Note Taking: I never got it

I have never understood how it is possible to listen and write at the same time.

Except when absolutely forced to by a teacher, I am almost certain I have never taken a note in my life. (At the most, I jotted down a word or line to help me recall something later–but by “note taking” I mean carefully recording the content of the lecture in some written fashion.)

A prof who I thought was quite “young and with it” once complained to me that I wasn’t taking notes. He seemed to think it was a sign that I wasn’t listening. Why did I mention that just now? It seemed relevant for a moment but I now forget why.

I have seen students in my own classes let note taking get in the way (AFAICT, in my opinion) of their learning. I’ve actually occasionally made a blanket announcement to the class that I think that note-taking is not for everyone, but I fear I’m doing students a disservice by doing this. Should I instead be telling them all to take better notes? But I don’t know how to do that–because I’ve never done it myself.

I caution them that I do not interpret note-taking as a “sign of respect” or anything like that. I know they can listen without taking notes. Note-taking is a strategy they can use if they find it effective. And yes, I do say it: If they haven’t found it effective in the past, then it’s not clear to me why they should bother.

Here’s what I don’t get:

–How do you listen and write at the same time?
–How do you transcribe and think about the content at the same time?
–What do you do with the notes later? (The times I’ve been forced to take notes, later I was like, wtf am I supposed to do with this?)

Is there research on the effectiveness of note-taking as a learning tool?

It’s not like I’ve got a great memory or anything–my memory is damned awful in fact. But to me, learning isn’t so much about “remembering” anything as it is about understanding things. For me, note taking could act as a memory aid but it seems to me it only gets in the way of understanding–after all, it’s the note takers who are always trying to give me exactly the wording I gave them from class, showing no sign of real understanding at all. (If they really did give me exactly my wording back, I couldn’t objectively give them anything but an A–but the problem is, those who try to do this typically fail and give me a jumble of the words I said. I’d much prefer they’d put their pens down, forgot about “remembering” what I said, and instead focussed on understanding it.

It sucks because when they give me the word jumble, and I reply back using much the same phrasing as that used in class or in the text, then they take away “I didn’t remember this well enough!” and the cycle continues… :frowning:

I don’t take a lot of notes. I fake it in meetings sometimes. But I did take notes (not a ton) in school - you’re in a language class and your teacher puts a chart on the board and you don’t write it down? Writing things like that down help me remember, and then I’ll have them in my notes which is often easier than finding them in the text.

Not to mention classes that are more pure lecture - like history classes where the books are more supplemental and the meat of the class you only get in lecture. You don’t write down who the Three Henries were in the war of the same name?

It’s probably a result of the fact that I’d never figured out note-taking in the first place that, for me, looking this kind of information up in the (or a) text always seemed more immediate to me than finding it in notes.

But I can see that if I’d been in the habit in the first place, that would have been easier.

The three henries thing though–presumably if I understand what the war’s about I know how these three henries relate to each other and what the differences are between them in that set of relations and so on so… I don’t actually anticipate a need to look anything up in a situation like that. If I don’t know who the three henries are after hearing a prof talk about it for an hour to an hour and a half, then I haven’t understood what he was talking about at all so it’s kind of moot whether I remember sentences by which one can distinguish between the three.

This whole not-knowing-how-to-take-notes thing is probably largely responsible, though, for the extreme difficulty I have in remembering which names and works to attach to particular ideas and arguments. This is not quite crippling in my line of work–but I think it leads to my having to put in a lot of extra work on an aspect of my job which I suspect is “second nature” to most of my colleagues. (I’m a college prof, and for me, compiling references is a huge pain in the ass I have to look forward to after writing a paper, a very difficult task that requires me shuffling through reams and reams of paper trying to remember where the heck I got this or that. I suspect (but do not know) that for most others in similar positions, this stuff just happens more naturally while you’re writing, because they are note takers and so have a facility for remembering associations between ideas, names and works. Not so for me.)

You would have loved my Psych teacher in college. At the beginning of each semester (or maybe each section) he handed out the lecture notes in outline form. He lectured from this outline and asked that we use this as our notes and only jot down extra things here and there if we need to, this way we can actually pay attention to what he saying.

In high school, I had a teacher that did basically the same thing. He put the lecture notes on the overhead, we copied them down, then he would talk. Put the next page up, copy that to our notes, then talk about it.

There were classes where I found it helpful to take notes and classes where I didn’t… I took faithful notes in chemistry and biology lectures, for instance, where the lecture involved a lot of diagrams. The professor would always have to spend some time drawing things, and I’d take that time to write down notes, then I’d draw the diagram when the lecture resumed, so the two verbal feeds didn’t get mixed up in my brain. By doing this, I usually learned the material well enough that I didn’t need to study it any more.

Math lectures, though, I always had to listen to, and most liberal arts lectures it wasn’t worthwhile to write things down–much better to concentrate on the professor.

First of all, my note-taking starts before getting to class, if possible. If there is a book, I read it beforehand; if I’ve studied the subject before, I read my old notes. I think that’s one of the problems I had in the last academic course I took: there wasn’t any way I could prepare the lessons.

