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On Notes and Notetaking

The first thing to know is that I have been thinking about this business of taking notes for a long time and in a lot of contexts. In a post on both my website and on Medium, I make an argument for taking notes by hand that essentially follows two paths: the first is the well-established research that has increasingly made it clear that when you take notes by hand you actually process more and get more out of notetaking. The second is the fact that not all of us are verbal thinkers and taking notes by hand opens up possibilities for taking notes in non-verbal ways: drawing, illustrating, even, sometimes, doodling.

By the way, here’s the most recent research on why taking notes by hand is better than typing notes: “The Pen Is Mightier than the Keyboard”

So now, with some luck, I have convinced you that taking notes by hand is not only required for this course but also the way you should proceed for all courses. How should this work? It is really quite easy.

Start by grabbing yourself any notepad with a paper you like – yeah, paper matters, so if you like yellow paper or wide-ruled paper or whatever – then get it, because you’re more likely to use something you like. If you can’t find a notepad you like, then grab yourself a decent portfolio with a clip on it and use that – I use one that I found on Amazon because I sometimes use engineering paper when I am working on certain projects or A4 when I am working with European colleagues. (It’s a wide world, full of interesting people: make sure you travel.)

With that notepad or portfolio in your bag, you go from class to class, meeting to meeting, event to event, and you take notes. Each page has a decent header that will make it easier to organize later. Mine look like this:

2017-07-28: ENGL 115: 1

This tells me the date, the course/meeting/event, and the page numer. That’s it. I can organize a day’s worth of notes, weeks worth of notes, with this simple header at the top of each page.

With a portfolio, you can simply use the pocket that most have as the place to stash the day’s notes. With a notepad, you’ll need to grab yourself some sort of folder – whatever you like, whatever holds up to how you work.

At the end of each day, and this is important, at the end of each day you take out your small stack of notes and you file them into a folder for each course, reviewing your notes as you do so. I am not saying you you have to read over notes completely – though it really wouldn’t take that much time and it would be a huge boon to your learning – but glancing over your notes from each class would prompt you to note to yourself what were the big takeaways for the day and also remind those of you who are forgetful what you need to do for the next class: so having your task list nearby and ready to be amended is a very good idea.

That’s it. And you’ve slimmed down your bag considerably: you are no longer hauling around several notebooks, which get increasingly tattered as the semester wears on and are never the right size for a course. You are never again asking people around you for some looseleaf paper because you don’t have any and suddenly the professor wants you to take a pop quiz. You have prevented early onset scoliosis. And, not only are you working smarter, getting smarter, you are also looking smarter – and, really, you are too focused on looks and not reality. Here, the two converge.

More on notes and notebooks here.