The Fine Art of Taking Notes

[Revised 09/08]

There are many reasons to take notes. But for students, there are two main situations in which you will take notes. You will often take notes on lecture material and on your reading. There is some overlap in the purposes for taking notes in these two situations, but there is also a striking difference. You often have no access to lectures once the lecture is over, and you must take notes or rely completely on your memory. When you have a book or article from a journal, you will often have your own copy and can refer back to it. So you might wonder why you should even bother to take notes on what you read.

As I find most of my students do not take notes on what they read, and often take virtually useless notes for class lectures, I would like to explain why you should take notes for both, especially when dealing with philosophy. I will also give some practical advice on note taking.

Why Take Notes on What you Read: Systematic note taking can be valuable for many kinds of reading, but it is especially valuable when you read philosophy. There are several reasons to take notes even though you own the book or article and can refer back to it.

  • Taking notes helps you remember. There is a trick people sometimes use to remember the name of someone they are introduced to. They try to use the new name several times in the next few sentences. Many people swear by this technique, though I must admit that it fails for me: I usually can't remember the person's name long enough to get it into a sentence. Oh well. Nevertheless, the same technique applies to reading. Write down what you have read and you are far more likely to remember it. What's the point of reading several articles on capital punishment for an ethics class if you have no idea what you read the next day! There isn't much point. You might have better spent your time watching reruns of Battlestar Galactica.

  • But it is not only memory that is helped here. Much philosophy is very hard to follow. This can be the result of wretched writing, something common in philosophy, just as it is elsewhere, or just the dang difficulty and complexity of the subject. It is rare that we just read and understand such texts, even when we have had many years of experience. What we have to do is recreate the text in our own words, using our own organization, fitting the pieces together like a puzzle. Taking notes forces us to ask and answer questions like “What the bleep is he getting at on this page” and “What exactly is his reason for believing this” and “What does this rather obscure bit of jargon mean.” Taking notes forces us to put it all together. And if, when we look at our notes, they seem incoherent, we have not gotten the author right, assuming that the author is not herself incoherent, of course. But even if she is, there might be an underlying sense that is worth getting at. Taking notes involves the effort to get at that underlying sense. Taking notes involves rewriting the text in a coherent, and much shorter, form.

  • If you do a good job in taking notes on your reading, you will often reduce a twenty page article to two or three well crafted pages that get at the heart of the matter. Of course, this does you no good if you reduce the number of pages by missing a lot of what the author talked about. If you take a paper on the problem of abortion and summarize it down to a nice neat “pro-life,” that is about as worthwhile as a politician's promise. You have wasted your time. So you must do more. One way to approach the article is with certain more or less standard questions in mind, though you might modify your list for different articles and books. For example, if the article is a defense of the pro-life position on abortion, you must ask, and take notes on, the following questions that you ask of the text. Exactly what is the author's pro-life position? How nuanced is it? What reasons does the author give for it? What criticisms of her position does she consider? How does she respond to them? If your notes do not answer these and similar questions, you wasted your time and would have been better off watching reruns of Seinfeld.

  • Another reason to take notes is that it can increase efficiency in studying for an exam or when your write a paper. Perhaps you read ten articles for an exam or to write a paper. You have some ideas but do not really remember the articles all that well. Each article is twenty pages long. Do you really want to read two hundred pages again? Duh! Wouldn't it be nicer to read a nicely digested and organized twenty pages covering all the articles? As a friend of mine from graduate school put it when patting his large pile of notes from his readings, “I will never have to read those books again!”

  • There is a final reason to take notes on your reading: you can add your own thoughts to the notes. In my own notes my comments are usually in square brackets [ . . . . ] and can cover many things. I point out things I think are unclear or poorly defended. I raise possible objections or responses to objections. I suggest alternative ways to proceed. These comments need not reflect my ultimate considered opinion on anything. They are just ideas I have as I read, ideas I might later find to be stupid, or brilliant. I cannot emphasize this enough. I will make my point by comparing what you do in a philosophy class with what you might do in other classes. I remember when I was a student, I took an introduction to astronomy. The lectures followed the book very closely and had virtually no extra content. I rarely took notes on the lectures since it was all in the book. But neither did I take notes on the book. I highlighted things I needed to know and later went back over the book to make sure I knew those things. I will not say all astronomy courses are like this, but mine was. The course required that I remember certain things and required little of what I, as a student, considered thought. Don't get me wrong: I loved the course. I loved the material, and it could have inspired me to become an astronomer. But my highlighting of the book was all I needed to get an “A.” In even the most basic philosophy class, something else is required. In even the most basic philosophy courses, you are called upon to actually do some philosophy, to invent ideas of your own. Just underlying passages in your text and remembering them will not help you here. Your notes are a good place to do some of this original thought.

