A guide to better note-taking

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Issmar Ventura, Staff Writer

Have you ever wondered how you can improve your note-taking skills? If so, you are not alone. Many students realize–often after performing poorly on a test or other assignment–that in order to improve, they need to take better notes.

Vicki Dominick, associate director of Learning Services at Mason’s office of Counseling and Psychological Services (CAPS), said that proper note-taking is crucial to understanding course material. She shared some strategies for students who want to become more effective note-takers.

“First, it is important to have a designated place for notes for each class,” said Dominick. “Be sure to write the date as well as the topic for the lecture at the top of the page. This will provide you with organization and will make it easier to find specific information when you are reviewing.”

Dominick also explained that students must be sure to give their full attention to what is being said so that they do not miss central concepts. “Put away your cell phone, tablet, and laptop so that you are not distracted by social media, email, or web surfing,” Dominick said. “Listen for main ideas and then write your notes.”

In addition, Dominick added that it is important to translate notes into terms you understand. “Many students try to write what the professor is saying verbatim. This is difficult to keep up with. Instead, think of your notes like a text message to yourself. Write down key words and phrases. Use abbreviations and symbols to help you keep up.”

Experienced Mason students also have helpful strategies for better note-taking.

“The first thing I always do is check Blackboard for the PowerPoints the teacher has posted from the class lectures and use those to do research to gain a wider comprehension of the topics,” Heather Wernecke, senior and communication major, said. “By doing so, I am not only rewriting what the professor already mentioned in class, but I am going the extra mile to ensure I have a more in-depth understanding of what I will see on the exams.”

Like Dominick, Wernecke believes that it is important to summarize what is being discussed and to jot things down in a way that makes sense to the individual student. “I like to take notes I can understand and read back to myself, because if you are just writing everything the instructor says, you will be overwhelmed and will get lost trying to catch up,” said Wernecke.

Wernecke has found also that summarizing intellectual elements like videos used in the presentations is essential.  “Writing down what the teacher stresses as being most important helps tremendously because one will know exactly what to study most for a test,” she said.

However, good note-taking goes beyond the classroom. According to Dominick, it is crucial to learn the difference between memorizing your notes and actually learning from them.

“You can memorize random facts – that does not mean that you understand the facts, why they are important, or how to apply them,” said Dominick.  “Note-taking is just one aspect of learning the concepts covered in a class.”

In order to learn the material, Dominick recommends students follow a four-phase study cycle.

“First, they [students] should read the textbook before attending class to get an overview of the topic to be covered. Second, students should attend class, take notes, participate in discussion and ask questions. Third, notes should be reviewed as soon as possible after class. Finally, students should use intense study sessions to learn and understand the material,” Dominick said.

Intense study may include making flashcards, working problems or creating concept maps based on the reading or lecture notes, Dominck explained, adding that these methods are sure to boost performance. “If students study a little bit every day, follow the study cycle, and self-test regularly, they will learn the material for a class,” she said.

Dominick also pointed out that rewriting is not an effective way to memorize information. “When you re-write your notes, or even re-read your notes, you get a ‘false sense of mastery’ because the information looks familiar,” she said. “In other words, because you have seen the information a few times, you feel like you know it.”

Instead, Dominick suggests students quiz themselves on the material. “Rather than re-copying the five conditions under which you can break a contract, try to name them from memory. This will give you a better assessment of your understanding of the material,” Dominick explained.

Two of the most common note-taking methods are outlining and Cornell note-taking. Outlining is a strategy of listing out the main points and sub-points of a subject using Roman numerals and letters. Cornell note-taking is a way of organizing notes that involves drawing two columns: one for main ideas and another for expanding on them.

Many students like these styles because they make it easy to organize large amounts of information.

Alexa Gohl, a senior communication major, says formal outlining may not be an effective tool to use during lectures because it can be difficult to keep pace with the lecture, and it is not always clear how the lecture is organized. For this reason, she believes the Cornell method is more effective during lectures.

Finally, students may find it helpful to review their notes with a group of friends. Gohl believes studying with a group is helpful because it allows students to hear more perspectives. “One person may know the answer that others may not know,” said Gohl. “So it is a mutually beneficial relationship. The helper gets a reiteration of the material and the student who gets the help receives clarification of the concepts that they don’t understand.”