“Read not to contradict and confute, not to believe and take for granted, not to find talk and discourse, but to weigh and consider.” Sir Francis Bacon.
A general rule for all note-taking, whether lectures or readings: Listen or read and think. Decide what’s important to you, and summarize it in complete sentences.
Learning is an active process. The only way you learn is by processing the material in question through your own mind, and integrating it with what you know already. That’s what you’re doing when you read or listen and summarize.
Reading or lecture notes that consist of words, phrases and incomplete sentences are limited in their usefulness, because they’re open to interpretation. When you return to them in a month or three months, you will have trouble understanding them, because you won’t remember which interpretation you were placing on them when you wrote them.
Underlining or highlighting text in your readings is useful only if you already have an understanding of the material being covered. In that case, it can remind you where the key points are for the next time you use the text.
Conclusion: The way to learn, and the way to remember are the same: Think, summarize what’s important to you and write it down in complete sentences.
Taking notes for lectures
Reserve a wide margin on one side of each page you use for taking notes. In taking notes, follow the procedures set out above: Listen, summarize, write complete sentences. Sometime before each lecture, take ten minutes to go through your notes from the last lecture, and put any necessary corrections or explanations in the margin.
Those extra ten minutes yield two benefits. First, when the next lecture begins, you’re clued in from the first sentence, instead of spending the first five minutes trying to remember what the course is about. Second – here’s the real pay-off – when you study your notes for the final, you won’t be memorizing them. You’ll remember most of the material, and studying will consist of reminding yourself of things you know already.
Taking reading notes
The most important part of the reading process is deciding what you need to read. In a book, look at the table of contents and quickly read introductory and concluding chapters to get a sense of the overall argument. Then decide what you need to learn and read it carefully. In a chapter or article, use the abstract, the section headings, and the introductory and concluding sections in the same way.
Careful reading of the material you need to learn: Read section by section and take notes after you finish each section. After finishing a section, decide what the important points are and summarize them as briefly as possible, in complete sentences.
Personal note: When I was an undergraduate, I was semi-motivated, and, like most students, I studied irregularly, took notes inefficiently, pulled all-nighters for essays and crammed for exams. My marks were just good enough to squeak into graduate school. In graduate school, I knew the real world was upon me, and I evolved the methods set out above. After that it was straight A’s all the way.
Conclusion: Develop an effective, efficient system for studying and note-taking, and you will be amazed at the difference it makes.