–How do you listen and write at the same time?
Shrug, they use different parts of the brain. I move my eyes and head up and down a lot, to watch the teacher - write - watch - write… but listening and writing? What, you never took dictation when you were little?
The hard part isn’t “listen and write at the same time”, it’s “listen, figure out which part you need to take down, then write”.

–How do you transcribe and think about the content at the same time?

–What do you do with the notes later?
Study. My notes tend to be the Cliff Notes version of Cliff Notes; the ones I took for a couple of my university courses were sold by the Students’ Union for several years, as the Cliff Notes version. There was another student in the previous year whose ultra-detailed notes were sold as the “if it isn’t here, the teacher didn’t say it” version. (This was in Spain, there was no such thing as a “University Bookstore”; books were sold by the Student’s Union and often self-published).

For example, one of those courses is Inorganic Chemistry. The teacher’s field of study is corrosion, so there was a lot of information about corrosion and metallurgy simply because it’s what he liked. The notes taken by my 79 classmates showed “the steel composition diagram” five times.

Mine had it once. With four five-pointed stars beside it: any time the teacher mentioned something he had mentioned again, I went back to it and drew a five-point star on the margin. Yeah, that diagram came up in every single exam, you could ensure 30-40% of the grade by keeping a copy of it handy as a sort of flashcard and making sure you knew it like your own name.

If something is in the book, and the book’s explanation matches the teacher’s, or even if the teacher’s explanation matches my old notes, there is no need for new notes. If the teacher gives whatever explanation but “tests from the book”, there is no need for notes.
1st-college-year Chemistry was essentially a repeat of stuff those of us from the Science tracks should have studied between 10th and 12th grade, the curriculums were almost identical… and most of my 1st-year notes for that course look like this:
…Theme 1
…Atomic theory
See 10th grade notes.

…Theme 2

If I may ask, what’s your field? I found the part I’ve underlined to be a huge difference between how we worked in Chemistry/ChemEng and how I had to work for Translation: in Translation, the references were supporting material you searched for post-facto, whereas in Chemistry I had them all lined up (and photocopied/scanned for easy reference) beforehand.

I finally figured out about 2 years ago that the point of note taking was not to have notes to go back and reference, but the process of taking notes itself was a memory aid. I agree, it’s hard when you’re taking notes for lectures - but for reading? If I really want to learn something well, I take notes.

I never actually go back and read them, but the process of reading a technical article, stopping every paragraph or so, and paraphrasing the content in my own words helps my retention immensely.

Taking notes from lectures or conference calls (I’m not in school, I never go to lectures anymore, but I do attend work-related conference calls and occasionally take notes), it’s much more of a "I better jot down that date/those names/that info so that I can remember it.

I would be lost without notes - it’s an integral part of my learning process.

  1. Read text
  2. Highlight important things (writes to memory)
  3. Listen to lecture
  4. Takes notes (writes to memory)

There’s something about having to write down what is said that cements it for me. When I study from notes, I find that the text of the notes is less important than the “memory access” the sight of the notes trigger.

And it’s easy for me to take notes while I listen - maybe through practice? I can listen and write at the same time, and the “instant” quality of note-taking lets me strip down the info into something that quick and easy to understand, in my words.

I take notes nearly every day of my life. I don’t see how it interferes with listening at all. In fact, I would say that taking of notes helps me remember and understand what is being said. It requires me to focus on what the speaker is saying. If I don’t take notes, the information is much more ephemeral and easily forgotten.

I am extremely good at taking notes.

I think it comes down to how you process information. I can process and retain, maybe 10% of information that comes at me in audio format. I will comprehend it completely, and forget it immediately. In other words, I pretty much can’t retain the information in a lecture without taking notes.

How can I listen and write at the same time? I don’t know, it’s easy for me. Practice I guess. Most people speak quite slowly, more than slowly enough to write down by hand the key points being communicated, and think about it, at the same time. I can hold a couple of sentences at a time in my RAM, and continue writing into the pauses of the lecture.

I use fonts (underlining, all caps, etc) and other visual tools (arrows, indentation) to organize and relate the material as I go. For example, if the professor says, “There are 3 key factors…” I write down 1. and the information, leaving space for 2. and 3. . If the professor digresses, I backfill when he gets back on topic. This will call out and highlight when the professor forgets #2, which happens all the time. I know there are three factors, and I have to look up what #2 is.

Good note taking is the process of determining what is most important in context. You have to focus on the material and evaluate it as it comes at you. Taking down a transcription of the lecture is useless for most people (and a fairly common habit, now that laptops are permitted in classrooms). While not all of the best students in my law school handwrote their notes, all of the handwriters were among the best students.

Most recently (in law school) I used my notes to convert to flash cards. The notes memorialize the lectures, which are a pretty huge hint as to what the professor thinks is important for the final. I also used them for reference in my study groups. Typical conversation:
Study group: so, I’m confused – what are the elements of negligence?
Me: (flip flip) (reading from notes) Duty, breach of that duty, causation, and harm
Study group: He said that!?
Me: He must have, because I wrote it down.
Study group: huh.

