How NOT to Take Notes

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It happens at least once a week. I get a frantic email from a student who is feeling overwhelmed, confused, and hopeless. I ask if they are reading the text and taking notes, using the workbook, making and/or using flashcards, and studying their maps. A typical response is, “I use the workbook and the flashcards—for hours!” Or, “I watched all the videos five times each!” Or, “I’m very visual, so reading just doesn’t work for me.” To which I respond, “Just reading doesn’t work for anybody. What you need to do is read and take notes.”

I get that reading and taking notes from a textbook is not the most hilarious way to spend a Friday night or Sunday morning—but when it comes to learning, it works. Simply put, proper note-taking is essential to learning success, and provides two basic benefits::

  1. The act of note-taking (when done properly) involves processing, summarizing, and writing down information. This is an active learning activity that (by itself) will help you understand and retain what you read.
  2. Your notes are a living document and you will continue to learn when adding to, reciting, and studying your notes.

When it comes to taking notes—efficiently and effectively—my first piece of advice is to use active reading techniques before you even start. This means previewing the material before diving right in; and reading a small segment of the material from start to finish before you take notes. You are ready to begin your notes once you understand the main topic of the section and you recognize what you don’t already know as well as what is important to remember.

If we’re all agreed on this first step, let’s investigate how to take notes efficiently and effectively. This section is built around some of the more common missteps I’ve observed, along with some alternative techniques that work.

Don’t do this: Copy the textbook or speaker word-for-word. Instead, prioritize and paraphrase. Take notes after you’ve read the section through at least once, and note down just the key words, phrases and bit of information IN YOUR OWN WORDS. Copying something verbatim does very little to engage your mind and memory. If you don’t believe me, copy a sentence from a French textbook (assuming you don’t speak French) and see how much you understand. The most important step in effective note taking is deciding what information is important, where that information fits into the “big picture,” and paraphrasing the information (putting it in your own words). It is not exactly quick, but its effective. Remember, reading and taking notes verbatim might be quick…but it is a waste of time.

Some exceptions to this rule include dates, definitions, formulas, and quotations. (Don’t be a creative accountant.)

Don’t do this: Ignore the structure provided by the book. Instead, follow the visual cues from the text. The author(s) of your textbook developed a system of chapters, headings, and sections for a reason—to provide a framework for the information presented and a visual hierarchy of the main concept. This is good news for the note-taking students of the world; there’s no need to make up your own framework of create an amorphous, impossible-to-understand blob of notes. Just follow the author. While doing so, pay close attention to the material written in bold or italics—these are often key concepts or vocabulary words.

Don’t do this: Fill the entire page from top to bottom. Instead, leave some space on the page.  Your learning and understanding is going to evolve over the course of your studies, and you might want to add additional notes or clarify some information. It can also be very helpful to add drawings, diagrams, charts, and summaries to your notes—and you’ll need space to do this.

One other little tip—mark the page number of the text (or more thorough bibliographical information if studying from a variety of sources such as articles and websites) at the top of each page of notes. It will help you if you need to go back and clarify some information.

Don’t do this: Build a fortress of factoids. Instead, include keywords, cues, and ready-made review questions. You are going to want to use your notes for review and revision, and you can ensure an active revision if you include a ready-made cue section in your notes. In the very popular Cornell method of notetaking, this is a dedicated section off to one side of the page where you jot down keywords, review questions, or a few words signaling the main topics or essential points. Use these scribbles to quiz yourself during your review sessions.

P.S. A lot has been written about the different styles of notetaking, such as the Cornell method, the outline method, or visual/web/mind mapping. My best advice is to find the one that works for you and stick with it. You can read a nice, succinct article about the three methods here.

Don’t do this: Highlight everything. Instead, highlight sparingly—if at all. I see it all. the. time. A student emails me a question (good study technique, by the way) and they’ve included a photo of their textbook showing the passage they can’t understand. The picture shows a sea of pretty colors—the student has highlighted the entire page (or close to it). What this tells me is that the student highlighted the textbook on their first read-through, and marked almost every sentence, as they encountered a whole raft of new information.

If you do use a highlighter, be sure and keep it locked away during the preview stage and your first reading of the material. Use it on a subsequent read to highlight key words, cues, or definitions. In most circumstances, its best to aim to use your highlighter on no more than 20% to 30% of the total material.

Note: I prefer to take notes rather than highlight, and I don’t specifically recommend highlighting source if asked for study advice; however, if asked, I do not dissuade folks from highlighting if they feel it works for them. (I do, however, think that highlighting your notes can be an effective part of revision.)

Don’t do this: After you’ve taken your notes, ignore them. Instead, review your notes on a regular basis. An ideal practice is to review your notes the next day by answering your own questions, reading them aloud, or reciting definitions of your key words or cues (using your own words).

One more thing: I think if you are taking notes, whether it be by hand, on a laptop, or into a note-taking app, you are on the right tract. However, there are those that believe handwritten is the way to go. For more information on this subject, click here.

Duly noted!

Click here to check out the rest of our posts on “How to Study Wine and Spirits”

The Bubbly Professor is “Miss Jane” Nickles of Austin, Texas… missjane@prodigy.net

About bubblyprof
Wine Writer and Educator...a 20-year journey from Bristol Hotels to Le Cordon Bleu Schools and the Society of Wine Educators

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