pull out your notes. Look only at the hashtags and recall what you can.
Now quickly read over your notes. Highlight them. Make comments in other colours. Write your questions, note connections, and record new terms.
Then summarise the lecture in simple, crisp sentence along with the hash-tags. The mental effort of doing this can be heavy for the more difficult material. But this mental effort will force you to grapple again with the content, and you will consolidate the material better.
(An encouragement: Quality learning takes time. You usually understand material progressively, not instantly. And so do your classmates, despite appearances. Expect to need time to understand new material.)
In successive days and weeks:
In the weeks that follow, return to your notes occasionally, but don’t re-read them. Instead, look at your hashtags and summary sentence. Work again to recall the main points without reading. Only look at your notes afterwards, to check your recall.
Come back to these notes after ever-longer intervals, so that it is always difficult to recall that info. This more difficult retrieval leads to long-term learning, unlike merely re-reading or re-writing your notes. Eventually, it will come to reside in your long-term memory and then you can begin really to understand it and apply it well.
Or you could try one of these alternatives to self-study:
- Explain a lecture to a friend.
- Make up exam and essay questions.
- Discuss how it applies to your life and ministry.
- Simon Gillham encourages focussing on personal impact: What does this tell me of our God? How do I live out this theology? How does this help me love the Lord and his people better? This of course is the heart of all real theology.
All these revision techniques are much more effective for learning than merely summarising or re-reading.
Will you be able to do this for all your lectures, all the time? Of course not. But can you do it for most of your lectures or even some of your lectures, reasonably regularly? Of course you can.
So take heart: Achieving something is great. It pays off with, as you gain learning, mastery, and deep understanding.
And as you keep the revision steady, you will learn. Keep it light and you will do it. Make it onerous and you will avoid it. And be encouraged that any review is better than no review. Even a little bit gives benefit.
If interested in reading more:
3:19 min interview with Mueller. Listen to this and get the gist of her research.
A clear and accessible summary article for us non-specialists:
Joseph Stromberg, ‘Re-reading is inefficient. Here are 8 tips for studying smarter.’ Vox Education, January 2015. URL: Re-reading is inefficient. Here are 8 tips for studying smarter. – Vox. Accessed September 1, 2015
Where it all began (Access via the College’s SAGE Journals database):
Mueller, P. & Oppenheimer, D. (2014). The pen is mightier than the keyboard: advantages of taking longhand notes over laptop note taking. Association for Psychological Science, 25(6) 1159–1168. DOI: 10.1177/0956797614524581