Study Hacks Blog Decoding Patterns of Success Posts on Tips: Notetaking

4 Weeks to a 4.0: Streamline Your Notes

April 6th, 2009 · 35 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.

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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.

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Monday Master Class: The Story Telling Method

September 1st, 2008 · 20 comments

The Study Time Paradox

Tower Room

A common complaint I hear goes something like this: “I studied for hours and hours, reviewing every practice problem I could find, or re-reading every assignment and all my notes, and then, when I sat down for the test, I had no idea how to answer the questions!”

I call this the Study Time Paradox because no matter how hard these students study, their grades don’t seem to improve. In this post, I want to describe a solution to this problem; a simple hack that requires 5 – 10 extra minutes a day but can produce significantly better grades.

Story Time

Lurking behind the Study Time Paradox is the following truth: there’s a difference between knowing information and understanding concepts. This should sound familiar. This is the same observation that motivates the use of question/evidence/conclusion note-taking and quiz-and-recall test review instead of transcription and rote memorization. (See here and here for more on the Study Hacks approach to note-taking and exam prep, respectively.)

The piece of advice presented here, which I call the Story Telling Method, is a complement to these strategies. It can be described as follows:

  • After each class, tell a “story” about the material covered—a five minute summary of the concepts that drove the lecture.
  • Don’t bother writing it down. Instead, just say it to yourself while walking to your next class. Treat it like you’re a literary agent or movie producer pitching the lecture at an important meeting.
  • Cover the big picture flow of ideas, not the small details. Answer the question “why was this lecture important?”, not all the information it contained. Play up the flashy or unexpected.

For example, after an Art History lecture, you might tell the story of early renaissance artists clashing in Italy, and how and why Cimabue and Gitto—the superstars of their era—were able to break out. You can do the same for technical material. After a calculus course, for example, you could talk about what problem a derivative solves and how integration extends the idea to do something even cooler. You don’t need to review the chain rule, instead explain why the hell someone would want to know the slope at a point on a curve.

Constructing a Framework

The Story Telling Method has an important benefit: it takes the large volume of information you just received and organizes it within a coherent framework. Not surprisingly, this makes it much easier to retain this information. Later, when you approach exam studying, having this narrative framework reduces review to a simple task. By contrast, if you approach studying with just a large pile of notes — even if they are taken carefully in the question/evidence/conclusion format — you might have some long nights ahead of you.

The Rise of the Mini-Hack

I call this type of advice a “mini-hack” because it’s a small thing that you can easily integrate into your existing schedule; it’s something you do between classes, not a big new commitment. At the same time, however, it can generate a big boost in your performance. I’m fascinated by this type of advice as I think there is great potential in replacing major habit changes with a constantly evolving arsenal of small little tricks. Expect to hear more of this style of tips in the future. And as always, if you give this strategy a whirl, let me know how it goes.

Monday Master Class: To Go To Class, Or Not To Go…There Shouldn’t Be Any Question

July 7th, 2008 · 20 comments

“The following are valid excuses for skipping class: I have a fever of 105 degrees; I need to fly to L.A. to accept an Academy Award; today in class we are reviewing a book I wrote; my leg is caught in a bear trap. The moral of this exercise: Always go to class!

– from How to Win at College

Debatable AttendanceLecture Hall

A lively discussion has broken out in the comments thread of last Friday’s post. The topic: whether it’s necessary to attend class. On one side of the debate is the idea that some professors don’t offer any new information in lecture, ergo: you can skip these classes. The other side of the debate says that there’s more to lecture than just raw information. The professor, for example, might indicate which material is most important for an upcoming test. As a more straightforward concern, it’s also possible that a professor might note your absence, and then penalize you appropriately.

This is a great question and a great debate, so I thought I would weight in. Actually, I already have weighed in on this topic, in chapter 57 of my first book: How to Win at College. As the excerpt above reveals, my advice is unambiguous: always go to class.

Why to Attend

When I first wrote about this topic in How to Win, I gave three main reasons for attending class:

  1. As mentioned in the comments thread from Friday, professors often give indicators (sometimes subtle) about which material is worth really knowing and which you don’t have to sweat.
  2. You concentrate better in a lecture hall, listening to the professor in person, surrounded by your solemn peers, then you do trying to read notes or the textbook in your dorm room with the TV blaring. In short: it’s a quicker way to learn material well.
  3. Finally, if you skip any class even once then this suddenly becomes an option for all your classes. You now have to endure this debate before every lecture, and that’s a hard battle to win, especially during a tired (read: hungover) morning — which occur often. You’re much better off keeping class attendance mandatory, always, and take the skipping option off the table.

