Note-taking is one of those old stand-by skills that just seems like a permanent mental fixture in the rambling monstrosity that is academic thought. It's so important that almost every university website offers an extensive section on how to do it. (Dartmouth's is particularly impressive.) It only stands to reason that writing down information helps when trying to remember things. Right?
Nah. This is the human brain we're talking about. Things are infinitely weirder than that.
How Taking Notes Works Against You
The biggest problem with taking notes in class (or during any other task, really -- reading a book for example) is that it is distracting. It is true that you might not remember everything if you just listen, but by desperately trying to record all the information that is flying at you during a lecture you are certain to miss crucial points.
The trick is really to manage your attention. Most students miss enormous amounts of material precisely because they are trying to capture everything. They know they can't get absolutely everything, so they try to write it all down. After twenty minutes, they are completely exhausted mentally and possibly physically as their hand cramps up. Additionally, if a given student is deliberately using a notational system then they will be thinking about that along with the material and what they're trying to write.
No wonder students find classes stressful
The other problem is that when students write down absolutely everything, they are left with notebook after notebook of hastily scrawled and often partial information. There just is not time to compose notes in class the way one would like. This causes a problem because notes are only really helpful when you go back and review them, but if you can't read them or they don't make sense then what's the point?
How Taking Notes Helps You
Of course, this is not at all to say that note-taking is not worth your while. The simple act of writing something down makes it more likely that you will remember it. Likewise, if you can go back later and review your notes then your chance of recalling important data is much more likely as well.
The trick is to take notes intelligently and in accord with how your brain works. Here are some simple guidelines:
- Prepare a structure: your lecturer will almost always give you preparatory material ahead of time. Use this to prepare a structure into which you can place the data during class.
- Link to things important to you: Your brain remembers things by association with feelings, images, and other data. Rather than trying to force your notes into a structure during class, doodle and jot down those things that the information suggests to you. These are not necessarily notes that you will review (thought they might help). Instead, taking these notes will help your mind forge connections that will make later recall easier.
- Make eye contact with the instructor: This is phenomenally important. The more you engage the instructor directly, the more you will remember.
- Write down questions and things to look up later: Your brain will not store new information if you're fixated on a question. Neither will you remember those interesting ideas that you would like to pursue later after class. Write these down! This will make it more likely to review your notes.
Take Note not Notes
Most note-taking strategies listed by universities highlight a similar structure of actions that go beyond simply taking notes. (The Cornell system is particularly popular.) Reviewing many of these and thinking through how the brain works, it should be obvious that notes are not just a collection of data points intended to be read later. Note-taking is a process that must be integrated with all other learning-strategies. Beyond everything else, the most important thing is being present to and engaged with the material of the class.