Seven Lessons to Take Better Notes in School or at Work

Charles Darwin and Michael Faraday, the two men share a few common things. They were both great scientists, both were born in the Great Britain, and they both liked taking notes. In fact, this habit of notes taking was instrumental in their success as scientists. Let’s talk about Charles Darwin first.

The story belongs to a time when Charles Darwin was a young boy. One fine morning, the young man received a letter from John Stevens Henslow— a friend and a mentor. He had nominated Charles as a naturalist to join a voyage named “the HMS Beagle”. In the beginning, Darwin’s father refused to fund the trip for his son. He thought the trip was nothing more than a waste of time. However, upon involvement of Charles’s uncle, he finally agreed.

On 27th December 1831, HMS Beagle embarked its journey. While the Beagle surveyed and chartered the American coastlines, young Darwin would stay on land collecting specimens and taking copious notes. Though not an experienced botanist, Darwin compensated for his lack of experience through specimen collection and notes taking. By the end of the voyage, he had compiled a dairy of 770 pages and had catalogued more than five thousand skins, bones, and carcasses.

It took Darwin more than two decades to formalize and present his theory of evolution. During all this time, he kept referring to the notes he took during the Beagle voyage. Two decades is a long time. Had he not kept notes, he wouldn’t have remembered those details that led him to develop his theory.

Let’s get to Faraday’s story now. Michael Faraday was born in the suburbs of London. Son of a blacksmith, the boy was too poor to be formally educated. When he was fourteen, he started working as an apprentice to a book binder. His job was to bind books, but he would read every book that came to him for binding. He would also make his own notes as he read.

As he turned twenty, Faraday got an opportunity to attend lectures of Sir Humphry Davy — the most eminent British chemist of his time. The boy was fascinated by the lectures and scribbled furiously on his notebook as Davy addressed. Subsequently, he compiled a 300 pages book—a synthesis of what he had learnt at the binder’s shop and during the lectures—and sent it to Davy, who was fairly impressed by the youngster’s zeal towards science.

A few months later, Davy got an eye injury during a chemical experiment. He started looking for someone who could take notes for him. Thanks to Faraday’s notes taking ability, Davy employed him as his assistant. The rest as they say is history.

Whether you are a student or a professional, noting down important details can help you achieve your objectives. Here are seven tips on how to take better notes in school or during meetings.

Lesson One: Get Your Tools Ready

It may seem pretty basic, but it is important to gather all your notes taking tools before going for a class or meeting. Your tool kit may include paper, pens, pencils, highlighters etc. however, avoid having too many tools as this will make your tool selection unnecessarily complex. If you are going to use a laptop or an iPad, make sure those devices are charged beforehand. Taking notes without organizing your tools is like entering a war without checking your arsenal.  

Lesson Two: Review Previous Notes If Any

Before going to attend a lecture or meeting, it would be pertinent to review any relevant notes from the previous events. This will set a backdrop for the upcoming lecture and prepare your mind on what areas need to be focused. For instance, if some information exists in the previous lecture and is being repeated as it is, you can skip that. This will make the process more efficient.  

Lesson Three: You Don’t Need to Write Down Everything

Many students try to write down everything a teacher or instructor utters. And eventually miss some important bits of information. This is a misconception—you don’t need to jot down everything. Depending upon the situation, several techniques can be used. A few examples:

  • If you are being introduced to a completely new subject, you can organize your notes in headings and bullets.
  • If you like to be more visual with your notes, you can write down the main subject on the top and write other subtopics as branches.
  • If you are already familiar with the subject, you can divide your page into columns. Each column covers a main subject with subtopics in bullets underneath. In this situation, you can even use cues or keywords rather than details.

Lesson Four: Review Your Notes as Soon as Possible

A golden rule for effective notes taking is that once you have finished taking notes, review them within 24 to 48 hours. If you stuff your notes in the bag and forget them for days, you are more likely to forget the content as well. Refresh your memory while the notes are still fresh.

Lesson Five: How to Balance Listening versus Writing

Contrary to common misconception, multitasking doesn’t make you efficient. In most situations, this can be a hazard; for instance, texting while driving. However, some activities require multiple tasks to be performed simultaneously; notes taking is one of them. Good notes taking requires good listening and efficient writing at the same time. Following techniques can help you balance listening with writing.

  • If any relevant material is available on the subject, read it before coming to the lecture. This will help you familiarize yourself with relevant terminology and concepts.
  • Choose a spot where you can listen clearly; change your seat if needed.
  • Follow the body language of the instructor; if they repeat certain concepts or definitions, try to write them as verbatim.
  • Ask questions if something is not clear. Some instructors don’t like to be interrupted; in such situation, make a note and leave the question for the end.

Lesson Six: Writing versus Typing

With the widespread use of laptops and IPads, some people like to keep their notes digital. These gadgets are cool and smart, no doubt. But when it comes to the question whether you should write or type your notes, writing seems to be the winner. Compared to typing, writing offers certain advantages:

  • You can be more visual and creative with writing than typing.
  • Some people with a faster typing speed tend to type without understanding the subject. Thus writing offers a better understanding of the material being covered.
  • You can still use IPads but you need better practice and smarter hold on the gadget, compared to a pen and paper where it all comes so naturally.

Lesson Seven: Be More Visual

A picture speaks a thousand words. If you want to be smarter with your notes taking, make them as visual as possible. Draw diagrams, concept trees, tables etc. as appropriate. If you want to color your notes to highlight certain words or concepts, don’t do it while taking notes; leave it for later.

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