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Efficient Techniques for Note-taking

Good note-taking is at the heart of learning*. We all tend to do it our way, without thinking too much about it, but you can improve your noting abilities substancially by learning about some efficient techniques, widely used.

* Taking good notes involves at least three major skills: attention-comprehension, summarization and encoding capabilities. Summarization boosts learning and retention because it involves attending to and extracting the higher-level meaning and gist of the material. Note-taking enhances learning by stimulating active processing and relating it to existing knowledge.

Feel free to pick and choose the one that suits you better, or to combine different aspects of several ones to build your own technique.

Mastering the possibilities of note-taking leads you to better learning.

How to take notes

Having some notes is better than having no notes at all. But having elaborated notes is even better than a verbatim copy. Taking notes plays a vital role in your learning activity*.

* Studies examining students’ note-taking behavior suggest that the encoding process is not overly effective because students’ note-taking procedures are less generative than presumed, as students left to their own devices tend to take verbatim notes that are not overly elaborative of the material.
Feynmann Portrait

The Feynman Technique

Named after famous physicist Richard Feynman, this simple but effective technique consists in explaining to yourself what you want to learn.

Choose the concept you want to understand.

Write that topic at the top of a blank piece of paper.

Pretend you’re teaching the concept to someone else.

Write an explanation of the subject as if you were trying to teach it to someone else. Explaining the idea in this way reveals what parts you really understand and which ones you don't know so well. If you are struggling to lay down a clear, complete explanation, possibly you need to study it again.

If you are stuck, return to the source material.

Anytime you are stuck, go back to the source material and read again that part until you understand it well enough to explain it on paper.

Simplify the language.

You should be using your own words for the explanation, not merely copying the sentences you have just read. Write in simple words so that anybody could read about it. If your explanation is not clear and complete, it may be an indication that your understanding of the idea is not that good. Simplify the lenguage or use an analogy to clarify the explanation.

See it in action

Here's a short video detailing this technique.

The Sentence Method

This technique is surely the one most people resort to when taking notes in a hurry. The important aspect of this method is the deliberate organization of the space, and the work that comes immediately after a note-taking session.

Record every new fact or topic in a separate line.

Try to summarize without missing information and go straight to the point. Ensure that you know where every idea starts and ends.

Leave space for missing or coming information.

Leave a blank space every time you need one. Either there's something you missed but will fill in later, or there are ideas that will require further explanation. It's better to err on the side of too much space left.

Immediately review and edit your notes.

The crucial step is to start reviewing and editing all you wrote down as soon as your note-taking session has ended. Now it's time to fill in the gaps, elaborate and clarify ideas, and organize into topics and subtopics all your notes.

The Outline Method

A quite self-explanatory technique.

  • I. The first level is reserved for each new topic/idea and is very general.
    • a. This concept must always apply to the level above it (I)
      • i. This concept must always apply to the level above it (a)
      • ii. This is a second supporting piece of information for the level above it (a) but is equal to the previous information (i)
      • iii. This information is a sister to (i) and (ii)
    • b. This concept applies to the level above it (I) and is a “sister” to (a)
  • II. You don’t have to use Roman Numerals, Letters, and Numbers – try only indents, dashes, and bullets!
  • III. Outlining requires listening and writing in points in an organizational pattern based on space indentation
    • a. Advantages to outlining
      • i. It is well-organized
      • ii. It records relationships and content
      • iii. It reduces editing and is easy to review by turning the main points into questions
    • b. Disadvantages to outlining
      • i. It requires more thought during class for accurate organization.
      • ii. It does not always show relationships by sequence.
      • iii. It doesn’t work well if the lecture is moving at a quick pace.

The Cornell Method

Invented by Walter Pauk, it's designed to reduce the amount of time you spend processing your notes after class before you elaborate on them.

A cornell note template

Cornell note sample

The note-taking column

With your paper divided in three distinct areas, write short sentences in the note-taking column to record the most important ideas of a lecture.

The cue column

After the lecture, formulate questions in the cue column based on your notes. Writing questions helps to clarify meanings, reveal relationships, establish continuity, and strengthen memory. Also, the writing of questions sets up a perfect stage for studying later.

The summary

In the next 24 hours, write a brief summary in the bottom area of the page. This helps to increase understanding of the topic. Now you have a concise but detailed and relevant record of previous classes.

Review your notes

Spend at least ten minutes every week reviewing all your previous notes to improve memorization. You can also try to quiz yourself covering the note-taking column and trying to ask the questions on the cue column.

See it in action

Here's a short video detailing this technique.

The Mind Map Method

Ideas are written in a tree structure, with lines connecting them together from a central point, branching outward to identify all the connections.

What is a mind map?

A mind map is a diagram used to visually organize information. A mind map is often created around a single concept, drawn as an image in the center of a blank landscape page, to which associated representations of ideas such as images, words and parts of words are added. Major ideas are connected directly to the central concept, and other ideas branch out from those.

Guidelines for creating a mind map

  • - Start in the center with an image of the topic, using at least 3 colors.
  • - Use images, symbols, codes, and dimensions throughout your mind map.
  • - Select key words and print using upper or lower case letters.
  • - Each word/image is best alone and sitting on its own line.
  • - The lines should be connected, starting from the central image. The lines become thinner as they radiate out from the center.
  • - Make the lines the same length as the word/image they support.
  • - Use multiple colors throughout the mind map, for visual stimulation and also for encoding or grouping.
  • - Develop your own personal style of mind mapping.
  • - Use emphasis and show associations in your mind map.
  • - Keep the mind map clear by using radial hierarchy or outlines to embrace your branches.

See it in action

Here's a short video detailing this technique.

The Flow Method

The primary goal of the Flow Method is to improve the amount of information you assimilate and learn while note-taking.

Emphasize the important details

Organize information spatially, with arrows connecting ideas. Be sure to capture the most important ideas in your own words, and omit or downplay the irrelevant. If you can’t describe something in alternate terms, you probably don’t adequately understand the original terms. Your goal is not the transcription: it's learning while you are note-taking.

Make it yours

Transcribe information in a completely different way from its presentation. Use your own words to create a new set of ideas and understandings. Flow-based notetaking is a creative process, not a recording method. You should come up with your own ideas, examples and connections.

Connect ideas forwards and backwards

If any connections come to your mind while mapping out the notes, draw another arrow and connect. When you hear a new idea that relates to an idea earlier in your set of notes, go back and link it there. Backlinking is an easy way to create more connections in your writing.

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