Why Note-taking is a Survival Skill

Posted by on December 15, 2013

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Note-taking is (mostly) about remembering

Why do I say that note-taking is a ‘survival skill’?
Essentially, note-taking (aka note taking, or notetaking) helps us to remember things:

Firstly, because our short-term (or working) memory has only limited capacity, we do not need to ‘hold that thought’ once we have made a note [See Memory mysteries unlocked – with help from Google]

Secondly, some of us (yours truly included) are Read/Write Learners, so note-taking is a part of our learning strategy for committing things to memory [See Improve your learning skills – here’s how]

Thirdly, when we review our notes from an event, especially when it is done within the next 24-hours, we strengthen our memories and improve our recall

Note-taking has other purposes

We are likely to take notes when we:

  • are studying or researching something,
  • need a record from a discussion or meeting, or
  • are collecting information about something.

Apart from helping us to remember things and to keep records, note-taking also allows us to maintain our focus on a topic, develop our ideas, and improve our understanding of something.

Effective note-taking actually begins long before the first word is recorded. The 3 steps for this are: Preparation, Position, Process. This animated graphic gives details for each step.

Effective note-taking requires: Preparation, Position, Process.
Each step involves a number of possible actions.
Watch the animated graphic for some quick tips.

In a business or work situation, notes taken from a meeting or interview can be essential for decision-making.  In such cases, the need for accuracy can be absolutely critical to the eventual outcome (e.g. a contract negotiation, or selecting candidates at a job interview).

Note-taking is a race against time

Now, who amongst us lays claim to being really good at note-taking?  My personal observation is that this is a rather rare skill indeed!

When we are taking notes while someone is speaking, the biggest problem we face is that we are racing against time (unless we are a ‘shorthand’ exponent).  Most people speak at around 150 words per minute; an average writing speed is around 20-30 words per minute.  No wonder it is hard to keep up!

At the same time, our attention is being split between what we are hearing, and what we trying to compose in the way of our notes.  While our brains might be able to ‘think’ at around 500-600 words per minute, operating in this ‘multi-channel’ mode can be quite a test [See Effective listening – the secret to successful communication].

Learning how to take notes

For most of us, our first experience of taking notes was probably at school.  Somewhere in my secondary school years a teacher advised the class that we now needed to learn how to take notes as preparation for university/college, or even for work.

As I recall, after an initial explanation of what to do, there was little follow-up towards helping students become effective at note-taking.  From time to time we did hand in our notes from various classes for teachers to review.

This would usually result in feedback about the content – or perhaps the lack of content.  So, while we were being made aware of ‘gaps’ in our work, what was missing was guidance on how to capture the content as it left the lips of the teacher!

Based on the articles, blogs, videos, and comments that I find on the internet, it would seem that note-taking is still a major challenge for many of our students, whether at secondary or tertiary levels.  And, in our workplaces, for those of us who have jobs where note-taking may be required in meetings and so on, the challenge also remains.

Note-taking methods

There are a several common ‘methods’ for note-taking, including:

The Cornell method, originally developed by Professor Walter Pauk in 1949, this is particularly suited for students organising and revising notes from lectures.

Mind Mapping, as popularized by British authour Tony Buzan during the 1970s, offers a free-format approach to capturing information and drawing relationships between ideas, etc.

Linear note-taking, where information is recorded in the order it is received; ‘Outlining’ is a structured method of linear note-taking, with various lines of content indented to show dependency relationships.

Thumbnail illustrations for the three common note-taking methods: The Cornell Method, Mind Mapping, Linear Outlining.

Illustrations for common note-taking methods:
Left: Cornell Method (Fontana Middle School, CA, USA)
Centre: Mind Mapping (Massey University, NZ)
Right: Linear Outlining (Warwick University, UK)

Many universities and colleges offer online guidance on the various note-taking methods, and some also run classes to teach them.  All of these methods can be used for note-taking when learning/studying, in a business/work situation, or for other personal purposes.  Which method (or methods) we choose to use is a personal preference.

