Episode 16: February 12, 2008
by Stever Robbins
Jill writes in:
Could you please do a podcast on note-taking tips? I take notes in nearly all of my classes and I would like some tips on how to make my notes more effective.
Jill, taking great notes depends on your circumstances. The quick and dirty tip is to know how you plan to use your notes, and take notes accordingly. You'll do something different when you're learning versus memorizing versus using your notes for action.
Notes are the greatest thing since sliced bread. They let you remember things without having to actually, er, remember things. Of course, what to remember depends on your situation.
Note Taking for Learning
You, Jill, are a student. You are taking notes to learn, probably while reading a book or hearing a lecture, or listening to a podcast. You'll read or hear facts and reasoning. Facts, you jot down if you think you'll need them later. If you hear, "the population of Zorbia is 346," just write down, "pop. Zorbia = 346." Generally, facts are easy to find in books, so when taking notes, my priority is to listen for reasoning.
Reasoning is when you hear why things happen, or how one thing affects another. That's the real meat of learning! When you encounter cause/effect words like "why," "because," "since," or "so," you've found reasoning. For example, "Since Zorbia is so small, it has no negotiating power in the United Nations." Bingo! You now know that size is related to negotiating power. (And some people say size doesn't matter. Hah!) When listening, don't try to overthink this; just write down reasons and logic when you hear them. Do the thinking when reviewing.
Speaking of size, punt the tiny words like "a" or "the" or "is" to save time. At least in English, you can often speed write by skipping some vowels. So "Zorbia" becomes "Zrb" or "Zrba." Also engage your whole brain with colors, shapes, or pictures. Even simple ones. I use a four-color pen and highlight important-seeming points in color. Or I'll write a big green exclamation point next to reasons, so that they stand out.
The very act of taking notes helps you learn, even if you don't review them. Check out the mind-mapping website of brain expert Tony Buzan. . In mind maps, your notes are key words linked together in a big, beautiful, spider-web looking thingee. You can go fast, since you only write single words, and later, you color in the map and add symbols. It activates your whole brain and you get to fulfill those childhood Spiderman fantasies at the same time!
You'll also learn best by relating what you're learning to what you already know. If you have time, jot down the connection to deep meaningful facts. "Pop. Zorbia = 346 = number of pages in 1997 hardcover edition of The Untold Tales of Spiderman, by Stan Lee." Yes! (Excuse me.) Just remember on the test to answer 346; that's not the time to mention Spiderman.
For reasoning, find other places where same reasoning applies. "Size = negotiating power, e.g. (that means "for example"), small kid never gets to choose which sports team he's on." (Let's not ask why I chose that example. My therapist and I are on it. OK?) I sometimes can find reasoning examples while listening, but usually I add those only if I'm taking notes while reading, or if they jump out at me, or when I'm reviewing.
Today's transcript will include some sample notes and a link to Tony's mind-mapping website.
Note Taking for Memorizing (Presentations or Tests)
Sometimes you'll take notes that you have to memorize. Think: "test" or in the work world, "presentation to important client." Here, you're making notes from your own material, so you can take some time with it. My greatest success is when I summarize everything on one side of one piece of paper. I started doing this when a sadistic college professor only let us bring a single sheet to the final exam. And I discovered that after writing the page, it would be burned into my memory. Often, I wouldn't even need to pull out the sheet. Keep it to one page, and your brain stores it all as one memory. To fit as much as possible on the page, get a fine-point pen and learn to write small, very small. (Once again, size matters!)
Remember the filing tips from the episode Better Filing? The same applies here. Group notes on the page according to how you expect to need them. For example, in physics, I would put all the constants like "G = 9.8 m/s^2" in one area. Then I would put formulas in another place, and letter them so I could refer to them in the third place. The third place would have space for notes on when to use which formulae, how to set up certain kinds of problems, and so on.
Note Taking in Meetings
Lastly, meetings. I love meetings! ... No, I don't. I hate meetings. But I take notes in meetings so later, I can take action. In meetings, you'll find facts, reasoning, and "to-dos." We call those "action items." I always think of action figurines like G.I. Joe or Barbie when I hear that term.
So listen for the to-dos and write them down. I put a box next to each to-do and check it off when I've dealt with it. Sometimes, I put to-dos in one area of the page for easy scanning, usually the bottom right-hand corner. If you're the meeting scribe (see Meeting Madness Two) or you don't trust your scribe, you might also note decisions that get made and the key reasons why or why not. But always record your own TO DOs so you can get going instantly.
And I just like drawing, so I mark more than just to-dos. I use arrows for problems (like "Doc Octopus stole prototype flying machine from lab. Development schedule delayed.") and little stars for facts. One of the best things about being grown up is you can give yourself gold stars whenever you want. All those symbols help me quickly scan my notes when I'm reviewing them.
Let's recap: how you take notes depends on why you take notes. For learning, it's all about facts and reasoning, with reasoning being key. Skip the short words, engage the whole brain, and relate notes to things you know. For recall, get all the info into one mental image. And for action, note to-dos, decisions, and problems to review.
Just be sure to keep those notes organized; see my Quick Tip on Note Organization for help.
This is Stever Robbins. If you have a question about how to Work Less and Do More, e-mail firstname.lastname@example.org or leave voicemail at 866-WRK-LESS.
Work Less, Do More, and have a Great Life!