I want to add a fourth argument that was not originally included in How to Win. It goes as follows: attending class is a sign to yourself that you’re taking your academics seriously. Even if you could review the material on your own, to get up and drag your ass to the lecture hall is like callisthenics’s for your willpower. If you’re worried about wasting time in a lecture that presents no new material, then study the material during class; it’s the best study location on campus! But just make sure you get there.

Monday Master Class: How David Scored a 4.0 With 0.0 Notes

June 16th, 2008 · 27 comments

A Note from DavidBroken Pencil

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.

Monday Master Class: The Study Hacks Guide to Note-Taking

May 26th, 2008 · 8 comments

Note the Importance of NotesNotes

Taking notes is arguably the most important step of the student academic process. Both in class and while tackling a reading assignment, your notes represent the primary filter between the raw information hurtling at you and what you’ll later attempt to review, learn, and, eventually, regurgitate on a test or paper. I am surprised, therefore, by how many students never give this step any serious consideration: they’re content to simply jot down information in whatever random fashion suits them at the moment.

I shudder at the thought of the unnecessary pain this induces.

In this post, I describe some of the most important note-taking strategies to grace the digital pages of Study Hacks. Take a look. If you master this step, you’ll enjoy significant improvements to your academic life.

A Study Hacks Crash Course on Smart Note-Taking

Why Most Students Don’t Understand the Real Goal of Note-Taking
A classic article from the early days of Study Hacks. It lays out my core philosophy on how to take notes well. You can use its “Three Laws of Reduced Study Time Note-Taking” as a general framework for the construction of your own customized note solution.

Part 2 in 60 Seconds or Less (or, The Q/E/C Note-Taking Method)
Another classic article. It summarizes the main philosophy driving Part 2 — Quizzes & Exams — of my book How to Become a Straight-A Student. What makes it relevant to this post is that it describes the famed Question/Evidence/Conclusion note-taking system that I first introduced in my book and now reference all the time here on Study Hacks.

Accelerate Q/E/C Note-Taking
A technical article that describes how to use Word short-cuts to accelerate Question/Evidence/Conclusion note-taking on your laptop.

Rapid Note-Taking With the Morse Code Method
A steamlined note-taking variant for long reading assignments that need to be completed in a short amount of time.

The Art of Pseudo-Skimming
An even more streamlined note-taking approach for articles that only need to be reviewed, not mastered, before class.

How to Read Hard Readings
This post introduces “strategic pre-processing” as a technique for conquering outrageously dense and complicated reading assignments.

How to Take Notes on Power Point Slides
Technical tips for taking efficient notes on lectures that are driven by Power Point slides. Take a look at the readers’ comments, which introduce some interesting twists on my advice.

Monday Master Class: Rapid Note-Taking with the Morse Code Method

February 18th, 2008 · 33 comments

The Fast and the CuriousMorse Code

I’m currently taking a graduate seminar that assigns demanding articles of demanding length. Being somewhat busy, as I’ve mentioned before, I’ve recently been working to squeeze every last ounce of speed out of my note-taking habits. This has led me to a new note-taking approach I call the Morse Code Method. It’s engineered to be fast. Blazingly fast; yet still be able to support the type of detailed comprehension needed to survive a three-hour, 10-person discussion-based seminar.

It works as follows…

Brain Drag

Forget time for a moment. Your worst enemy when tackling a reading assignment is that weighty, sleep-inducing brain-drag that starts to grow over time, making concentration increasingly difficult. What brings this on? A big factor is halting your reading momentum. If you cease forward movement with your eyes so you can, for example, underline a few lines, or draw a bracket next to paragraph, or, dare I say it, highlight a sentence, it will require a large energy burst to get started once again. Too many such stops and starts and your brain will be fried.

The Morse Code Method is based on the following idea: you should never stop reading until you’re done with the entire article.

One continuous pass is the fastest, most energy-efficient possible way to get through a reading. It’s also the least painful.

The Dot-Dash Notation

This begs an obvious question: if you don’t stop your reading momentum, how do you make note of the important points? The answer is to deploy the following notation:

  1. If you come across a sentence that seems to be laying out a big, interesting idea: draw a quick dot next to it in the margin.
  2. If you come across an example or explanation that supports the previous big idea: draw a quick dash next to it in the margin.

