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How to Take Notes

Abstract: We all find ourselves in situations at school, in college or at work where we need to take notes of a meeting, a lecture or a conversation. But we are seldom given any advice on how to perform this most basic and essential of tasks. Here are some ideas.

Whether it is a blank pad of paper, a smartphone, a laptop or a tablet, we are all sooner or later going to be faced with the need to make notes. The temptation is to try to write down everything; some of us trust our memories so much that we write down nothing. What is best?

The answer, of course, is that note-taking is a very personal matter: it depends on the kind of memory you have, the kinds of things that help you to recall essential content, and the purpose of the notes. One thing is certain: nothing is more disastrous than trying to write down everything (unless, perhaps, it is to write down nothing).

For some people, taking photographs of PowerPoint slides is all the note-taking they imagine they need; for others, recording lectures is the method of choice; some will jot down occasional notes, or just for example the URLs of recommended websites. But what is the purpose of note-taking?

The best notes are those you never read again.

The first and golden rule is that the best notes are those you never read again. This may be surprising: surely the whole point of taking notes is so that you can refer back to them? In fact, the opposite it true: the best notes are such an aid to learning and memory at the time you take them that they make it unnecessary to refer back to them. This means that note-taking must involve the active processing of the information being presented to you, and that the notes should be your personal reflections on what is said, not something you intend to look back at later. Life, as they say, is short: who has time not only to go to lectures but to replay the recordings afterwards? Far better to absorb what is of value at the time, think about it at the time in active learning, write down only the most important take-aways in your own words as you have processed them, and move on to the next learning experience. Taking photographs of slides, collecting hand-outs, and squirrelling away pages of verbatim notes for a time when you have opportunity to read them, is not active learning, and can easily create in you the false impression that you have learned something just because you have a piece of paper about it in a filing-cabinet or a photo on your phone.

Don't be a squirrel: learn actively at the time instead of storing notes away.

Of course, learning how to do this takes time and is not something we would expect of young children or students starting out on their academic careers, but acquiring the skill of effective learning that note-taking enhances and supports, and getting rid of the notion that notes are things we write now so that we can learn from them later, will make a huge difference to the success of your academic career.

In situations where it isn’t possible to take notes at the time – during an interview or a live conversation, for example – a similar principle will greatly enhance the effectiveness of whatever you do choose to note down: make what you write a learning-process; don’t attempt to write only what was said (with one exception – see below), but write what impression what was said made on you; use the notes to process the information, the emotional impact, the significance of the points that were made.

The only general exception to the avoidance of verbatim note-taking is if something is said of particular significance that could become important later. Then, try to write down exactly what was said. Courts of law, for example, take what are called “contemporaneous notes” seriously as supporting evidence in litigation cases. If you suspect that your conversation may be important in such circumstances, or during later employment negotiations if you were at an interview, make sure your notes are accurate and pertinent.

Summary: Using yourself as an automatic scribe to transfer what is said in a lecture, meeting or conversation to paper is inefficient and a wasted opportunity. By absorbing what is said, thinking actively about it while the even is going on, and making short, personal, independent notes that capture your reactions and any creative insights you may have is far more efficient and reduces the amount of time you will need to dedicate to revising the notes later. The best notes are those you never need to refer to again because they have played their part in enabling the active learning that results in you already having absorbed and processed everything to which they refer.

Afterthought: One last tangential, throw-away but important point that arises from situations where note-taking is not always easy or possible: if you are negotiating a contract of employment, remember that most contracts contain a clause that excludes from all consideration any undertakings given in any manner whatsoever that are not specifically stated in the final version of the contract as signed and counter-signed. What someone may say or promise or hint at during negotiations has no legal force, even if it is stated in writing in a letter or an email, unless it is included in the contract. So if it has been said and agreed as far as you are concerned, make sure that it is written in your contract.

And remember that the clandestine recording of conversations using such things as smartphones may constitute an offence under UK (and other) law (which applies to telephone conversations as well).

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