Consider Using a Computer to Take Notes: This is a matter of temperament and also depends on your typing skills. I read at the same desk where I have my computer. My typing is good and requires little thought. I can type faster than I can write. This allows me to take advantage of some nice things about word processing programs: they allow you to easily modify. As I work through an article and take notes, my understanding improves. I go back and easily rework early parts of my notes. Things that didn't make sense in my notes now can be clarified. As I read them over again, I can easily add new thoughts of my own, or perhaps comments based on other things I read. On the other hand, if your typing skills are weak, it might be more trouble than it is worth. Personal computers have only been around a few years (even if those few years constitute all of your lives) and I spent most of my life taking notes the old fashioned way, with a quill cut from a bird feather and dipped into a pot of ink. If you are more comfortable with a quill, then go for it.

Classroom Lecture Notes: Over the years I have seen many students sitting in class with out quill or paper before them, just listening (or perhaps they mastered the delicate art of looking like they are listening while they are sleeping). I have often wondered how they can remember all the material I go over. The answer is that many do not. This is important. One of the main reasons to take notes in class (or in a business meeting, or at a doctor's office) is as an aid to memory, just as it is a main reason to take notes when you read. Whether you need to take notes, and how good those notes must be, depends in part on your ability to remember and process without notes. My mind is a sieve. I can't easily remember numbers, names, faces, or anything else. I rely heavily on note taking. Many people have better memories than I have, but few of us can get by without taking at least some notes.

But it is not enough to take notes. You have to do a good job with them. I want to review some of what goes wrong when people take notes in class. This will give you an idea as to how to take better notes. Often students take down a word here, a sentence there. They figure this will be enough to jog their memories. And that would be fine if they needed the notes to jog their memory the very next day. But usually, students do not look again at their notes until it is time for the exam, and they have pretty thoroughly forgotten what the lecture was about by that time. After weeks or months, a few words and sentences will not be enough to help them remember. In fact, what they have written often makes them 'remember' things exactly backwards. Here is a classic example. Suppose I say that John Stuart Mill developed a view called 'utilitarianism'. I then go on to say that some people reject Mill's utilitarianism because of A, B and C. The student writes in his notes “Mill,” “Utilitarianism” “Rejects for reasons A, B, and C.” And bingo. A month later, they look at these notes to study for an exam. They then write in the exam book “Mill rejected utilitarianism for reasons A, B, and C.” Poor notes lead the student to get it exactly backwards. This, in turn, leads me to give the exam a poor grade, and if I have seen enough similar examples in the previously graded exams, leads to me to suggest that the student hire a hamster to take his exam next time. As the examples like this pile up, my insults get more graphic and nasty. Arguably, this is not the best teaching technique, but it makes me feel better and that what counts.

There are three ways to deal with this problem. First, take a memory pill so that you can get by with inferior notes. I sell them at five dollars a pill. They do not work, but I automatically add five points to the exam of every student who buys one so they think they work. Second, you could take more complete notes. There is actually something of a controversy here. Many web sites tell you to take brief notes, a word here, a sentence there. Just enough to jog your memory. Otherwise you are just writing and not really listening and thinking. There is a lot to that. But the key is balance. I tend to lean to the other side and always took very substantial notes when I was a student, but more on that later. A third approach, which is a good idea however complete your notes are, is to go over them soon after class, add what is needed, organize them, make sure they are adequate to help you later. This serves the further functions of helping fix things in your mind, and giving you an opportunity to reflect on them.

Two Practical Tips: The previous paragraph includes the beginnings of some practical advice. But I will fill out suggestions two and three with some more specific advice: speed writing and the Cornell system of notetaking.

