Taking Good Notes

By: Stephen V. Miller

This blog post is a written complement to a talk I gave to Clemson University students on Friday, September 12th. I provide the slides to that talk here. The subject of the talk was on note-taking in class. Professors expect students to take good notes in class. Students attempt to take good notes in class. However, it's not obvious what the process entails.

In this talk, I offered comments about what to do and what not to do in trying to take good notes. The talk reiterated three things in particular. One, students cannot take good notes without also having read the material. The process of reading goes beyond just reading to "get it over with". Two, students need to write, not transcribe, in order to take good notes. Three, students should listen more and read (slides) less in order to make the most of the lecture. I elaborate these below.

No Excuse For Not Reading

First, I provide the important disclaimer that there is no excuse for students for not doing the reading. This is especially true for undergraduates, who can be considered entry-level apprentices to their particular discipline (here: political science). Professionals have a wealth of experience, having read hundreds to thousands of articles, books, or monographs altogether. We have the luxury of relying on schema or memory to "fill in" blanks when we give something a cursory scan. Students do not have this luxury.

"Reading" is more than just a chore. The metaphor here might be doing dishes. In this kind of chore, the person laboring over dishes can put in half-effort or pad time just to say that the dishes are "done" and can be made the problem for the dishwasher after a meal. The job is not to read to "get it over with". The job is to read to understand.

Students must read their assigned material before class starts if the student expects to maximize the learning experience from lecture. Further, the student must read critically and evaluate what s/he is reading. Here, I provide the example of a scholarly journal article, which is my usual reading assignment in class. When students start to read a journal article, it'll be helpful to do the following.

First, read the abstract. The abstract gives a preview of the article and a nice synopsis. After the abstract, the reader should have a grasp on the topic of the article, the motivating puzzle of the article, and how the author purports to have offered a solution to the puzzle. Next, read the introduction. The introduction frames the article to follow and informs the reader what the author is doing and why s/he is doing it.

Next, read the conclusion. For academics, reading articles tends to not be a linear process (i.e. from start to finish). We typically jump into the results section after reading the introduction to see what the author is doing. We can do this because we have a wealth of experience that can allow us to glance over things like the literature review and theory later. On a related note, perhaps the student may want to jump to the conclusion and determine what the author believes s/he has found and what are the important implications of the article. A full understanding of what the author believes s/he has found may be beneficial before evaluating the author's methods and analysis.

Then, the student should read the middle parts. This includes the literature review, which identifies a problem and why it is important to solver the problem. Then, proceed to the theory section, which articulates the author's argument for solving the problem with his or her proposed conjecture or method. Thereafter, read the research design of the paper. I've mentioned this elsewhere, but students must read the research design section of a paper if s/he wants to fully understand the analyses to follow. Then, evaluate the author's analysis in the results section.

When reading an article, I encourage the student to take plenty of notes. What follows is a list that I recall well from a class with Professor Ted Hopf when I was a student at The Ohio State University. I did not appreciate it until I went to graduate school, but he was right to offer the following advice to students in his Russian Politics class about how to read the assigned texts. In short, there is an order of note-taking, ranked from least helpful to most helpful.

      1. Reading without highlighting.


 


      2. Reading with highlighting, which is only a bit more helpful than not using the highlighter. Your highlighter is not an effective reading tool.

 


      3. Reading and writing marginalia on the article or book chapter itself.

 

    4. Reading and writing copious notes about key points and things that otherwise seem interesting or do not make sense yet.


Further, answer these questions (as best you can) about what you are reading before class starts.


  • What question was the author trying to answer in his/her article?

  • What is the author's argument?

  • What evidence does the author use to advance his/her claim?

  • Is the question important? Is it contemporary? Or does the subject appear obscure or narrow?

  • Are the findings and the conclusion novel? Did we know something now that we didn't know before the author's analysis?

  • Is the author internally consistent? Sometimes authors inadvertently contradict themselves. Check to see if s/he did.

  • Does the author's conclusions follow from the evidence presented? Sometimes authors fail to account for alternative explanations or otherwise make inferential leaps in their analysis that they should not.

  • Finally, how does this relate to what you have read?


Write them out too in order for better recall of the information. The student should notice a pattern. Students learn more by writing than just reading. Take it seriously.

Ultimately, there is no excuse to not read the assigned material. Evaluate the reading before class starts if you wish to make the most of lecture. Lecture builds on readings and unpacks arguments further. We may also fill in blanks with our own expertise.

One of the biggest mistakes students make is assuming lectures are substitutes for reading. They're not. Further, we'll know when students are not doing the reading. Students who think they can fake it through class when presented with an in-class question will not have that luxury when it comes time to put pen to paper on an exam or an end-of-the-semester paper.

Taking Notes in Class

In this section, I want to clear two misconceptions about in-class lectures. These expectations seemingly pervade all classes at all universities and go unquestioned by students.