Quick, accurate note-taking

Earlier I mentioned that the biggest problem we face when note-taking is the speed at which we can write, compared to the rate at which someone can speak (and, of course, the writing must be legible!).  The key to effective note-taking is being able to quickly and accurately record information, without missing anything that is important:

  • Major points:  be brief, focus on the major points – do not try to capture everything
  • Own words:  be prepared to use your own words – you don’t need a verbatim record
  • Keywords:  use these as headings or labels within your notes for structure.

Whichever method of note-taking we use, we need to make the best possible use of shortcuts e.g. symbols, codes, abbreviations, acronyms, keywords, etc.  Apart from ‘shorthand’, there is no universal system of shortcuts, so we can make up our own if we want.  Here are some ideas:

  • Acronyms:  acronyms are commonly used in many organisations and industries to shorten a name or title, e.g. SMS = Short Message Service.
  • Abbreviations:  there are many common abbr(eviations), including: approx(imate), (therefore), (because);  txt spk (text speak) as used for SMS, is another option for abbr.
    Note: make your own abbr by omitting vowel letters, e.g. reconstruction = rcnstrn, large = lrg or lg.
  • Codes:  if you have a word that is repeated several times, use a code such as circling the first letter of the word in the first instance where it appears, then using the circled letter thereafter, e.g. Reconstruction = ®enconstruction = ®, Commercialisation = ©ommercialisation = ©.
    Another use of codes could be inserting margin markers for follow-up actions, e.g. AP = Action point, RP = Research point, MP = Main point.
  • Symbols:  Michael Hyatt (see below) uses several symbols as margin markers, eg:
    Graphic showing margin markers for note-taking: Star symbol is for an important point; Question mark is for a point needing further research or clarification; Square box is for an item needing personal follow-up; Circle is for a follow-up item to be assigned to someone elseA word of caution:  whatever you decide to use, try to keep it as simple and as intuitive as possible – at some stage in the future you might have to re-interpret your own work. 

Any or all of the above can be used for note-taking from either a verbal or written source, for learning/studying, business/work, or other personal purposes.  They can also be applied to the common note-taking methods (Cornell, Mind Map, Linear).

3 Steps – Prepare, Position, Process

Finally, I would be remiss if I didn’t point out that effective note-taking actually begins long before the first word is recorded.

Preparation may involve a review of a previous event (lecture, lesson, or meeting), and/or pre-reading of background material.  We can use this to prepare an outline of topics/items expected to be covered (or a meeting agenda may be available).  If we know who the speaker/s is/are, we may know about their usual ‘style’, which can have an impact on where we want to be positioned.

Position is important, particularly for a lecture or lesson, but also for a meeting.  We need to be where we can listen clearly to the speaker/s, and ideally can also see them clearly.  We will also need good lighting and adequate space for taking notes.  Once we are in position, we are ready to begin our note-taking process.

Process is where we apply our note-taking techniques – this means using our shortcuts, and whichever note-taking method we have opted to use (Cornell, Mind Map, Linear).  But our process doesn’t end there – we may have some follow-up actions to complete our notes.  Once our initial notes are complete, depending on our purpose (learning/studying, business/work, or other personal purposes), we may now: review, revise, reorganise, summarise, transcribe, refer to, reflect on, and even recite them.

Closing thought

Good note-taking does not come easy; like many things in life, it is something that we need to persist at until it becomes a habit.

Worth a look

Recovering the Lost Art of Note Taking – Michael Hyatt [Blog Post – approx 3min read] Aug 20, 2009

Students use new methods of taking notes in the classroom  [Stony Brook Statesman – approx 3min read] March 25, 2013

Listen Actively and Take Great Notes [Princeton University – approx 2½ min read]

Coming next:  How to use learning styles to make a connection

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2 Responses to Why Note-taking is a Survival Skill

  1. Helmuth

    Fantastic note-taking tips!

    Thank you for sharing,
    H

    • Marlene

      Hi H,
      Thank you for your feedback.
      The more research I did on this topic, the more I realised that this is a huge problem for many people.
      The linked post from Princeton University is a useful quick refresher, with a short guide to the Cornell method.
      I need to remember to apply some of that myself!

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