Putting pen to the paper effectively

written record

Putting pen to the paper effectively

A  majority of students take notes without thinking twice about it. It’s what a good student does, what the professor expects, what everyone around them is doing. Everyone has their own unique style of recording lectures and readings.

No one seems to recommend one style over another, so anything works. And when the time comes to study for the test, most students review their notes several times over — maybe highlighting or underlining important information — trying to commit each concept and term to memory.

Rarely do we stop to examine note taking as a practice. Does it actually aid learning? Is one method more effective than the others? Should we be designing our lectures with note taking in mind? In a sense, note taking is one of the most influential parts of the learning process, because students take notes as they process new material. The way they record that material becomes the way they remember it, come exam time.

Note taking is backed by a significant body of research, measuring everything from individual reasons for taking notes to the impact of note taking on cognition. Still, there are many aspects of the practice that have never been thoroughly explored. For example, how does note taking style reflect the way an individual comprehends the world around her? Do bullet lists indicate certain personality traits that full sentences don’t? Can you predict a person’s organisational skills from his note taking technique?
The least we can do is examine the literature that’s available to us, which again is a lot, and try to understand the learning process with a bit more clarity.

Why do we take notes?

In 2012, Harvard hosted a conference called “Take Note”, which explored the history of the practice. In a talk on note taking in Shakespeare’s time, Tiffany Stern, a professor of early modern drama at Oxford University, described the way people carried “table books”, with specially treated erasable pages, to sermons and plays, not just to take notes but to advertise themselves as note takers. Tiffany says that in the eyes of others, it meant you were highly literate and wished to write all the time.

When you present your students with auditory and visual information at the same time, (for instance, a lecture paired with an overhead outline), it can become too taxing for them to record the details of both, let alone process them.

Ann Blair, professor of history at Harvard and one of the conference organisers, suggests a more private reason for the practice. “The note is the record a historian has of past reading,” she says. “What is reading, after all? Even if you look introspectively, it’s hard to really know what you’re taking away at any given time. But notes give us hope of getting close to an intellectual process.”

But the automated way many students take notes today may be a far cry from any kind of intellectual hope. James Hartley and Susan Marshall found that today’s students take notes for three main reasons:

for revision before an exam.
for immediate reinforcement.
for concentration purposes.

I would add that many students take notes to appear engaged in front of their professors and peers as one of the reasons here.

What to use to take notes

Pen and paper are the classic elements in note taking. But remember to use what you find comfortable with. Some students prefer to write in pencil as it can be easily corrected. Some may find pencil smudges a deterrent to their quality. Many students prefer notebooks as they are harder to misplace; some choose to use loose papers as they are easier to organise in folders or binders. It is entirely up to you to choose whichever tools you feel more familiar with. If you are afraid that your handwriting is illegible, you can use a laptop or tablet to take notes. Just remember to check with your teachers to make sure that it is permissible for you to use your laptop or tablets in class.

It is important to keep in mind that every individual has their own way of taking notes that is useful to them. A particular method that your classmate finds effective doesn’t guarantee that you would like it too. If you do not know how to take notes, don’t hesitate to give each note taking method a try until you find the one that is perfect for you. Once you have mastered your note taking skills, you will find lessons much easier to remember and revision less scary, than it would be otherwise.

Is note taking vital?

There are all sorts of reasons to take notes, and it’s important to first look to these reasons in deciding which particular method of note taking is best for us in the modern age. Different note taking needs demand different methods and the importance of each of these needs to each of us differs drastically. University students and freelance writers both tend to take notes for different reasons.

Note taking is one of those things where the best course of action is totally dependent on what you need to do. Do you need to sketch ideas for your graphic design job? Go the paper route. Do you need to keep track of shopping lists, things you’ve got to do tomorrow and ideas for articles? Go digital. Need the benefits of both? Then go with both.

The pros and cons are lined up in a row for you here — the decision, I hope, is much easier than it was before!

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