Study Hacks Blog Decoding Patterns of Success

The Art of Taking Science Notes

February 27th, 2009 · 32 comments

A Professor SpeaksClean Notes

Earlier today I received an e-mail from David Hirsch, a professor of Geology at Western Washington University. He pointed me toward a web page titled Dave’s Tips for Student Success, which he setup to help the students in his science courses perform better at the college level.

As you might expect considering its source, the page is rich with powerful insights on topics from effective study groups to class attendance. The advice is all built around a common theme (familar to Study Hacks readers): understanding the material is everything and the only thing that matters!

It’s obvious, but it’s worth hearing. Especially when it’s coming from the guy who writes the tests.

In this post, I want to highlight one tip in particular — Dave’s advice on note-taking in science classes.


He says:

The most useful technique I used in college was copying over my notes thoughtfully. Doing this correctly can be a way to reveal to yourself the holes in your knowledge, but it must be done with a particular mindset. The goal should be to produce a set of notes that are sufficient to re-teach you the material in ten years after you’ve forgotten most of it.

This hits my ear as a time-tested and practical take on the Quiz-and-Recall method. That is, you shouldn’t consider your studying done until you can get up in front of a class and teach it.

Period.

The good professor continues with some more specifics on how to best accomplish this note transformation. For example:

This copying over should be performed at least 2-3 times per week, and typically with the textbook at hand to clear up any confusion you have about the material.

He also adds:

[by re-copying your notes in a more organized manner] you should quickly find out what bits of the material do not make sense to you, and you can then use the text to remedy that lack of understanding, or, failing that, ask your instructor.

This ideas shows up often on Study Hacks: identify your trouble spots as the semester progresses, do not wait until the weekend before the exam to try to fill in these gaps. This note-taking method forces this continual clarification.

If you’re a science student, I suggest you read the whole article for more details and screen shots of sample notes. You might just save yourself from four years of science course-induced headaches.

(Image by David Hirsch)

32 thoughts on “The Art of Taking Science Notes

  1. Mandy says:

    Hi Cal,

    I have been a frequent visitor to your site for a long time, and have found many of the tips to be highly useful in preparing for exams. This semester I am confronted with an assessment situation that I’m not sure how to handle, and I was hoping you could provide me with some insight or hints. In four weeks’ time, we will be given an essay topic on a Wednesday morning, and the six-page essay is due two days later, on the Friday. Our grade for this will comprise 40% of our final grade. I have written essays in various courses in the past, but never one with such a short time allowance.

    How would you approach this task? Obviously it will pay to keep up with the coursework between now and then, but I’m not sure how to use my time during the 48 hours we have available. Would you recommend I reduce the hours I sleep, skip classes or miss out on my workout during this two-day span? I am extremely nervous about this as it happens to be my most difficult course this semester (an advanced microeconomics course). Thanks.

  2. andres jimenez says:

    mmm, somehow this means no more study guides on the fly… which contradicts what I learned from the Straight-A Student habits.

    It is good advice though, however I prefer to jot down comments on my own minimalist class notes (physics grad)

  3. maureen says:

    I don’t mean to be daft, I just want to make sure I understand. When you say, “Copy over your notes”, that means take your notes captured during class and rewrite them after class, expounding on certain areas? Thanks for clarifying.

  4. Hmm, this is a great idea, but it will cost a lot of time. But I do think that the time will pay off. Maybe this will be a new habit..

  5. Andresito says:

    Dear Cal,

    Now I understand the purpose of it!

    Basically is the quiz-and-recall method with very detailed notes.
    Just like some other folks do their recitation practice as if they were teaching the class.

    However, I prefer to get minimalist in written notes and get everything down that will trigger the material you wish to recall verbally. Remember we don’t want to spent time studying.

    The problem with very detailed notes is that could lead not to read actively.

    My personal choice; jot down very minimal visual aids that trigger the material.

  6. Leslie says:

    As I study for my upcoming bio exam, I am essentially doing what this professor suggests you do as you go along. In the end, I will probably spend about the same time (if not more) doing this now then if I had used this method twice or three times a week. Thus I don’t think this method would cost more time, especially not more than frantically trying to understand your notes the weekend before the exam…

    With that said I’m so grateful for this post and am excited to implement this method on the first day after my exam!

  7. Study Hacks says:

    How would you approach this task? Obviously it will pay to keep up with the coursework between now and then, but I’m not sure how to use my time during the 48 hours we have available.

    Prepare as if you were going to take an exam on the morning the essay topic is passed out. The key is to not waste time learning material when you should be writing. Once you have the prompt in hand, follow a rigorous, predetermined process for the essay writing.

