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4 Weeks to a 4.0: Streamline Your Notes

April 6th, 2009 · 37 comments

4 Weeks to a 4.0 is a four-part series to help you transform into an efficient student. Each Monday between 3/30 and 4/20 I’ll post a new weekly assignment to aid your transformation.

Welcome to Week 2Time to Change

This is the second post in our four-part series 4 Weeks to a 4.0. Last week, I asked you to start an autopilot schedule and adopt a Sunday ritual. If you’re like me, you’re probably having some trouble making this schedule work. That’s okay! Just keep adjusting; it takes some practice to work out the kinks. This week I want to move from the big picture issue of scheduling to something more tactical: notetaking in class.

Week 2 Assignment: Smart Notes

This week we’re focusing on taking notes in class. To better target my advice, I’ve identified three major types of classes: non-technical (history, english, etc.); technical without math (biology, psychology, etc.); and technical with math (calculus, macroeconomics, etc.). Below, I’ve provided a specific notetaking strategy for each of these three types. This week, I want you to adopt the appropriate strategy for each of your courses.


(1) Streamline Your Notes in Non-Technical Classes

Adopt the Question/Evidence/Conclusion format first presented in part 2 of the red book. The concept is simple: instead of transcribing exactly what the professor says, capture the big ideas. To do so, reduce your notes to a series of questions paired with conclusions. Between each question and conclusion should be a collection of evidence that connects the two.

In this scheme, the question is the setup for the big idea being presented by the professor, the conclusion is his conclusion to the question (it’s probably not a definitive answer), and the evidence are the arguments he used to get from the question to the conclusion. This takes practice. It also helps to spend 5-10 minutes after class cleaning up your thoughts.

To study using these notes: proceed from question to question. For each, try to recreate, without peeking, the conclusion and a sampling of the connecting evidence. Say your answers out loud, as if lecturing a class. If you can do this without major errors, you’ve mastered the big idea. If you can’t, review your notes and try again later. (This is what I call the quiz and recall method.)

For more information on this strategy read this article or see the example in the first step of part 1 of the red book.

(2) Streamline Your Notes in Technical Classes Without Math

The key here are focused question clusters. This approach works as follows:

  1. Take notes in the form of short questions followed by short answers.
  2. Group together the questions that cover the same topic into a cluster.
  3. Add a few general background questions regarding the topic at the end of the cluster (e.g., asking you to overview the topic or explain how it differs from other similar topics).
  4. If the professor is using powerpoint slides — for example, to show graphs or diagrams — reference the slide number in the questions that refer to it (e.g., “What does the red line in the graph on slide 19 indicate?”)

To study using these notes: print each cluster onto its own page. Format the answers so that they’re not on the same line as their question. Proceed through the cluster, trying to answer each question out loud without peeking at the answer. (I use a sheet of blank paper to block the answer.) If you get more than one answer wrong, then treat the entire cluster as unlearned and return to it later.

For more information read this article.

(3) Streamline Your Notes for Technical Classes With Math

The key here is to record as many sample problems as possible with as many intermediate steps as possible. When you don’t understand a step made by the professor, either raise your hand to ask about it or make a note to ask after class. When the professor makes a particularly difficult leap in the proof, annotate it in your notes with an explanation so you’ll remember the insight later.

To study from these notes: create a practice test that includes at least one sample problem from every major topic covered. If you can solve a problem from scratch, replicating the intermediate steps, and truly understanding the insight behind these steps, then you’re done with that problem. Otherwise, review your notes, review your textbook, and, if needed, meet with the TA, to bolster your understanding. Then return later and try to solve the problem from scratch again.

Coming Up…

That’s all for week 2. If you have questions or want to report on your progress, please leave a comment on this post so the other students can learn from your experience. Next week we’re moving on to the biggest time sink of all: your assignments!

Stay tuned…

37 thoughts on “4 Weeks to a 4.0: Streamline Your Notes

  1. cat says:

    This is hot.

  2. Eric says:

    How would I practice taking notes in this fashion if I’m not really good at it but still need good class notes? All the times I’ve tried this, I’ve ended up taking notes by my regular copy-down-everything-said way, because I’m scared I’ll miss some details. I’ve also tried emulating this by taking notes and then writing the questions later, but I find it hard to sustain that for a week, much less a semester. Unless, of course, I find some way to make it routine, but I’d rather not have to spend an hour out of class writing questions to my notes after every lecture. Practicing this method in class would be better. But how?

  3. Tsessebe says:

    I have the same experience as Eric. For lecture notes I tend to write down the questions during midterm week or exam week. I guess it’s better than nothing. I never really end up doing things the week of, even though I know it’d be better for memory.

  4. Andresito says:

    Guys,

    If you still have doubts on this week Cal’s suggestions check the red book

    Sincerely get the red book and it’ll be more helpful.

  5. Viknesh says:

    Which category does Law fall under? Non-technical?

  6. rupss says:

    As always, great advice Cal.
    I have 2 questions/comments for you, rather unrelated though. 1, based on a lot of your advice, you seem like a liberal arts student at heart even though you’re a computer science student. (it’s just my observation, no offense meant in any way) Does that come through in your study habits/approach to computer science in any way?
    2, out of curiosity, what are your plans after university? are you going to stay in the world of academia?

