Improve Your Note-Taking with These 3 Tips

As a student in a lecture, how many times have you been in the middle of transcribing a sentence when the professor switches to the next slide? Students today face the challenge of managing an overwhelming amount of information, tools, and distractions. While it would be logical to think that the goal of a good student would be to capture all the facts, theories, and data thrown your way, the key to successful note-taking is remembering the important things, and not remembering everything. (For the latter—there’s Evernote.)

Here are three tips to help you separate the important from the trivial so you can get the most out of your studies.

 1. Pick out the main ideas

One of the pitfalls of note-taking is that it is a passive activity. Our hands might be scribbling furiously, but in an effort to capture everything, our minds focus on the task of transcribing more than the task of understanding what’s important.

Tip: Listen actively to the lecture and identify key phrases, ideas, and takeaway points. When you hear something you’ll need to remember, jot down keywords to serve as reminders. If there were points you found especially significant or if the lecturer says something you don’t understand, annotate these with an “!” (exclamation mark) so you can easily identify and revisit them later.

The process of jotting shorter main ideas helps your brain to process the information you just heard. Because you aren’t physically able to write down every word in the lecture, you must reformat the information in a concise and meaningful way. Whatever you write down using this  technique is already more effective than listening and writing at the same time, because you’re already thinking about what the lecturer said.

2. Shorthand techniques

Shorthand (or stenographic) techniques consist of abbreviated symbols, letters, or pen strokes. Some form of shorthand has been used for centuries to conceal important messages from unintended eyes. However, they’re also a great way of capturing information quickly. There are many forms of shorthand, and, depending on how similar they are to modern writing conventions, they can be quite difficult to learn.

Instead of trying to learn an entire shorthand method, try adopting certain techniques in your note-taking. You are probably already familiar with some of them, such as using “w/” to represent with.

Take that concept one step further and think of words or patterns you commonly see or use. For example, in English and many Latin languages, the suffix –tion occurs frequently, especially in academic contexts. Words like conversion, mutation, and relation can be shortened consistently. You can use a “.” (period or full-stop) to abbreviate the suffix.

conversion » convers.
mutation » mutat.

You can employ similar techniques to verbs. Try using an apostrophe (‘) to denote a verb in the past.

converted » convert’
mutated » mutat’

Tip: Remember that the ultimate goal of shorthand is to capture information faster. There is no correct or standard way to do it, so feel free to experiment with variations that work best for you. After trying out various abbreviations, Some note-takers use é (e-acute) to represent the word before and è (e-grave) to represent the word after.

The infection cleared up after the application of the treatment. »
Infect. clear’ è applicat. of treatment.

Even if you use just one or two shorthand techniques, you’ll find that you can cut down on the amount you have to write.

3. Limit yourself

When it comes to reviewing your notes, one of the most useful techniques is the practice of preparing a review card. Limiting the space you have to write your notes on is a way of filtering through the massive amounts of information you must process. It forces your brain to be selective and prioritize information.

Tip: If you need to review your notes from a previous lecture or chapter, try creating your own review cards using index cards or Post-it® Notes. When filling these cards out, there’s no need to write down things you already know. Your cards should only contain concepts and ideas from your notes that are still unfamiliar to you. Once you’re done, everything you need to study more in depth will already be on your cards.

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