Productivity Hack: Tips for Taking Better Notes

Taking notes by hand is better.

Taking notes by hand is better. Photo by The Climate Reality Project on Unsplash.com

All month I’ve been giving you tips on productivity and time management techniques. This post is all about taking notes. Whether you are in school or at work, there is probably many a time where you may need to take notes to capture the salient points of a lecture, a webinar, or a presentation. Believe it or not, the way you take notes can affect the way you study, improve your learning outcomes, and help you retain the information (Friedman, 2014). 

In this post, I’ll give you the evidence for why writing your notes out by hand is a better choice than typing notes using a laptop or desktop computer. And I’ll give you some tips on how to take notes better. 

Which is Better? Taking Notes by Hand or Using a Laptop?

It’s the 21st century and technology is king. According to the latest data collected by the Pew Research Center in 2016, 78% of U.S. adults have a desktop or laptop computer and about 51% of U.S. adults have tablet devices (Pew Research Center, 2017). It is estimated that 99% of incoming college freshman have a computer and about 65% bring that laptop to class sessions (Sana, Weston, & Cepeda, 2013). 

Taking notes by hand in a notebook is old-fashioned, right? A laptop is so much more efficient – or is it?

Benefits of a Laptop for Note-Taking: Benefits of the use of computers in the classroom include the potential for faster note-taking, storage of digital copies of the notes, and convenient access to notes from one device instead of multiple notebooks (Carter, Greenberg & Walker, 2017). 

Disadvantages of a Laptop for Note-Taking: Multiple research studies with college students show that students who use a laptop to take class notes don’t comprehend or retain as much as students who write notes by hand (Carter et al., 2017; Dynarksi, 2017; May, 2014; Mueller & Oppenheimer, 2014, 2016; Patterson & Patterson, 2017; Sana et al., 2013;). Part of the problem is that students using laptops get distracted by multitasking during class. And multitask distractions didn’t just hurt the student, but even students who sat next to those using laptops were distracted by their neighbors’ multitasking. Lower test scores were a result (Sana et al., 2013).

One major disadvantage to using a laptop for note-taking is the tendency is to try to obtain a verbatim transcription. The result is that you will take a lot of notes and capture knowledge, but not necessarily understand or learn because you are not being mindful of the knowledge being received (Mueller & Oppenheimer, 2014). Your brain is preoccupied with recording each word but not with making sense of the words (May, 2014).

Benefits of Writing Notes by Hand: Of course, the benefits of longhand for note-taking include a deeper understanding of the material, better test scores, and long-term retention of the material. 

Students who handwrite their lecture notes have to pay more attention to the words of the lecturer – their brain has to work harder. They are more engaged with the material because to keep up they need to quickly reflect on what is being said, process the message, exact the salient points, and then summarize the message (Dynarski, 2017). The need to summarize forces the student to listen to the speaker more intently, thus accomplishing deeper learning and retaining the information for the long-term. 

Disadvantages of Writing Notes by Hand: Writing in longhand takes more time than typing into a laptop. Missing important concepts because you are still writing down thoughts from the previous point can be frustrating. Students have many concerns about longhand note-taking — fears of missing information because the professor is talking too fast, not really knowing if you are capturing the important information, not being able to read your own handwriting or understand what you wrote down,

The bottom line is to listen well during class sessions, ask for help when you have questions, spend some time prepping for class so you can stay on track more easily, and practicing identifying major concepts (Bureau of Study Counsel, 2011).

Taking notes with a tablet

Taking notes with a tablet
Photo by Dose Media on Unsplash.com

Tablets and Note-Taking: If you use a laptop that transforms into a tablet and use a stylus to take handwritten notes – you might get the best of both worlds: technology and hand-written notes (Mueller & Oppenheimer, 2016). Software programs can transcribe your handwritten notes to digital format so they are retrievable when you need them to review during study time. 

Smarter Notes: No Mindless Transcription!

