Should you take notes during lecture?

In a time when everything you need to succeed at your classes is readily available online, you may wonder if there’s really any need to take notes anymore. Why rush to write everything down instead of spending the lecture time really understanding what the professor is saying? Well, it turns out that notetaking is one of the best things you can do to improve your GPA and do better in your classes. Notetaking helps you deeply process the lecture content and make connections between ideas. Additionally, reviewing your own notes leads to more benefits than reviewing someone else's notes. When you review your own notes, you strengthen the connections you originally made when taking them, leading to more effective studying.

How should you take notes?

Is it better to rapidly write down everything the professor says? Or try to put things in your own words?

Summarizing the content involves processing and comprehending it in the moment. This process causes you to learn the material better in the short-term. If tested immediately after lecture, then someone who summarized would outperform someone who essentially transcribed the lecture 1

However, in the real world you don’t get tested immediately after your lecture. You get time to actually study from your notes. In that case, it is irrelevant what method you used to take the notes. So do whatever you’re comfortable with.

Laptop vs Pen and paper

Taking notes with a laptop sucks for a lot of reasons. One of the main reasons is that laptops make it very easy to multi-task. And when I say multi-task, I mean distract yourself. And when I say distract yourself, I mean distract you and everyone sitting around you. You may be thinking "oh no, I don’t get distracted". Well, you’re probably lying to yourself, because students who use laptops spend 40% of the class time doing something unrelated to the lecture 2. It’s really hard to not be distracted when you have the entire internet available and this lecture is boring and you’re kind of tired anyway. Even if you don’t get distracted, the act of you taking notes on your laptop can be distracting and negatively affect those around you (though if the class is curved, that’s probably what you want).

Another reason is that laptops tend to encourage word for word notes with little comprehension. While that can be okay with sufficient studying, you probably won’t be doing sufficient studying. Which means you will likely do worse on conceptual questions than people who used a pen and paper 3.

The last disadvantage of laptops is that you can only take linear notes. While you may be able to make diagrams, it’s a lot harder. With pen and paper you have a lot of flexibility to make the kind of notes you want, draw things out, and do things in a more non-linear way that may make it easier to understand the concept.

Summary: Don’t use a laptop unless you like lowering your GPA (and taking a few others with you).

How do you review notes?

All that work you did taking notes is useless if you don’t actually use them (what a surprise). If you wait until the day before the exam to start cramming your notes, then you might as well have used a textbook, because you’ve thrown away most of the advantages of taking notes. When you took those notes, you created new connections in your brain. But those connections will slowly fade away unless you strengthen them. And the best way to strengthen them is using spaced repetition, not one giant cramming session.

You should always review notes on the same day you take them, even if it’s a brief review. After that, you should space out your note review, and do it every few days, with increasing intervals. Reviewing notes before the next lecture is also a good tactic, because it primes your mind to make connections between the old and new content.

Simply re-reading notes is not very efficient. A better method of reviewing notes is self-testing. Many people use self-testing as a way to figure out what they already know, but self-testing is actually one of the best ways to study new concepts. When you test yourself on a topic, you strengthen the retrieval pathways to that information, i.e you become better at accessing information related to that topic. This helps you do a lot better in exams. A special style of notetaking called Cornell Notes is optimized for self-testing and is considered one of the best note-taking styles.

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Notetaking is something you’ve been doing your whole life, and you probably haven’t put much thought into how to improve it. You may have already known these things but never got around to actually doing them. You can keep ignoring them, or you can start improving your GPA with better notetaking habits today.

Further reading:
http://hilt.harvard.edu/files/hilt/files/notetaking_0.pdf

References: