Once upon a time, before the Internet, the laptop computer, and digital recording devices, students’ lives depended upon their ability to take excellent handwritten class notes. Without them, there was very little chance of doing well in a course, especially as it was much more difficult to access lecture information in a much reduced information economy. I still remember the panic when I was a senior in high school and lost my history notes in the days before an important provincial exam. Trying to locate friends on short notice who could lend me their notes was quite the task, while attempting to re-learn the material from the few books to which I had access proved both stressful and laborious.
Since that time, and with the advent of new technologies, I have experimented as a student and researcher with note-taking and have also watched successive generations of students navigate the important task in my courses. Whether taking notes on a laptop, recording them on a phone, using apps and various software platforms to organize ideas and images, or even forgoing note-taking and writing the big ideas following a class, I have seen and also tried almost every method of recording and recalling class lectures and seminars. But what I have learned and observed through trial and error (and now backed up by studies—more on that later) is that the essence and methodology of traditional handwritten note-taking remains the gold standard and, more importantly, is proven to be the most successful way to record and retain information communicated in a classroom.
But Why Take Notes In the First Place?
Now before I pass along some tips and methods to produce good class notes, I realize that I have to back up here and remind many students why taking notes is important in the first place. In the past several years, I have noticed fewer and fewer students actively taking the time to record anything in class. This alone is very alarming when considering that the core of exams and assignments rely upon ideas first introduced in lecture. And when I have asked students why they neglect to take notes, I often get some combination of response that suggests they could “look up the idea later on the Internet,” that they could have a friend text or email them their notes if they felt they needed them, or that the textbook/readings were enough to consider when studying.
Clearly, this is a problem, and especially so when considering why good note-taking is so vitally important. Consider these six key reasons as outlined by Stanford University’s note-taking skills workshop:
1. Notes trigger memories of lecture/reading
Taking notes and reviewing them later acts as trigger for a great deal more information, analysis, and context than is even recorded. This is also why using someone else’s notes is often useless and not as valuable as making your own associations and synthesis of ideas in the form of personalized notes.
2. Your notes are often a source of valuable clues for what information the Instructor thinks is most important (i.e., what will show up on the next test).
Remember that when your professor is formulating exams, they rely upon their own class notes and/or ideas raised in class to build questions and potential themes. In my case, I will go as far as to say “write this down” to prompt students to record ideas I already know they will likely be tested on. If you don't record these ideas, you are at a huge disadvantage when later tested.
3. Notes inscribe information kinesthetically (relating to or resulting from bodily motion)
This point should almost come first. The act of directly recording ideas from your active brain to handwritten expression is one of the most key, albeit mysterious, aspects of successful note-taking. Just think of all of the quick free association, scribbles, doodles, arrows, and other mark-making techniques you use when brainstorming or conceptualizing concepts on paper that are not at all intuitive or quickly possible via a computer. Even having experimented with note-taking on an iPad using an Apple pencil, there is still something missing from the primal act of moving your hand across a page.
4. Taking notes helps you to concentrate in class
Distraction is the disease of our times, and multi-tasking is essentially a late capitalist myth. I cannot tell you how often I have found myself unintentionally surfing or checking email when using a computer to take notes in a meeting only to realize I have no real sense of what is being discussed. Now imagine how much is potentially missed in an important classroom discussion. Simply put, active listening and comprehension requires your full attention, and taking notes centers your attention squarely on what you are hearing.
5. Notes create a resource for test preparation
This should be obvious, and even more so as you move into upper levels of academia. Yes, you can read the textbook and attempt to figure out what you will need to study using the syllabus, but if you actually calculated the time, effort, and stress needed to prepare for an exam without notes, you would soon realize that note-taking is actually the best investment in both your time and your sanity.
6. Your notes often contain information that cannot be found elsewhere (i.e., in your textbook).
This. Every professor plans the scope of a course to include information, ideas, and analysis that are either from their own original research and/or not included in the assigned textbook and readings. These are often ideas that cannot be found anywhere else, and certainly not via a simple Internet search.
Ditch Your Computer and Stick to Handwriting For Higher Grades
So the bottom line is this: to take excellent class notes, you have to return to basics (paper and pen) and stop relying on technology. This has been a tough admission even for me to make as I count myself among the early adopters of new technologies. But if you aren’t yet convinced, consider this new study that was recently published in the Economics of Education Review this past April, 2017. The authors of the study analyzed the grades of 5600 students at an American liberal arts university and concluded that laptops appeared to harm the grades of students. As one review of the study summarized: “While the authors were unable to definitively say why laptop use caused a “significant negative effect in grades”, the authors believe that classroom “cyber-slacking” plays a major role in lower achievement, with wi-fi-enabled computers providing numerous distractions for students. “Students believe that laptops will improve their productivity but the opposite occurs,” Richard Patterson told Times Higher Education. He explained that this was “either due to the superiority of pen and paper, the unforeseen influence of distractions, or some other unseen factor.”
Create a Note-Taking Method and Stick With It
So now that we have reviewed why to take notes and why handwritten note-taking is best, we can turn to some methods. When it comes to note-taking, there are many approaches, but I believe that the one that will be most successful is the one that you will most consistently use. No need to overthink it, just work with your own instincts and preferences.
For example, in my own note-taking method, I tend to use star symbols (*) to indicate in my notes when a very important idea is being conveyed or summarized. I don’t tend to have more than a few of these is any set of notes. I indent and use numbers when creating lists of ideas or noting examples raised in discussion. I also make sure to underline all of the titles of works and add dates and a mini timeline on the left-hand side of my notes when taking notes that cover a chronology. Another thing I like to use are arrows and various shapes and scribbles to reinforce an idea in a way that makes sense to my visually driven memory. Finally, I often use a big Q symbol to record questions that arise for me when learning new material. This has also been useful when I wanted to raise an idea later in class discussion or office hours.
The note-taking method I evolved for myself has also drawn on elements of the Cornell Note-Taking Method that was taught to me in high school. The technique of dividing lined note paper into three sections: 1) concept 2) notes 3) relationship is one that I still largely follow. The advantage of this technique is that you can leave the “relationship” part of the notes blank and then practice the habit of reviewing your notes periodically to figure out what bigger ideas you have learned in a particular lecture. I have also found that leaving this part of the note-taking method for later allows you to digest and add in ideas that may have been triggered in textbook readings that support the lecture.
If you find this note-taking method to your liking, you can even download and print a customized Cornell Note-Taking template here and have on hand for your classes.
So there we have it, something old appears to be new again in academia. Go forward and make sure to take handwritten notes!