The first tip is not to write down every word that the instructor says! Just transcribing the instructor’s lecture is not helpful – again, your brain is focused on capturing the words being said, not making sense of the words being said. The stress of worrying about getting every word will preclude your ability for mindful understanding or deeper learning of the material. Instead of missing words, the more important thing is not missing the point of the information. 

In classes where you might be given a copy of the slides or an outline of the topic, the stress of verbatim transcription is lessened. When this happens, try concentrating on the points the lecturer is making and distilling those into your own words.  Paraphrasing takes deeper cognitive power than just transcribing so the information is more likely to be retained. Think about how you might apply the information.

One author argues that the pen may not be mightier than the keyboard – it may just be that the laptop note-takers are not being given direction to take smarter notes. Instead of verbatim or mindless transcription, listen and be deliberate and thoughtful about the notes you are taking (Beaudoin, 2014).

Additionally, there is software such as TextExpander and PhraseExpress that may help laptop note-takers decrease the time it takes to take notes by using abbreviations that expand into full text as you type. 

Note-Taking Methods

One way to take smarter notes is to use a consistent method to take notes -either your own method or someone else’s. One popular method is the Cornell Note-Taking Method. 

Cornell Note-Taking Method (Cornell, n.d.; May, 2014)

To use the Cornell Note-Taking Method you basically divide your note paper into three parts: the note-taking section (2/3rds of the page), one left-hand column for cues or key terms, and one summary row at the bottom of the paper. 

  • The majority of the page is where you will jot down the speaker’s major points and concepts, key terms, formulas or equations (e.g., patho, acid-base, mnemonics, statistical formulas), etc.
    • Organize your notes logically. I date and label the page with the class. Number your pages if you have more than one page of notes for that date. 
    • Use a format that will allow you to be clear on what are major points and what are the subordinate or supporting points, e.g., different types of bullet points or an outline format or structure.  
    • Leave room around the major points so that you can go back and add in clarifying explanations or examples of application. 
    • Identify areas of emphasis (e.g., points that are repeated or that the instructor states are important) with stars or colors or arrows or boxes — whatever works for you. 
  • In the smaller left-hand column, pull out key concepts and identify questions that you might be asked on a test.
    • You can use the left-hand column to quiz yourself by covering up the notes side of the page and explaining the concepts in the left-hand column in your own words. Then check your understanding with your notes on the right. 
  • At the bottom of the main page, summarize the key thought(s) in your own words. 
Create Your Own Shorthand

Create your own shorthand to make your notetaking more efficient (or use shorthand, if you know it!). In the medical profession, we already have a shorthand with words and symbols – before (a with a bar over it), after (p with a bar over it), every day (qd), every (q), with (c with a bar over it), without (s with a bar over it), no (ø), etc. You know these, so use them in your notes instead of writing these words out.

Common math or chemistry symbols can be helpful too, such as the delta sign (∆) for change, math symbols to denote the words greater than, less than, equal, not equal, plus or minus, number, times (≥ ≤ = ≠ ± # x), sum (∑), at (@), a star or asterisk (or circle or box) for major points or important concepts; symbols for gender (♀♂), arrows to show relationships or that x leads to y →←↑↓↔, ≈, etc. Fe = iron, electrolyte abbreviations (K, Ca, Mg, Na), Hgb or Hb for hemoglobin, CBC, WBC, ABG, OD/OS, etc. You get the picture.

But then create other shortcuts and symbols that you will understand when you read the notes back later. Use a legend to remind you of what your shortcuts or abbreviations mean. For example, I abbreviate action as “ax.” I use brackets I learned in chemistry [ ] to denote concentration/concentrate/concentrated. So if I have a word or phrase in brackets – some form of concentration goes with it. I might write [urine] as a sign of dehydration or [inability to] for a concussion, for example.