    For example, on that first day, spend the morning working on an outline of your essay. After lunch spend an hour or so just thinking about it and tweaking it, trying to make it more accurate, more complete. Then write and edit your first draft that afternoon. The next morning, return to essay, read it, go for a walk, think about it. Where could you add better analysis. What would be sharper. That evening do a final proof-reading style edit.

    This is just a suggestion, but the two main points here are: prepare before you get the essay; once you have it, follow a predetermined plan that is heavy on contemplation.

  8. Study Hacks says:

    mmm, somehow this means no more study guides on the fly… which contradicts what I learned from the Straight-A Student habits.

    It’s the same basic idea. The difference here is that because the science material is so complicated, you can’t build good enough study guides on the fly during class — you have to spend time after class to really identify, understand, and condense what’s important.

    When you say, “Copy over your notes”, that means take your notes captured during class and rewrite them after class, expounding on certain areas?

    Exactly; expounding, clarifying, organizing. Professor Hirsch gives more details on his web page.

    this is a great idea, but it will cost a lot of time. But I do think that the time will pay off. Maybe this will be a new habit..

    For science classes, you have to pay the time at some point to actually learn the material. If it’s heavy on sample problems, then something like the super problem set method from the red book makes sense. If it’s heavy on small technical questions and definitions, then my focused question cluster method makes sense. If, like geology, it’s lots of complicated concepts that cannot be reduced to questions, this method is a pretty efficient way of learning.

    However, I prefer to get minimalist in written notes and get everything down that will trigger the material you wish to recall verbally. Remember we don’t want to spent time studying.

    I think it depends on the complexity of the material. If you basically understand what is being taught, then minimalist notes to prompt recall are most efficient. If you need more processing, however, this re-writing step may save you time in the long run (subsequent studying using recall prompts will go real fast).

    Thus I don’t think this method would cost more time, especially not more than frantically trying to understand your notes the weekend before the exam…

    See everyone, living proof: working as the semester progresses saves time.

  9. Julie says:

    Hi Cal,

    What is your opinion on how fast a student reads material? I felt like I read very slow for a number of years and tried to learn speed-reading to save time. Would you say that most straight-A students are fast readers (i.e. 650wpm and above)? I know this question is a bit out there, but I think it’s an interesting topic. Thanks!

  10. Andresito says:

    @Julie,

    From Cal’s presentation “How to do really well at Dartmouth” (his previous univ);
    Strategies that didn’t work include speed reading.
    What works, he suggests is “big-idea” centric notes

    However, as Cal already wrote; efficiency is proportional to focused-time.

  11. Mishri says:

    Very good point. I used to write the most detailed notes ever, much to my friends’ amusement. The goal being exactly this– figure out the gaps early rather than wait till the weekend before the exam. My problem always was– I’d do all the advanced prep, but slack off at the final hurdle (i.e. studying the day before the exam).

  12. C.D. Allen says:

    I think this is a very effective strategy. Like I tell my friends, “If you can’t explain it, you don’t truly know it.”

  13. David Hirsch says:

    I would add one more benefit to the note-copying method:
    Knowing that you will be copying the notes over within about 48 hours, you are free to be as messy and disorganized as you wish, allowing much faster note-taking in class. This increases your ability to keep up with the instructor’s lecture. See the example pages on the link for what I’m taking about.

  14. Heather says:

    I used the note copying method as a science graduate student and found that I got more out of each lecture by copying over notes for the previous lecture. It forced me to understand the material from the last lecture, which I was then able to build upon in subsequent lectures- I therefore asked better questions and learned more from new material. Using this method, when it came to test time, I found I needed very little studying (or none!) to ace the exams since I had already learned the material well.

  15. Mike says:

    I read thru the study guide Hirsch wrote, and I think its not very useful. Here are some examples:

    “You can think of the course material in two groups: (A) the material you do know; and (B) the material you do not know. Why waste time with (A)?” Well, just because you know something today doesn’t mean you’ll know it tomorrow. Regular review and practice is necessary to keep things fresh in your mind. If you don’t believe this, go to your folders and pull out a midterm from a class you had a year ago. See how many of the questions you got right back then you can answer today.

    “If you study by yourself, you are likely to gloss over the material that you don’t understand very well, and think more about what you do understand, because that is the material that feels good to think about.” Maybe that was true for David when he studied. I found it FAR more useful, especially in the sciences, to buy one of the “Problem Solver” books for about $20; probably the best $20 I ever spent. Find the chapter covering the material from class, then simply cover up the answers and start working. Check your work after each problem. You can’t gloss over anything; you’re getting the right answers or you’re not. And rather than having to arrange a time when your study group can meet (David is a fan of study groups), you can practice anytime you have a spare 15-30 minutes and your book with you. Don’t get something right away? You’re not holding back the group if you go over it once, twice, 5X until it is clear.

  16. Nina says:

    I just would like to say that what Julie asked above is really interesting and a post about it would be great.

    Thanks!

  17. Tom says:

    In terms of recopying, at other places across the site you recommend typing your notes. A lot of times this means typing in class.
    But in terms of rewriting your notes, do you mean retype them? Or Handwrite them?

    Some suggest handwriting helps commit the notes to memory, which is why I ask.

    I assume for focused cluster the idea is to get the notes neatly and quickly into the proper format and review as much as possible..

  18. Study Hacks says:

    I assume for focused cluster the idea is to get the notes neatly and quickly into the proper format and review as much as possibl

    In general, I don’t believe in rewriting notes as a way of memorizing (active recall is *much* more effective.) The advice presented in this post, however, has you rewrite the notes in a more organized manner. This is less about memorizing, and more about forcing you to recognize whether you actually understand the underlying concepts. So it’s an exception to my no rewriting rule.

    I think the advice in this post is very well-suited to science classes where the insights are tricky, and hard to capture directly in class.

  19. Michael says:

    I am studying a master’s course on anantomy and the end of semester exam questions are short answers and essay types. So what would be the best way to take notes and study anatomy? There so much factual information to retain and recall! In the red book you suggested question and answer format. I’ve started doing that but seems to be taking a bit of time. Most of the time, my answers are copied straight from the textbooks and notes.

  20. Meredith says:

    @ Michael
    Anatomy involves many visuals… (if I were taking the course) I’d take the diagrams, and write my notes on there, or associate certain facts with certain visuals. I suppose my study guide would be like a huge notecard with diagrams for a lecture prompt, the lecture being the quiz-and-recall session.

  21. learniac says:

    Cal,
    In comment #18, you mention that this type of skill would be beneficial for finding loop holes in conceptual understanding. What about students who take notes on their laptops? Do we retype/reorganize notes? Will it help?
    Thanks.

  22. Craig says:

    For fact-intensive subjects I like to take some of the notes in Q/A format, like…

    Aphrodite : Goddess of love
    Hades : God of the Underworld

    That way you can easily type in or paste into a memorization website to painlessly commit the facts to memory. For example you can paste text like the above into memorize.com and to use it’s lightweight learning process on them.

    This is particularly helpful if you are pasting in your notes, per lerniac’s comment.

  23. How says:

    hey the link doesn’t work.

  24. How says:

    thanks Juan!

  25. Robert says:

    Do you think that this technique could be applied for studying engineering notes as well?

    On one hand, copying down the notes would ensure that you understand the material, and that you can easily come back to your notes in the future.

    On the other hand, a lot of time would be spent copying down these notes, which could be used to solve problem sets instead.

  26. Zoe says:

    About Julie’s comment, I am a straight A student and I always thought I read incredibly slow too! I wish some could please post something about whether it is beneficial to learn to speed read. I have tried to learn to speed read as well but I personally hate doing it! It makes reading feel like a chore, making me feel rushed when I might otherwise actually enjoy the subject.

    Well, so far, reading slowly has worked for me! Good luck :)

    1. David says:

      Thank you for the updated link!

  27. Dave says:

    I know this is an old thread but I wanted to add a tip here for anyone who reads through these comments. Regarding Zoe’s question on speed reading: I’ve finally admitted that I am a slow reader when it comes to truly studying and absorbing new material. But that is deep learning.

    However there is a great benefit to learning some form of speed reading, namely for getting the gist of new material and establishing the mental framework on which to “hang” the concepts ou will learn about in your deep reading. I read a great book years ago on ow to study a book, and found it works incredibly well for textbook learning. First read the tale of contents to find what the book covers. Then flip through the book glancing at each page for about one or two seconds at most. Then start over and skim over each page for no more than five seconds each. Once done stop. When ou come back to read a chapter, skim the chapter a few seconds prepare, then read it at normal pace. You are effectively reading the book multiple times with a speed hack, and our brain is processing vast amounts of info you just glanced at and establishing the mental framework that your brain will use to store the new concepts as ou learn them.

    I highly recommend this technique. It enables me to very rapidly learn a subject at a high level and already have a general idea of what I’m currenty trying to learn at a deeper level as well as ow the current concept fits into the larger picture formed by the repeated skimming of the subject.

    typed on an ipad, sorry for typos.

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