During one to ones with students, I regularly discuss which aspects of study they find most challenging, and then together we explore ways they can develop their skills in those areas. From these conversations, I've noted that one of the most challenging study skills is note-taking during lectures and presentations. This is also something that individuals tend to find tricky in work meetings and presentations - so it's a skill well worth developing during studies to carry over to the workplace.
Although there are various note-taking software packages available to students (which I may recommend where appropriate), I still support the use of pen and paper note-taking, either as a complement to software, or even as the preferred method.
If this is a skill you’d like to improve on, I suggest that you think about ‘before, during and after’ timezones. Read on for a breakdown of the three.
Before a lecture, do your best to get hold of pre-lecture notes or slides - admittedly not always straightforward as tutors may not be super speedy when it comes to making these resources available - but with some gentle, polite prodding, they are likely to oblige.
So when available, print the notes and allow yourself time to read through and familiarise yourself with the content. Then allow thinking time (a very useful stage which is often overlooked) to engage with the text and ask questions:
What do you already know about the topic?
What do you need to know?
What questions are you expecting to be answered?
Note these down.
Why not squeeze in half an hour to research some of the key ideas? Then you can annotate the notes / slides, and there you have it - good preparation for taking notes during the event.
As for the ‘during’ part, I’m all for using good quality materials as doing so can make note-taking more enjoyable and should also result in a set of notes that don’t fade or fly away - and that would be a waste of time! Ditch any flimsy paper pads and blobby biros for a much better note-taking experience. I favour good quality blank paper (as I love to mindmap and sketch note), no smaller than A4 and a good blue (if I'm only writing) or black pen (if I'm using a more visual format). Papermate Flairs and Neuland Fine Ones have been recommended by @loosetooth.
If you do prefer the full digital experience, then writing directly onto a tablet with a stylus is great (DIY styluses are a possibility I hear).
Next, I highly recommend that you get comfortable with your surroundings - by this I mean that you don’t just sit anywhere, but rather you find a seat that you prefer. For some time now, when I attend meetings or presentations, I've been taking a minute to decide which spot will work best for me. My choice can vary, but often takes me to the back and near a window if possible. I find it difficult to sit for a length of time and I like to give myself the freedom to leave the room if I so wish (because of overwhelming situations that I’ve faced in the past - I like to have the escape option).
You should also minimise any distractions. Distractions can be either internal or external, so knowing what distracts you and being able to stop that monster in its tracks will do wonders for your ability to focus.
From engaging with the pre-lecture notes, you should feel more prepared and ready to start capturing your own notes. Don’t forget to take the pre-lecture notes with you and use them though. Questions you’ve noted will prompt you to listen for relevant points to help answer those questions. Remember this is not a dictation exercise - you do not need to write it all down.
There’ll be more to come on note-taking methods in a future post, but for now I just want to mention the mind-mapping option. You may have used this method for other purposes other than note-taking, so extend its use to live situations and bring along your resources (as above) to give mind-mapping a go. You know the drill - start by centering the main topic, and then add branches to map out the key points. This method allows you to make links between ideas as the speaker may refer back to points made earlier in the lecture - just use those arrows and boxes freely - your mind doesn’t work in a linear fashion, so why should your notes - Let’s Keep it Less Linear :)
Other note-taking formats include grids, outline notes and the ‘boxing method’. Look out for future posts exploring these options. Templates and examples can easily be found online.
After the note-taking event your mind will naturally turn to other things (coffee, social media, phone calls etc.), but if you create a habit of reviewing your notes soon after note-taking, you will reap the rewards of your organisation.
By all means get some fresh air and grab a coffee, but reviewing your notes while sipping is a worthwhile task to add to the note-taking process. If you don’t have time to read your notes soon after the event, then make sure that you allow time for it within 24 hours max. During this reading aim to fill in any gaps and mark areas where questions remain that you can check up on with peers or presenters. I like to add extra 'mini notes' in a different colour.
So that's it - noted. With just a little planning, organisation and discipline, note-taking does get easier. Keep practising and look out for my upcoming posts on other aspects of notetaking. Own your note-taking and you’ll have others asking for your secrets in no time.