Your Laptop is Not Helping You

Your laptop is not helping you. It's actively hurting your learning experience. Put it away during class. Your writing hand may not appreciate taking copious notes by hand, but your brain will.

The most intuitive explanation for this is that laptops are distractions for students. This is true. Social media like Facebook and Twitter, even e-mail, is a constant poke on the shoulder demanding immediate attention. Advances in technology have made update-seeking behavior almost compulsive. I see you checking your Twitter for @mentions and I know you're reading Facebook messages or liking someone's Buzzfeed clickbait posted on your wall. Social media can wait an hour. The time spent doing that is time misspent in lecture. Students think they're efficient multi-taskers. Not only are they not efficient multi-taskers, but even good multi-taskers benefit from cutting down the amount of tasks at any given moment.

Surprisingly, students do no better on laptops with internet access disconnected. Why? Mueller and Oppenheimer (2014), who conducted this now well-cited study, argue that the problem is one of transcription. Almost everyone can type faster than they can write. Presented a laptop for taking notes, students will engage in thoughtless transcription of everything presented to them. The mistake is feeling compelled to write down every word on a slide or from the professor.

By contrast, taking notes by longhand encourages listening and thinking. Absent the ability to record everything with strokes on a keyboard, students must be selective in writing down information from a lecture. It's precisely this process-of summarizing and thinking about what's important-that helps the recall of those who take notes on paper.

Notes may be cleaner and more easily searchable if typed during lecture. The problem is the student has learned little to no more than s/he knew before lecture started. Write; don't transcribe.

PowerPoint is Not Intended for You

Here is another secret that students don't know. PowerPoint isn't for the students, nor was it ultimately intended for the students (or an audience). PowerPoint is there for the professor. It's a cue card in a new dress.

Whereas your typical (if stereotypical, even) "absent-minded professor" is juggling anywhere between a dozen to two dozen things at once and has a wealth of knowledge in his/her brain, PowerPoint provides structure. It reminds the professor to hit certain points. It helps the professor to avoid rambling and prevents losing direction of what the professor wants to say. It's our tool, not the student's.

Somewhere along the way, people lost sight of this. Expectations changed in the university. Now, students expect that PowerPoint is for them. It's mistaken as an easy substitute for not doing (or not understanding) the reading or a way to not listen to the professor.

Students who want to make the most of PowerPoint should consider the following when it comes to lecture slides. Importantly, do not feel compelled to write down every word, knowing that ultimately the slides are there for the professor and not the student. Second, since most slides are "topical" or touch on a particular idea or section of a reading (all else equal), write down only the information that is new. Third, and as a tip, look for numeric lists on a lecture slide. These are usually "hammer home" points that the professor wants to reiterate as key points of a particular topic. Fourth, ask yourself what the slide's content is doing for questions you should've asked or answered for yourself from reading.

In short, don't write it down if you already know it. Listen to the professor instead, who may be saying something interesting that is not included on the slide. After all, the slide is there to remind the professor, not necessarily inform the student. Listen; don't read during class.

Miscellaneous Tips

The preceding points underscore that students learn more from writing and writing longhand. This is encouraged even after lecture when the student continues to think about what they read and what the professor said in class. Write longhand for as long as what's practical. Then, type notes on the computer to make them searchable and readable.

Finally, I'm a big fan of composition books. Composition books have several advantages over other options like spiral notebooks and legal pads. They're cheap and sturdy. A college-ruled one might cost around $1.50. Importantly, there's little chance for spill-over or having pages fall out or be torn accidentally. They're easily stackable too. I recommend composition books for each class.

Conclusion

Professors expect students to take good notes in class to better learn the material. Students aspire to take good notes to prepare for exams. However, it is not obvious what "taking good notes" entails. Students don't have a class on "taking good notes" in the course catalog, leaving them to figure it out on their own.

I offered some guidance in this talk (and the blog post here) on what to do and what not to do in taking notes during class. I conclude with three major points.

First, there is no excuse to not do the reading. To make the most of lecture, students are expected to read the assigned material and evaluate the material critically. Don't read to "get it over with" as if it were a chore. Read to understand. Read to answer questions.

Second, students should listen more during lecture and read (slides) less. PowerPoint is not for students. PowerPoint is for the professor. In most applications, what the professor is saying is more important than what's on a lecture slide.

Third, students need to write more and transcribe less. The difference between the two-not obvious, prima facie-was elaborated here. Writing longhand is more conducive to good note-taking. Laptops are crutches beyond the distraction presented by the internet and social media, in particular.

Good note-taking is a rigorous exercise. It's supposed to be. It's the student's commitment to him/herself to understand and evaluate the material. There is no way around this for beginners.

Stephen V. Miller is an Assistant Professor of the Department of Political Science at Clemson University in Clemson, SC.