Note taking is one of the most underrated skills a person can learn in school.
You generally don’t get graded on it, per se, unless you take a class in shorthand. It’s often taught as a small component of another course.
But unlike some academic subjects that have little or no practical use after high school or college graduation, the ability to take notes has lifelong value.
Good note taking goes a long way toward making good journalists. Doctors and other medical staff rely on notes concerning a patient’s symptoms and diagnosis. Staff meetings often require taking down important information.
“Note taking is a skill – like shooting free throws or dancing the waltz – which must be learned and practiced to be done well,” says Lisa Kuchta, an instructor of communication at Southern.
She actually landed a job in college as a note taker. In the long run, the profitability of her job depended upon the accuracy and effectiveness of her notes.
Kuchta offers the following suggestions to students on effective note taking, although many of the same principles can be applied to adults, as well.
- Do your homework. It is important to read the material on which a lecture is going to be based before the class. Teachers and professors will use terms or ideas from the readings in their lectures. If you don’t understand the material, it will be difficult to grasp the meaning of what is said in class.
- Eliminate barriers to learning. Simply put, you can’t take good notes if you can’t pay attention. So, make sure you can see and hear clearly what is said and written on the board. Turn off your cell phone. Avoid the temptation of checking an email or instant message if you are taking notes via a laptop or tablet. And while students today are probably better at multi-tasking than in the past, research has shown that the brain can’t fully focus on two mental tasks at once.
- Learn to pick out the main ideas. “Ten minutes of lecture can likely be boiled to a few main points and a handful of sub points,” Kuchta says. “Trying to write down everything the instructor says will inevitably cause you to miss important information. You just can’t write as fast as the lecturer can speak, unless you know shorthand.”
- Practice, practice, practice. If you find yourself having difficulty choosing what to leave in and what to leave out, take some extra time to improve that skill. One way to practice is to listen to a news broadcast. After each story, try to retell the gist of it in one sentence.
- Use a clear, outlined structure. Outlines enable the brain to think logically. They enable us to differentiate between major and minor points. You can choose your own style – Roman numerals, capital letters, stars and bullet points, or whatever system that makes you comfortable.
- Put ideas into your own words. Just robotically copying what the lecturer says – even when you don’t have a clue as to what it means – isn’t going to help you understand the material later. “Instead, listen completely to what the professor is trying to tell you and — in your head – re-explain it to yourself in your own words so that it makes sense to you. If you realize it does not make sense to you, ask the teacher for clarification,” Kuchta says.
- Type or reread your notes later that day. It takes a little more time, but it will be worth it in the long run. By re-reading and/or transcribing your notes, it will allow you to fill in the blanks on what you don’t understand while the information is still fresh in your mind. And it will also help you commit it to a longer-term memory.
“Becoming a better note-taker may take commitment and diligence, but improving your proficiency will make your job – in school and in the real world – so much easier,” Kuchta says.