Mind Map Your Insights

If you are more of a visual learner, writing longhand may not be the best way for you to take notes. Graphic organizers include maps, diagrams, matrices, tables, and charts. Mind mapping or concept mapping is another way to take notes that help you remember connections. You can use colors, drawings, shapes, diagrams, connectors, etc. to solidify your learning in a creative way. See my post for more details. 

Use a Reusable Notebook

I love taking notes but sometimes I think about the convenience of having them in an easily accessible, digital format. Of course, you can get that accessibility by using a laptop to take notes, but then we get into the research that hand-writing notes is better for your long-term memory and retention. So what to do?

You can use a reusable notebook and erasable gel pens! My favorite tool is the Rocketbook Wave Smart Notebook and Frixion gel pens. Take notes using one or different colors. There are 80 pages. I add tape flags so I can easily find the sections I’ve created. There are icons at the bottom of each page that you mark to identify which folder the note goes to. For example, I can send note pages to my email, Evernote, iCloud storage, or Dropbox folders. The icons are fully customizable and you can change the folder locations when you erase the notebook.

When you are ready, using a free app you download to your smartphone or tablet, you take a picture of each page and then send the pages to the folders you’ve identified. You can read your note pages on your devices or print them out for studying. 

When the Rocketbook gets full, I pop it in the microwave with a cup of water (as per their directions) and microwave both sides a couple of minutes. I take the tape flags off first, of course!

Because you are using erasable ink, the heat from the microwaves erases the ink and the pages are blank again. I LOVE this feature! Full disclosure – depending on how hard you press down when you write you can sometimes see a ghost imprint of the previous words after microwaving — but honestly, that has not affected my new notes at all. 

If you don’t want to use a reusable notebook, you can still take a picture of your handwritten notes and send the pictures or converted pdf files to Evernote or OneNote. You can also scan your note pages with a SmartPhone app such as CamScanner

Keep Your Notes Organized

If you date and number your notes you will have an accurate timeline of what was discussed when. This will be helpful if you need to create a timeline or record material in a certain way.

Organize your notes in colored files
Photo credit: shutterstock.com

It goes without saying that you should keep all of your notes for one class or on the same subject in one place. This way you should be able to find them when you need them to study for the test, etc. 

For physical note pages, you can use colored binders or pocket files to identify different classes or topics within a class. Color-coding can help you quickly retrieve the folder you need to review your notes and study for the test. 

 For lap-top notes, file them immediately in an electronic file folder labeled with each class you are taking.

Review Your Notes to Embed in Long-Term Memory

Research shows that even if you take notes longhand if you don’t review your notes you won’t fare any better on the test than students who took notes on a laptop or who didn’t take notes at all! Try to review your notes the first time the same day you took them (Friedman, 2014). Then plan time to review during the week so that you are not cramming the night before a test. 

Go back and reread learning materials and/or your notes to improve your comprehension of the material. Be mindful of major concepts or words. Elaborate on what you wrote, maybe correct your spelling. 

As you review your notes, if you have any questions write them down and ask your faculty for clarification — before the test! Keep the answers to your questions with your class notes. 

Neuroscience research shows that information is embedded better after sleep. The night before a test, if you review your notes before you go to bed — and then get some quality sleep — the brain works to solidify that knowledge into memory, which can help you remember those facts for the test and for the long term. 

Application! Application! Application!

Nursing school is not like liberal arts classes. As a nurse, it’s all about application. While there are some facts that you just have to recall (e.g., normal pH = 7.40; the heart has 4 chambers), the majority of nursing test questions should be testing higher cognitive levels — application, analysis, evaluation, synthesis. 

Faculty want you to apply what you are learning; it’s why we emphasize critical thinking so much. If you have a patient with a blood gas of 7.25, PaCO2 60, HCO3 30, PaO2 85 you could easily determine the acid-base status by learning some simple rules. That’s recall with some analysis. But what signs and symptoms would you expect? What is going on in the respiratory and renal systems? That’s what we expect you to be able to figure out. 