It’s reassuring to know that I’m not the only one who does this! Now I wonder if it’s not everyone that does this. About the only thing I write (when not faking it) is a specific deliverable if expected from me or due to me, or a specific technical detail that I need to later recall. That’s not 99% of most meeting content, though.

That’s what I do when I’m not in charge of minutes, yes. I don’t need to know the details of what other people have to do, unless it’s for me or they need something from me.

I never took notes either. Thought I was the only one. I understand that taking notes is a good thing, if you can do it, but I can’t write and pay proper attention at the same time. It seems unnecessary to me that every student should have to transcribe what the teacher says when the teacher could just provide that material in the first place, unless the subject is dictation. I once tried to do it diligently and missed a negative in a finite math class. That lost me at least a letter grade before I figured it out.

Does note taking explain why some people never ask questions? I ask a lot of question and have always wondered if I am just dense, since everybody else just sits there and writes.

I just don’t write down anywhere near what the teacher is saying. Processing what’s important is just built in to how I learn, even if I’m just listening. The important part goes into my brain, the rest just floats back out, so to speak.

This is why I hate teachers who test you on their BS stories that have nothing to do with the subject. Sure, I’m listening, but I’m not clicking the save button in my mind, and it’s not going to inherently stick around since it’s not built on anything.

And, yes, the fact that I’ve typed what I’ve typed and thus seen it on the screen does help something stay in my memory until I get it properly integrated. Did I mention I prefer to type notes? If I can’t use my laptop, I usually won’t take notes.

BTW, looking stuff up in the text has never worked for me, as every teacher I’ve had will go offbook pretty early on, and most I’ve had test on what they say, not what you are supposed to read (which makes the reading seem kinda pointless.)

Pretty much what I do. Most of the people I see in meetings are just doodling. So they aren’t pay attention or taking notes but it looks like they are on the ball.

Due to that same concern of feeling stupid, I usually ask any question I think everybody else understands outside of class. If the teacher thinks it’s important, they’ll bring it up next lecture.

There’s also an art in knowing what level of understanding the teacher is going to quiz you on, and not stepping over that by asking more complex questions. When you ask a question that will not be on the test, many of the students feel you are wasting their time. Since most of my teachers would only test over what they’ve discussed, I always found that weird. A well timed question can make a test easier or postpone it, and that seems to be the type of thing these students want.

Me too about asking questions–I have often been the guy who asks all the questions in a class.

I hear that “learning styles” are not well-evidenced in the literature, but if my learning style ever comes up, I say I’m a dialectical learner. I don’t know if that’s a real category or not (I suspect it probably is) but what I mean is, I learn best through dialogue. Not by hearing, but by actually talking it out. Even when I don’t have anyone to talk to about it, when I’m trying to figure things out there’s a fairly literal “dialogue” going on in my mind–like I take on both speaker roles in my standard learning dialogue.

It could be that both my inability to figure out note-taking and my tendency to learn by talking things through both stem from some kind of attentional deficit or something (not in the ADD sense of course…) like maybe people are standardly able to pay attention to both what they’re thinking and what someone else is saying at the same time, and I’m not–hence my cries of ‘how do you think and take notes at the same time’ and also my desire to ‘take turns’ in the learning process by dividing it up explicitly into a dialogue. Or something. I’m just making stuff up here.

So the funny thing is–I can’t take notes, but I do doodle, and in fact if I try to force myself not to, the effort is distracting. In order to listen, I must doodle. (However, I pay absolutely no attention whatsoever to the doodling–it feels almost like I’m not even the one doing it tbh!)

That’s not always true. My psych teach once asked me why I never appeared to be paying attention to his lectures (I was usually doing my calc homework, in the front row). I told him I have ADD and if I’m making eye contact with him during a lecture with him, watching him pace around the room, appearing to pay attention…I’m probably day dreaming. However, if I’m buried in a math book, doodling, scribbling down notes about his lecture etc… I’m on the ball. I told him to feel free to call me out any time he wanted. He did, regularly, and I always answered his question and I think I got a B in the class. He truly didn’t seem bothered by it and always seemed to enjoy talking to me about the class afterwords so I think he liked me as a student.

Anyways, sure some people are off in lala land when they’re doodling, but some people (at least those with ADD) need that extra stimulation to concentrate. If they don’t get it from doodling, they’re mind is going to wander (And you won’t know it, since we get good at looking like we’re paying attention).

That doesn’t sound like an attention deficit, though! Rather, it sounds like you’ve got an ability (or even a need) to pay attention to more things at once than is standard for human brains. It’s almost like an attention surplus!

Is that accurate?

(Your self-description sounds a little like what I said about myself before, but for me I couldn’t be actually thinking about something else while paying attention–I do need to be doing something with my body while paying attention, but for me the thing my body is doing is not somethin gi think about at all. Hence the random squiggles, the jiggly knees, etc. )

If I try to force myself to stay still and not do any of that, I lose all ability to pay attention.

I don’t think that’s unusual, but I don’t actually know!

Meanwhile, yeah, what you said–I’d’ve called it Attention Surplus Bonus, rather than Attention Deficit Disorder! :wink: