A Note from David
I recently received an e-mail that caught my attention. It was from a reader named David, and it outlined a set of unorthodox study habits he had used to tackle his final years of university. One habit, in particular, shone through: he doesn’t take notes.
To quote David:
I changed my attitude on note-taking. Basically, I don’t.
Just to keep things interesting, I should also add that David scored six perfect A’s at the end of the first year of his no note-taking experiment, and, by the way, he also had a kid; three weeks before final exams. So before you complain that you’re short on time just remember this: he has much, much less free time available than you.
Could You Go Note-Free?
In this post, I want to briefly describe David’s note-free studying method. It won’t work, of course, for all class types, and certainly not for all student personality types, but, if something about this decidedly Zen Valedictorian style approach sparks a glimmer in your eye, it’s worth taking out for a test drive.
David’s Note-Free Study Method
We’ll let David explain the system in his own words. I’ll occasionally interject my commentary to keep things appropriately over-intellectualized.
I recorded every lecture and occasionally wrote down a few points if I thought they were important enough. This meant I was paying full attention in class: unconcerned with taking everything down. This is key: I could engage fully, and even if I forgot the details, I absorbed the big picture.
A great insight lurks here. The idea of paying attention fully — complete engagement, no energy expended on typing notes or remembering some point that sounded important — seems novel compared to the standard college classroom experience. But imagine the effectiveness with which you could absorb big ideas if your full attention was harnessed to the cause?
When it came to review, I didn’t have to wade through piles of notes, stripped of their context, and try to make sense of them. I had one sheet for each class, onto which I added a few-lines of abstract for any important texts we used that week: names, dates, and main arguments.
Now comes the cool part…
My technique was to take a quick look at one such sheet, and then listen to the lecture on an mp3 player as I went about my business — walking to work, washing dishes, drying diapers, even, on occasion, in the pub. Much of my studying was spent in the garden or walking by the river — no stress, no effort. But as I listened, it went in. Things the lecturers stressed once or twice began to leap out as important on re-listening.
This is worth reiterating: he studied in the pub! And also in the garden, and while doing chores, and while walking by the river. David has taken our tentative adventure studying concept and pushed it to a new level of comprehensiveness. You simply glance at a one-page summary and then re-experience the lecture, listening carefully. By the time a test arrives: you’re an expert.
Trouble-Shooting the Note-Free Studying Method
Some common objections that we can easily address:
- My class has a lot of material that has to be memorized!
Separate the memorization from the big-idea ingraining. You can flashcard or focused-cluster the material to memorize and save the listen and think approach for the big idea learning.
- I’ll never remember the important little details if I don’t write them down!
That was David’s fear too. However, he was surprised by how the combination of listening to the lecture carefully the first time, plus one or two subsequent careful listening — with a few notes jotted down for the main arguments and sources — really stuck the material in his mind. You might want to try adding a quiz-and-recall element to the process. Every 10 minutes or so, stop the recording and try to summarize the main points, out loud, hopefully without startling your pub mates.
- Is this different from stealth studying?
Yes. It’s similar in spirit, but stealth studying still has you take classical Q/E/C notes. I think of note-free studying as a cool variation of the stealth method — one that goes where I was too afraid to go before.
- This technique will never work for my science/econ/anatomy/math class!
You’re right. It won’t. Save it for liberal arts classes that center on papers, essay exams, and big, interesting ideas.
- I don’t have time to listen to full lectures more than once!
Think critically about how much time is taken up by the studying this method replaces. Also remember: David has a baby…
The technique is not for everyone. But it’s cool. And it highlights just how much flexibility you have when you reject standard study conventions and start experimenting for yourself. David’s a great example of the Zen Valedictorian philosophy in action: reject a deferred rewards approach to school; demand a good life now; then squeeze as much as possible out of the time you spend working.