My advice is to go back to your notes and ask yourself questions that are application-based. Put these thoughts in the cue/question section. Application is key. Anyone can recall facts. I want to know that you can recognize a problem, think through it, and come to an appropriate solution. 

So when reviewing notes for any nursing class, ask yourself, “How is this information useful to me as a nurse? How can I apply this knowledge?”

This information will help you how? Will you be able to recognize common ailments or complications so you can alert the interdisciplinary team to treat the patient appropriately? Will you be able to prevent a potential problem if you know this information? Diagnose a condition? Order lab tests? Plan treatment? Educate the patient? Comfort a grieving family member? Implement best practices based on research? Lead an interdisciplinary group? Improve a process? Solve an ethical dilemma?

References

Beaudoin, L. P. (2014, July 10). Cognitively potent software is mightier than the pen in the hands of able, motivated knowledge builders: Response to Mueller & Oppenheimer (2014). Cogzest.com. Retrieved from https://cogzest.com/2014/07/cognitively-potent-software-is-mightier-than-the-pen-in-the-hands-of-able-motivated-knowledge-builders-response-to-mueller-oppenheimer-2014/

Bureau of Study Counsel. President and Fellows of Harvard College. (2011). Suggestions for effective note-making. Harvard College. Retrieved from https://bsc.harvard.edu/files/suggestions_for_effective_note-making_revised_jan_2011.pdf

Carter, S. P., Greenberg, K., & Walker, M. S. (2017). The impact of computer usage on academic performance: Evidence from a randomized trial at the United States Military Academy. Economics of Education Review, 56, 118-132. Retrieved from http://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/pii/S0272775716303454.

Cornell University. The Learning Strategies Center. (n.d.). The Cornell note-taking system. Cornell University. Retrieved from http://lsc.cornell.edu/study-skills/cornell-note-taking-system/

Dynarski, S. M. (2017, August 10). For better learning in college lectures, lay down the laptop and pick up a pen. The Brookings Institution. Retrieved from https://www.brookings.edu/research/for-better-learning-in-college-lectures-lay-down-the-laptop-and-pick-up-a-pen/#footnote-1

Friedman, M. C. (2014, October 15). Note-taking tools and tips. Harvard University. Harvard Initiative for Learning & Teaching. Retrieved from https://hilt.harvard.edu/blog/note-taking-tools-and-tips

Patterson, R. W., & Patterson, R. M. (2017). Computers and productivity: Evidence from laptop use in the college classroom [Abstract]. Economics of Education Review, 57, 66-79. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.econedurev.2017.02.004

Pew Research Center. (2017, January 12). Mobile fact sheet. Pew Research Center: Internet & Technology. Retrieved from http://www.pewinternet.org/fact-sheet/mobile/

May, C. (2014, June 3). A learning secret: Don’t take notes with a laptop. Scientific American. Retrieved from https://www.scientificamerican.com/article/a-learning-secret-don-t-take-notes-with-a-laptop/

Mueller, P. A., & Oppenheimer, D. M. (2014). The pen is mightier than the keyboard: Advantages of longhand over laptop note taking. Psychological Science, 25(6), 1159-1168. Article first published online: April 23, 2014. doi:10.1177/0956797614524581

Mueller, P. A., & Oppenheimer, D. M. (2016). Technology and note-taking in the classroom, boardroom, hospital room, and courtroom. Trends in Neuroscience and Education, 5(3), 139-145. doi:10.1016/j.tine.2016.06.002

Patterson, R. W., & Patterson, R. M. (2017). Computers and productivity: Evidence from laptop use in the college classroom [Abstract]. Economics of Education Review, 57, 66-79. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.econedurev.2017.02.004

Sana, F., Weston, T., & Cepeda, N. J. (2013). Laptop multitasking hinders classroom learning for both users and nearby peers.  Computers & Education, 62, 24-31. Retrieved from http://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/pii/S0360131512002254?via%3Dihub