From experimentation, I’ve learned that these dots and dashes are small enough that you can record them without breaking your reading momentum. In the end, your article will be a sequence of dots and dashes (like a Morse Code message!), effectively breaking down the reading into a useful sequence: big idea!, support, support, big idea!, support, support, support…


Once you’ve finished reading the entire article, it’s time to take notes. Review the sentences that you dotted and dashed. For the dots that still strike you as important, paraphrase the main idea in your notes, in your own words. (The paraphrase is key: it forces you to processes the idea in your brain, not just reproduce it like a photocopier). For each of the following dashes that still strikes you as important, paraphrase the example or explanation in a bullet point.

Go quick. Don’t worry about typos. Ignore fancy formatting. Just get the ideas down. As fast as possible.


Now for the final step. This will only take you an extra couple minutes, but it’s the crucial boost that will transform you from “reasonably familiar with the readings” to “class star”:

  • Reviewing what you just recorded in your notes, think for a moment about the following: What is the main question being asked in the article and what’s the conclusion the authors point toward? Record the question and conclusion in your notes.

Now you’re done. Don’t skip this last step! It is here that you pull out the big picture ideas that will form the core of class discussions, papers, and exam essay questions.

How This Compares to Classic Q/E/C Note-Taking

Fans of Straight-A might wonder how the Morse Code Method compares to the classical Question/Evidence/Conclusion approach. The answer: it’s a variation. By having you read the article before identifying a question and conclusion, the Morse Code Method better handles complicated articles with subtle arguments. Also, by having you actually read — not just skim — every sentence, you’re better prepared for more detailed discussions. When deciding what tactic to deploy, choose based on the needs of the class.

Monday Master Class: How to Take Notes on Power Point Slides

November 19th, 2007 · 27 comments

The Rise of Power PointSlide Projector

It’s increasingly common for professors to lecture with the help of Power Point slides. Whether or not this is a good development is an argument for another time. What is clear, however, is that the modern student needs to know how to best take notes on this style of lecture.

In this post, I describe simple rules for taking effective notes in a Power Point lecture. I also describe how to later use these notes to study as efficiently as possible.

Don’t Print the Slides Before Lecture

Professors will often post their Power Point slides before the lecture. Many students assume they should print the slides and bring them with them to class.

Don’t do this…

Instead, load the files on your laptop. While the professor lectures, follow along with the slides on your laptop. Take notes in the notes window that appears at the bottom of your screen in Power Point. This is demonstrated in the following screen shot:

Adding Notes to Your Power Point Slides

When the class is over, you can then print out your slides in notes view — which will show, on each page, the slide along with the notes you recorded. The notes view can be selected from the print menu as shown below:

Printing Power Point in Notes View

If You Don’t Have the Slides in Advance, Mark the Page Numbers

Sometimes the professor makes the slides available only after the lecture. In this case, take notes in a word processor on your laptop as usual. This time, however, whenever the professor changes the slides mark the new page number in your notes.

Later, when you get your hands on the slide files, load them up in Power Point. Use the page numbers in your notes to copy and paste the text right into Power Point in the notes window under the appropriate slides. You can now print out the two together in notes view as before.

Studying Power Point Slides

The alert reader will remark that some professors use a huge number of slides. The thought of having to review every single slide presented during the semester is enough to drive many to despair. In this case, you might considering cleaning up your notes in Power Point before printing them for review. Even after you’ve done some cleaning, it’s still not obvious how best to study from this material. Here are some tips to help you out:

  1. Throw Out Unnecessary Slides. Some slides don’t really add much to the content of lecture — maybe they represent a minor tweak on a different slide, a digression, or some administrative details — erase these from the slide show file. The less slides you print, the quicker you’ll be able to study later on.
  2. Consolidate notes for sequences of slides. If a several slides in a row expand on the same basic point, consolidate your notes onto the first of these slides. This reduces the number of pages of notes you have to review even if you can’t throw out all the slides.
  3. Study by Replicating the Lecture. Print the slides in notes view. Go through the printouts one by one. For each page, start by covering over the notes section so you can’t cheat. Try to lecture, as if talking to an imaginary class, about what’s important about the slides. Check the notes to see if you hit the high points. If not, mark it to return to in the next pass (this is classic Quiz-and-Recall studying.)


Think of Power Point slides as a handy visual aid to augment your studying. They might make the lectures stilted, but having slides printed along with your notes will make your life easier when it comes time to review.