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Write Notes, Not Textbooks: A Guide to Better Note Taking

02/03/2015 02:34 pm ET | Updated Apr 04, 2015

As familiar as Shakespeare, students can always recognize the sound of the frenzied flurry of paper flipping as the teacher says "this will be on the test."

Then, the hurriedly scribbling sounds follow as, heads down, students desperately get down "the important stuff." Many are desperately highlighting and using colored pens to color code their thoughts. Most aren't even paying attention. They're just writing.

Speaking with peers in high school I noticed the key concern with the college-bound group was how to take good notes. I remember some classes where teachers have mentioned tips and tricks and maybe even a whole method like the Cornell Method to take notes. That was it though. I never had anyone but me look at my notes.

My peers and I were never taught how to take notes.

Think back to middle or elementary school. You, like I, probably don't remember taking any note taking classes do you? Of course not. Even saying that sounds absurd.

One immediately apparent problem is just how would you teach something as personal as note taking? The next, rather ironic problem is of course how would you take notes for that class? Another problem arises: how would you even grade that kind of class?

These seem to be some reasonable arguments on the face of it, but it only illustrates underlying problems in how people see education. The point is not to pass a test or memorize some ideas, but rather to interact with your work and think critically about what you are being taught.

That's where most people fail in taking notes. Studies have all pointed to the now obvious benefit of taking notes in class. It could be even considered common knowledge. However, scientists and educators do not agree on a single system for understanding notes. There are however some ideas that most agree upon.

With the advent of the Mobile Age, more and more technology and communications are available to students in and out of the classroom.

As such, a laptop or similar device is necessary for college students today.

In and out of the classroom, laptops have obvious utility, hence their existence and popularity. While that may be true, experts agree, when it comes to notes, leave the laptop out of the equation.

Pam Mueller and Daniel Oppenheimer of the Institute for Psychological Sciences conducted an experiment where college students were asked to watch TED talks and take notes just like they would in class. The study had one group use laptops (not connected to the internet) and another use pen and paper to take notes.

The students who took notes with laptops, the researchers noted, typed many more words than the hand-writing students. The laptop students also more frequently took down the lecture verbatim.

Upon seeing these results, the researchers adjusted a future study to ask the laptop students to not write down the lecture verbatim. After both, the results showed that students who took notes on laptops could very accurately give factual answers like the date of an event, but failed to be able to elaborate on the complexities of the topics like the similarities of different systems.

However, after the warning not to take down the lecture verbatim, laptop students' scores improved in the conceptual questions.

From the study, many teachers are now drawing conclusions that students shouldn't use laptops in lecture. Some would argue though, that laptops have proved a useful tool to receive instant questions and feedback on example problems in large lecture scenarios.

However, because students typically type faster than they can write, they will write more in lecture. As the research showed, quantity does not lead to quality notes.

By now, you're probably looking through whatever note-taking system you have and might be reconsidering. Perhaps you enjoy Microsoft OneNote, Apple's Notes, or even Evernote. Maybe you're glad because you're already taking notes in pen or pencil and excel at it. Regardless, there are some ways that will help you take better notes.

First, don't write everything down. Like the study above stated, the students who wrote more on laptops couldn't handle the conceptual questions. College is not just memorizing some facts to spew back at a test. Professors want to know that you're getting the material.

Instead, look to get the information as a question/answer format. 

Example: Why were the Mongols the most successful empire in history? Because of their successful governing policies and revolutionary military structure. What were their successful governing strategies? They elevated common people, allowed fair trade, were religiously tolerant, and generally only asked the region for taxes, not meddling in local politics.

Now you know a bit about the Mongols and a whole lot about structuring notes.

For those of you who are pen and paper enthusiasts already, your notes might be a black and white tundra or a rainbow land of colored ink.

Color is a very useful memory tool, able to teach the brain by association what areas are grouped together.

Your brain stores new information "next to" similar information. By giving your optical nerve a visual cue, the vision center of the brain can code the material more complexly and therefore it is more likely to stick around.

Einstein was once quoted to say "If you can't explain something to a five year-old, you don't understand it."

While I wouldn't recommend you go and analyze the social commentary in Dante's "Inferno" with a kindergartner, it might help you to help someone else. Find someone you can explain the content to yourself. Maybe someone you know is struggling too, but you've got a bit better grasp on the subject.

Talking to them about the subject is a great way to hear your ideas out of your head and listen to some feedback. If the tutee does not understand, neither do you.

Ultimately, there are cracks in the school system. If you're not careful, you can slip through them. Be a smart note taker and learn to learn, not memorize. Write notes, not textbooks.

More on notes and strategies below.