Monica’s Writing Skills – By Monica Y. Jackson, MBA, Ph.D.
Writing Effective Notes
A student recently told me, “I do not know how to take notes. I cannot take good notes, study or complete assignments without spending a lot of time on them. I feel like I overdo things and spend too much time on one task. I never learned how to take good notes. I never learned how to study. I never learned how to determine what is important to write down and what is not.” These sentiments are often echoed by many students, who become frustrated, even though they are able to maintain good grades, but not without a hefty price – spending 20-plus hours on an assignment that should only take one hour, simple because the student does not know where to begin or where to end, taking days off from work to finish a homework assignment and burning the midnight oil at the eleventh hour to meet a deadline, making for a grumpy start to a new day.
My response to this student, discover what works for you and only you. Someone else’s note taking system may not work for you, because it is too intense and overwhelming. However, you may be able to select bits and pieces from different techniques and merge them to help you develop effective note taking skills. Here are a few more tips:
Stop saying what you cannot and do not know how to do. You can be your greatest cheerleader and number one foe. This way of thinking hinders your potential and progress and is a continuous crutch for excuses. Transform your victim mentality and be victorious by seeking solutions to the problem instead of focusing on the problem. Ask others what is available. Speak to an academic advisor about a course or workshop that focuses on success for college. These courses help students discover tools and attitudes for success by learning to manage time better, study and thrive as a student and work smarter, not harder. If your college does not offer such as course, check with extension colleges, community college adult learning resources, Internet or purchase a book. Take complete ownership of overcoming your negative thinking and take action to become a better note taker.
Discover what works for you. I cannot stress this point enough. Note taking should not be complicated. Some people record complete sentences when taking notes, while others use special words and symbols that help them to remember. Others color code and highlight. There are so many techniques, but you have to discover what works for you and be able to understand your notes when you review them later. Personally, I use my own version of shorthand when taking notes, such as using “wrt” for with respect, “2day” for today, “2morrow” for tomorrow, “4ever” for forever, → arrow in the margin for something that I need to clarify or do not understand, ** in the margin for something that is very important, three dots in the pattern of a triangle to indicate therefore etc. By creating shortcuts, I am able to record notes more effectively and efficiently, while continuing to listen to the speaker or lecturer. This works for me and has meaning to me only. Take some time to think about what system and notation will work for you.
Have a purpose for everything. This may go against popular belief, but I am a firm believer that college is not for everyone, and if it is not for you, then you must stop wasting time, money and valuable resources that someone else could use. Revisit the matter when you are ready because you will appreciate it more and thrive, not simply survive. You must have the desire for education and motivation; otherwise you have no purpose for your education. It is one thing to say I want to earn a degree, but actions speak louder than words. Take a moment to examine your action and words and what it will take to bridge the gap.
Going to college because your parents insist, does not necessarily motivate you to do your best. You have to want it for yourself and you have to expect it to provide you something – satisfaction, accomplishment, knowledge, job, advancement, status, new skills, stop nagging parents J, etc. Take time to discover YOUR purpose for YOUR education. You may have to revisit your education when you discover the meaning, value and have the commitment to align your life responsibilities with this purpose, so that nothing prevents you from earning your degree, except a catastrophic event – your death or your major illness. Notice that I said YOUR again, because often times students allow “family matters” and “personal matters” to cause them to get distracted and venture away from their goals. You may have to put your family on schedule and train them to adapt to your commitment – children, spouse, friends and siblings. Although family is important, you have to look at the situation through new lens.
Not to sound harsh, but please bear with me for a moment. If a family member is dying, you cannot prevent it or cure the individual by sitting next to his or her bed all day every day, and you have to ask yourself would the person truly want you sit next to his or her bed all day and night if it jeopardizes your education and future. Sometimes school can be an outlet for life’s trials and tribulations. When I was an undergraduate, my favorite aunt died and almost two years later, my favorite uncle died. It was very devastating. I made drastic changes – stopped attending college and signed up for the Air Force. Well, I took the ASVAB, passed, packed my things, sold other things and was ready to go off to basic training. However, when it was time to go, there were issues with my contract (blank spaces for the position that I was expecting and broken promises) and I refused to sign the contract or enlist. Eventually, I went back to school after taking a year off to deal with my grief. Thankfully, I was returned and finished, because once you stop, it is difficult to resume. I earned my Bachelor of Science degree two years later and my Master’s degree in the midst of a divorce. I shared this, because it is important to know your purpose and remain focused. Sure, we want to be there for our loved ones when we think they need us, but remember life goes on and there are limitations to what we can do. Stress and worry will never change any situation, but perseverance leads to newfound strength and accomplished goals. Remember, many things are out of our control, so stay focused and live without excuses, even legitimate ones. It is not always easy, but practice makes perfect. Take some time to write down your purpose and uncover what you discover along the journey.
