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How do you take notes?

The process of taking notes is a very personal one because how you take notes is very indicative of how you think.

Some notes are very structured and follow a linear sequence; other notes may be equally structured but may follow a circular or spiral sequence. And some people prefer a random access strategy for note-taking. Some prefer taking notes with words and in complete sentences, others prefer sketches, pictures, graphs and at most using sentence fragments.

But why take notes? How does taking notes help you?

Generally there are two reasons to take notes. One is information storage. Possibly the lecturer is presenting a new argument or covering a problem which is not in the book. This lecture is the only time the material is being presented and you have to get it down. Or maybe you have found a library book you cannot check out but want to take back and study. So you will need to take down what's important and will later have only your notes for study.

Few of us are able to read, or hear, something once and be able to remember and understand everything. (In the context of physics and most other fields, remembering something and understanding it are very different.) And so we have to read the book again and again. In a lecture we're just out of luck unless the lecturer, or you, have a tape made.

The second reason is knowledge reinforcement and enhancement. We find that by writing out this information we can more quickly remember more and achieve a greater degree of understanding. Writing allows us to break up the stuff into smaller chunks that we can process and make our own, writing allows us to practice communicating our understanding, writing allows us to spot holes in our understanding. More information is available on the learning style page. But the idea is basically to work with the material over and over again until you are independent of your notes.

Most people will benefit from the notes by organizing, writing, rewriting and reflecting on the notes. And some will benefit from actively reading the notes as though they were a textbook (see How do you learn from a textbook?). But no one will benefit from a passive reading of notes.

Taking notes during a lecture.

It should be easy to take notes during a lecture. You think 3 or 4 times faster than lecturers can speak. Unfortunately, you only write about half as fast as they can talk.

But what should you write down?

Few of us can claim that every word we say should be taken down and preserved. Mostly it is the derivation of the theory, the analysis of the problem, the details of a calculation. And though we use many words for these things, much fewer are needed to summarize and capture the ideas.

The key to successful note-taking during a lecture is preparation.

First study the lecturer. Why do they lecture?

Is it to derive a theory?

Then look for the logic of the derivation, look for the key points and how they fit together. Is it similar to another derivation? How is it different? Why are we looking at the derivation now? …

Is it to solve a problem?

Observe the analysis. Are there any "hidden clues" which influence the analysis? How is it similar to other problems? How is it different? What new idea are being used? What is the pattern to set up the problem? How does the instructor think about the problem? …

Is it to develop a concept?

We build concepts because a large body of observations and phenomena can be explained by these key ides. What issues are being addressed by this concept? Where does it fit into what you know already? What do you know about this phenomena? …

Most faculty will present whatever facets of physics (theory, problem solving, concepts, physical phenomena, …) are needed during a course at that time. You must be ready to adapt.

Second prepare for that specific day.

You must read the material of the lecture in advance. Even if it is not assigned. See How do you learn from a textbook?

What you will need is to listen to the lecture with both knowledge and questions. Only with both questions and knowledge are you likely to pick up the important parts of the lecture. Read the HW problems and be alert for clues to help answer the assigned questions.

Afterwards get a lecture buddy and compare notes. Perhaps your friends came in with different questions or they picked up on something you missed.

Then work with your notes until you have a reasonable mastery of the material. The study skills Web sites listed on the main study page has more material on taking notes during a lecture.

Taking notes while reading.

You will normally not need to take notes from a text for storage purposes. Your purpose while reading a text is to make notes that will help you learn the material more quickly and effectively.

The material in the text is presented in layers and your notes should also be in layers.

First get down an overview of the main ideas, terms and techniques of the chapter. Study the large divisions and sections of the chapter. Read the assigned problems and be on the look out for things that will help you answer those problems.

Try learning the concepts and terms first, then the sample problems, and then the underlying theory. If that does not work use another order.

The study skills Web sites listed on the main study page has more material on taking notes while reading.

The structure of notes

There are two general formats to taking notes.

The most widely known uses an outline approach with key ideas broken into subtopics and subdivisions. This approach is often called the Cornell system. This is a good system for those who learn best with the written word and enjoy organization. A more free flowing system is using concept maps (or mind maps). These are diagrams which hold ideas in a pictorial schematic. This approach is good for visual learners and those who prefer a less linear approach than the Cornell system.

Do not think of notes as a finished product but something that grows and changes to reflect your understanding. The study skills Web sites listed on the main study page has more material on both systems of taking notes.

Generally you will want to combine the notes from your reading, with your notes from the lecture into a single coherent body of understanding. And do not forget to add notes from lab, your discussions with friends, insights from wherever. You may find that you prefer one system of taking notes in lecture and another while reading the text.


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