  7. Alex says:

    I think the math advice is good generally. However I have a question about a more specific math course – namely analysis. This course covers a huge amount of material. The problems are all proof based on often it is hard to find similar ‘problems’ – especially compared with say calculus.

    I have a feeling the best goal is to get a really good grasp of the exact meaning of all the definitions and the insights of the theorems – this is much easier said than done, time is the big constraint. A familiarity with some of the ‘more standard’ proofs would come next. Together these would provide the basis for most of the problems.

    The big problem is finding an effective manner of doing this so it doesn’t take ages. Could you suggest a method?

    P.S. I take 3 courses, do 1 sport and have 1 job (unfortunately I recently had 2). My point is my timetable is fairly streamlined!

  8. Study Hacks says:

    Unless, of course, I find some way to make it routine, but I’d rather not have to spend an hour out of class writing questions to my notes after every lecture. Practicing this method in class would be better. But how?

    The goal is to be capturing things in the question format during class (as you note.) This does take practice. You have to learn to take advantage of pauses and digressions to clean things up. You have to be fluid with moving text around and relabelling it as it comes in. There’s no shortcut but to dive right in and try. You will get better with time. It might help, at first, to give yourself 10 – 15 minutes of note clean-up per class.

  9. Study Hacks says:

    Which category does Law fall under? Non-technical?

    I’m hesitant to answer. Law school is a slightly different beast then undergrad, and the top law students who have written me with their study habits tend to have things much more streamlined for the specific challenges of law school. It might be worth me doing enough research on this for a post…

    based on a lot of your advice, you seem like a liberal arts student at heart even though you’re a computer science student.

    In addition to computer science, I’ve studied art history at both the undergrad and grad level (it was my minor at both levels). I’m trying to spend more time with the technical course advice, but keep on me!

    out of curiosity, what are your plans after university? are you going to stay in the world of academia?

    Yep. I’m on an academic track. The next step en route to a professorship is a postdoctoral fellowship, which is what I plan to be doing for the next 2 years or so.

    have a feeling the best goal is to get a really good grasp of the exact meaning of all the definitions and the insights of the theorems – this is much easier said than done, time is the big constraint.

    Read my post titled “How to Ace Calculus.” You are 100% correct that insight is everything. To tackle the time burden you have to inline this insight building throughout the semester.

  10. Phuc says:

    Writer’s block, Cal?

  11. Eman says:

    I can’t wait for week 3!

    Thanks. Definitely trying this new notetaking routine.

  12. Lucy says:

    Cal, while I enjoy your blog, a lot of your advice seems to assume lecture, test-based classes. You seem to assume that the purpose of note-taking is to arrange information for easy exam review. As a senior humanities major at a liberal arts school, I haven’t taken an in-class test or final in two years. In most of my classes, I could choose to not write a single thing down and still do well, but taking notes does give me fodder for papers and helps me think through the ideas brought up in discussion. Do you think your styles are adaptable for more of this less directed, more personal use of notes, or do you have a different approach?

  13. Study Hacks says:

    As a senior humanities major at a liberal arts school, I haven’t taken an in-class test or final in two years. In most of my classes, I could choose to not write a single thing down and still do well, but taking notes does give me fodder for papers and helps me think through the ideas brought up in discussion

    I’ve taken a lot of these types of courses. I found that what worked was doing careful Q/E/C style notes on the readings and lecture discussions that related to topics I might tackle in the major paper(s) due in the class. For the rest, I usually wouldn’t bother investing the time…

  14. Christine says:

    What about classes where the lecture is mostly a long, stream-of-consciousness style list of information? I’m an Anthropology major, and most of my professors present reams of data with very few breaks – deliberately not forming many questions so that we are forced to make our own analysis. I’ve previously done well just writing down everything to review later, but this can of course be very time consuming.
    In these sort of lectures, it would seem that formatting for Q/E/C is best suited to the after-class review/reformat, similar to the Cornell method (which I was just about to try). What would you suggest?

  15. Study Hacks says:

    I’m an Anthropology major, and most of my professors present reams of data with very few breaks – deliberately not forming many questions so that we are forced to make our own analysis.

    Your challenge is to come up with your own questions and conclusions in real time. This is tough. But it’s something you get better at with practice. Typically, you might start by copying down summaries of the evidence the professor is presenting until you get a sense of a question it is answering. Next time you get a moment you scroll up and add that question. When you get a sense of a conclusion you throw that in too. This approach usually requires that you take advantage of every pause and digression to clean-up what you have. It also requires some time after lecture to do a final clean (though this time reduces as you get better.) I would say it might take a couple weeks of practice before your notes start to get reasonable, but it does come. And the good news is that it certainly keeps you active during class.

  16. Christine says:

    Thanks!
    I’m looking forward to the rest of the series.

  17. John Rete says:

    This is a great article as always.
    I will definitely keep it in my mind and employ your method.
    Thanks for those great principles.
    Regards.