Speedwriting: One way to get better notes is to get more material down. But who can write that fast, and shouldn't you be listening and thinking and not just scribbling as fast as you can? Of course. But there is an answer: speedwriting. By this I just mean a personal, made up version of shorthand, the techniques people use to take verbatim notes. I have never sent or received a text message, but I have seen it done on TV. And it looks like those of you who have sent text messages already know something about speed writing. The idea is to find a way to write using as few letters as possible. Here are some standard bits of advice.

  • Use straightforward abbreviations for common words and phrases. If you are taking notes about Descartes, just use “D” for Descartes. Every time you write out his full name you have wasted valuable time. I believe LOL and OMG are standard abbreviations for texting. (If you can't figure out what they mean, google them.) Since these are your notes, you can invent and standardize any abbreviations you want. As time goes on, invent more. This sort of invention is easy. If you cannot do it, think about dropping out of college and getting a job as a paper weight.

  • When you take notes, leave out most of the vowels, except for the vowels that begin a word perhaps. Believe it or not, you can take all the vowels out of a sentence and still read the sentence with good, even if not perfect, accuracy. Any one can tell that 'accrcy' means 'accuracy'. Ancient Hebrew was written without vowels, and it only leads to infrequent uncertainty about the meaning of the texts. In fact, for many words, all you need is the first and the last letters. Here is an experiment to try. Write several sentences. Keep the first and the last letter of each word as it should be, but jumble all the others. You can still read the sentence with little trouble. The idea is that much of what we actually put down is redundant. Redundancy is good in nuclear power plants, but it is usually a waste of time when taking notes.

Using techniques such as these, pushed to the extreme, will enable you to take nearly verbatim notes with little trouble. Even if you do not get to that point, you can make good progress.

The Cornell System of Note Taking: In 1989, Walter Pauk developed a notetaking technique to help Cornell University students better organize their notes. It has become very popular. There are many sources for information about this method. I owe the particular explanation I provide here to the Brigham Young University Website. The method involves six steps in note taking: Record, Reduce (or question), Recite, Reflect, Review, Recapitulate. These steps are carried out on a page which is laid out in three sections that look like this:

  1. Reduce or Question (After Lecture)

  • write key words, phrases or questions that serve as cues for notes taken in class

  • cue phrases and questions should be in your own words

  1. Recite

  • with classroom notes covered, read each key word or question

  • recite the fact or idea brought to mind by key word or question

  1. Record (During Lecture)

  • write down facts and ideas in phrases

  • use abbreviations when possible

    (After Lecture)

  • read through your notes

  • fill in blanks and make scribbles more legible

  1. & v.Reflect and Review

  • review your notes periodically by reciting

  • think about what you have learned

  1. Recapitulation (After Lecture) summarize each main idea in full sentences

Here are the six steps in more detail.

  • Record as many ideas as you can in the large right hand column. Do not be concerned with getting every word down that the lecturer says or with writing your notes grammatically. Learn to write telegraphic sentences or a streamlined version of the main points of the lecture by leaving out unnecessary words and using only key words. To ensure that your notes make sense weeks later, after the lecture is over, fill in blanks or make incomplete sentences complete later.

  • Reduce important facts and ideas to key words or phrases, or formulate questions based on the facts and ideas. Key words, phrases, and questions are written in the narrow left column. The words and phrases act as memory cues so that when you review them, you will recall the ideas or facts. The questions help to clarify the meanings of the facts and ideas.

  • Recite the facts and ideas. This is done out loud and in your own words. This helps fix things in your mind. When reciting, cover up your notes in the six-inch column and leave the cue words and questions uncovered and readily accessible. Next, read each key word or question, then recite and state aloud, in your own words, the information. If your answer is correct, continue on through the lecture by reciting aloud.

  • Reflect on the information and ideas you have learned. This goes beyond just learning and remembering the content of your notes. You are asking yourself how the facts and ideas fit into what you already know, what their significance is, and so on. In a philosophy class, you will also be standing back and critically evaluating the ideas you have been learning abut.

  • Review and recite your notes as frequently as you can.

  • Recapitulating or summarizing your notes can be done at the bottom of the note page. You can summarize each page of notes, or wait to summarize the entire lecture, or both.

You can actually draw lines on a page to mark out the three sections, but interestingly, there are websites that allow you to generate templates to print out pages with the blocks all there. See if you can use your research skill to find such sites.

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