Updated: Dec 11, 2020
Some time ago we posted a video on our Youtube channel talking about “How to take notes”. I’ve decided to take this great opportunity to talk about some of the strategies and systems we shared to summarise your study materials and improve your overall retention.
In order to fully make use of your notes, it’s crucial to develop a good note-taking routine. We can waste hours making notes that not only didn’t help us to review in the process but also notes we probably will never look at again. Therein lies the two most important factors you should keep in mind when making notes. Notes need not only be “pretty” so you can look at them later, nor must they only be functional at that specific time you’re studying. We need a good balance of both to really call them good notes. The following tips help you to quickly and efficiently encapsulate both.
1. Use bullet points. The way this works is simple: write a bullet point and in front of it add the information regarding that specific topic. When you change topics, write a new bullet point. This helps you clearly distinguish between different information. Bullet points are also very versatile, you don’t need to always write a point, you can use different symbols to indicate different ideas. Bullet points force you to distil the most important information, ultimately making you review the content as you write the notes, as well as simplifying things for future you to easily benefit from. Many things can be distilled into a few words, leaving the point open-ended to be explained or contemplated while you review.
*Brownie points: Start using other symbols as well, like stars to indicate the main topics and dashes to indicate more specific topics within the main one (for example)
2. Can the long, proper sentences. There are many concepts which can’t be summarised with few words and need a bit more explanation or elaboration than a bullet note can provide for you. When that’s the case, it’s still best to keep things simple, and digestible for the future you to understand on the first read. Filler words like “the” or “because” can often be omitted in order to save time. A general gist or quick summary of what you heard your professor/teacher say will suffice. Quick symbols that represent different words, smaller words that mean the same as the big words you encounter, active-form sentences instead of passive-form are all good examples of ways to simplify your notetaking.
For example, you could use a small arrow between sentences to substitute for “and so” or “therefore: “Cat eats → sleeps ”. It’s also common for students to use mathematical denotation as substitutes as well ( =, + etc)
3. Don’t be afraid to use colours. Highlighters and markers can be useful to highlight key points. This way when you’re reading your notes it’s easier to locate where and what the main ideas are. There are two things you must be wary of, however, when using colour.
a) if you highlight too much, nothing is highlighted. b) A lot of the same colour, doesn’t say much to the brain.
Creating a colour-coding chart in order to keep everything more organised and clean is also a very useful tool for language learners, who want to sort different kind of words, grammar and idiom in their notes. Place the chart on your desk in plain sight, and the habit may benefit you a lot in the long run!
For example, you could put titles in pink, main ideas in yellow, dates in green, or for language, new words in pink, familiar but unknown words in yellow, unsure phrases in green etc.
5. Use pictures, tables and diagrams to your advantage. If you have a lot of important information that you need to remember, organising it into tables or diagrams can help to paint a clearer picture of the information for your brain. These usually prove better to retain the information; especially if you’re a visual learner. It can also help with labelling concepts and definitions.
Another benefit of using tables, diagrams or pictures in your notes is that it breaks up the monotony of words upon words, upon words and gives your brain a more pleasant experience when going through notes. Think about how you feel when you read a textbook with just words on end, limited spacing and no pictures? Yeah. We don’t want to re-create that in our notes.
For example, you could create a diagram to explain each of the four cases in German.
6. Work smarter, not harder. To summarise, the essence of the tips given in this article is about working more efficiently. Notes are not meant to be identical copies of the lectures, books or texts you’re studying from. When you take notes from a textbook or another source, write down only information that will be useful. Don’t make copies of the textbook, synthesise it and be selective. This will save you a lot of time and benefit your information retention and understanding, especially if you have limited time to study or a lot of materials to cover.
So what now?
Get started on your great notes, and let us know which tip was your favourite along with any other thoughts you might have on this topic!
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