  18. AmuS. says:

    I am at the point in my college life where I have realized that my study skills just plain suck. I insist on spending hours and hours memorizing ridiculous information in my science classes, when none of it will actually be on the test ( although I must say I am very good at memorizing). Your study tips have greatly changed my views and have saved me from feeling like a failure. I am quite eager to start using your tips and hope to see some improvements. thank you!!

  19. nXqd says:

    I really get into this way of reviewing :)
    I use Mindjet to capture all my notes in my notebook and everywhere.
    After that I review, it really help me a lot . I just play around with it, just add some color, picture, it makes me easier to remembering .
    But sometimes, I don’t have computer by my side, your tips are quite good for reviewing :)

  20. Bianca says:

    Hey Cal!

    So, in my Genetics class, we are allowed to bring hand-written notes for mid-terms/exams. However, we are not allowed to bring any typed notes in during test taking. And, so to me it really didn’t make sense to type up notes during class, but to write them. However, I have this computer program that is set up like a regular notebook and will record lectures as I type along. I thought this be really useful especially with your Q/E/C method. But, I thought it would also be a waste of time, since then I would have to go back and re-write them, so I could have them during my mid-terms. In addition, my professor uses power points, but doesn’t post them until after the lecture. And on top of that, the mid-terms are not short answer or multiple choice but are solely based on our problem sets and practice problems. Do you have any suggestions about how to conquer this issues? Thanks so much, I really enjoyed your article!!

  21. Brian says:

    Hi Cal,
    I’m a freshman commencing my first week of studies in law. As you’ve said previously, you’re hesitant in answering which category this subject falls under in terms of note taking. It would be nice if you could do some more work in the law area so i could benefit in my studies as I’m quite lost as to the approach to this completely new language to me.

  22. tarboos says:

    Hi Cal, can I please get your advice on this situation:

    Tech w/ math classes, cannot take extensive notes by hand [due to disabilities], others notes are not useful.

    How would one still make the most of one’s lectures?

  23. Mike says:

    Hey Cal,
    Could you provide some samples of the notetaking methods you’ve described? I’d just like to see how it’s properly done.
    Thank you.

  24. Sandy says:

    I am making a transition. I have decided to go back to school after all these years (since I lost my job :( . I have a question for you Cal. I am taking some pre-reqs for physician assistant programs. Because of the demand of the programs and the competition I am somewhat intimidated. I am planning to take Anatomy and Physiology and Microbiology this fall and was wondering how would you suggest tackling classes like these where there are many concepts to learn as well as new vocabulary.

    Best and thanks in advance

  25. Study Hacks says:

    I am planning to take Anatomy and Physiology and Microbiology this fall and was wondering how would you suggest tackling classes like these where there are many concepts to learn as well as new vocabulary.

    There are two relevant blog posts for you to search for on my site. The first involves studying for non-technical science courses, and the other is titled something like “I got a C on my Orgo exam, what do I do.” Combined it’ll tell you what you need.

  26. Joey says:

    Where would a course like chemistry fall into these outlines?

  27. David Locke says:

    I found that if I read the whole book before the start of the semester, I take less notes during the semester. I don’t take notes or necessarily understand what I read in the pre-semester reads. It worked for Hegel. I remembered stuff from the book when the professor brought it up.

    In Math, you have to do the problems, all of them, not just those that were assigned.

  28. Arthur Barbosa Camara says:

    Well, I’m thankful I found this website. Honestly. I’m a undergraduate in Computer Science, and having some real big problems with a couple of subjects. So far, everything I’ve read here seems awesome.
    I’ve just began to took notes the way you describes here, and it has really helped me so far.

  29. Claire says:

    Hi,
    Any special tip for studying Quantum Mechanics? Lots of proofs and formulas that the professor wants us to write down in a face to face, oral exam…

  30. Lyndsey Wood says:

    So, I’m new to actually caring and trying to study. But I’m really doing my best and finding it “easier” as I go. But I do have some questions:
    I may just not be getting it and this may be so obvious but I just want to make sure I’m doing this correctly. So if I were say taking notes from a lecture in Physical Science and the definition of weight was thrown out there followed by a exception/example or situation pertaining to the topic, I should form it to look something like this?
    -What is dependent on gravity?
    -Weight
    -EX: A man that weighs 300 lbs would weigh 1/6 of his weight on the moon.
    -Why will he weigh less?
    -Because the force of gravity on the moon is less than the force of gravity on the earth.

    Obviously this is very basic, but I just wanted to get insight and see if I am even in the ballpark of the right direction. Thank you so much.

  31. Adam D. says:

    New reader on an old post;
    Strategizing notes for technical courses without math is pretty difficult at first. But with practice and the personal adaptation one gains from their instructor improves, it gets easier. For example, in zoology we first remember the taxonomy of every phylum in each kingdom, then go through characteristics of each group (e.g. feeding, reproductive patterns, etc.). Chunking each major group into a 1-2 page study guide really helped organize the material, and lay it out to review come prep for exams/lab assessments. Further, the organized info and overall success landed me an internship at the Smithsonian this summer. Thanks!

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