Manage your time effectively. Purchase, use and consult with a daily planner and avoid procrastination. I often hear students say that a planner does not work because they forget to review it and they can remember everything. That is a problem. The brain can only retain so much before it becomes overloaded, leading to stress, frustration, procrastination, forgetfulness and poor planning. The problem is that students with this belief system have not created a purposeful planner and their minds become cluttered and distracted when it should be focused and attentive. When you have deadlines, responsibilities and obligations, you need to schedule them – time for family, time to study, time to cook dinner, time to entertain, return phone calls, check emails, visit mom or dad and time to relax. It is so important to know how you spend your time; otherwise you will spend it unwisely. If your mind is on all of the things that you need to do, during the time you are in a lecture, then your notes will not be as effective. Time management allows you keep your mind on the things that are at the forefront. Learn to keep your mind on what is essential, and put your planner somewhere where you walk by frequently or touch throughout the day.
Note Taking Tips. Here are a few tips that may aid you along your note taking journey.
Learn to listen attentively. Focus on what is being said and do not allow your mind to wander. Make sure your mind is where it needs to be; otherwise you waste time. This may require you to turn off the cell phone and respond to text messages later.
Don’t try to write down everything you hear or read, because you will miss what is truly important. It is impossible to record everything you hear and defeats the purpose of note taking.
Notes should reinforce what you heard and trigger your memory at a later time.
Review notes within 24 hours of recording them. This allows you to reflect on what you heard and solidify the information, making corrections or obtaining clarification. It is important to make sure your notes are accurate, which is why it is important to review them promptly.
Read your notes again a few days later to make sure you understood the concepts. By reviewing the notes, you are etching the information into your mind for retention purposes.
Review your notes before completing an assignment or studying for an exam. The more you see the information, the more it becomes ingrained in your mind.
Aim to understand not simply to remember. There is a difference. When you remember, you are only able to regurgitate the information. When you understand the information, you are able to apply what you have learned to practical experiences and assignments which solidify comprehension.
Don’t invent the wheel. There are so many note taking tools available and locating them can become overwhelming.
Finally, a question that student s always seem to ask is what do I write in my notes and how do I know what is important. The first thing to do is to make sure you go to class prepared, by reading ALL of the required material in advance. You may not understand everything you read, but read it to become familiar with the content and concepts. Record specific questions as you read, if you do not understand a concept. As you listen to a lecture, listen for answers or clarification to those questions, corrections to what you thought something meant and introduction of new material that you do not recall reading. This information becomes your notes and should add value to what you have read, what you understood and what you did not understand. If all of your questions were not answered, visit the professor or TA during office hours or ask a fellow classmate, but make sure you validate your understanding, because people are fallible and sometimes say things incorrectly – unintentionally or because they did not have a clear understanding.
Although the content of this article is based on experience, by conducting an Internet search you can locate lots of resources to help you learn to take more effective notes. Here are some sources that I located on the Internet, but have not read them. Therefore, this should not be taken as an endorsement. The aim is to show you that there are tools and tips at your fingertip, if you look for them.
Note Taking: Top 5 Tips by Dennis D. Jerz http://jerz.setonhill.edu/writing/academic/notes-tips.htm
How to Take Effective Notes by Naomi Rockler-Gladen http://www.suite101.com/content/how-to-take-effective-class-notes-a16974
Note Taking Strategies for Success – Alamo Colleges http://www.alamo.edu/sac/history/keller/ACCDitg/SSnote.htm
Dartmouth College – Academic Skills Center (as mentioned earlier) http://www.dartmouth.edu/~acskills/success/notes.html
Now you can stop reciting what you cannot do or do not know how to do and discover what works for you by managing your time effectively, living with purpose for your education and taking the best notes possible, to add value to your learning experience. You can do it and Philippians 4:13 affirms it: “I can do ALL things through Christ who strengthens me.” Focus on the awesome strength and support system that is available to you. Now go to your destiny with courage and confidence to take effective notes!
About Monica Y. Jackson, MBA, Ph.D.: Monica Y. Jackson is an adjunct college professor, and is also an author and speaker. She is the author of “I Have A Book Idea: Now What?” Monica also designs and conducts self-publishing workshops that motivate and encourage individuals to complete their book projects.