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

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.

34 thoughts on “Monday Master Class: How David Scored a 4.0 With 0.0 Notes”

  1. Great post here, but I think the big takeaway should be that each person needs to try various methods and find what works for him or her. This method would be a sure-fire way to failure for me. I know, I know, I haven’t tried this particular method, but I’ve tried similar ones before, to poor results.

    During my training for a volunteer position with an adult literacy organization I learned that people fall under certain categories of learner: Auditory, Visual, and Tactile. Oh, the wasted time I could have saved had I realized earlier that I was a visual learner!

    It sounds like David is an auditory learner and has found a way to make that work for him. Being a visual learner, David’s method would have doomed me to failure. Rather, I learned that taking notes, re-copying and organizing them the same night, then re-copying them again before an exam was a sure-fire way for me to earn my A’s. The process doesn’t take nearly as long as you might think.

    David’s method is a great example of how an auditory learner can make excellent use of their time and skill-set. The big thing to remember though, is that everyone needs to find a method that works for their learning style.

    Thanks for highlighting this method. It’s always great to learn what works for other people.

  2. Great post here, but I think the big takeaway should be that each person needs to try various methods and find what works for him or her.

    Absolutely! I think that’s what excited me about David’s story, though his technique might not fit for a lot of people, it does expand the boundaries of the possible techniques one can try.

  3. I started graduate school with a guy who also didn’t take notes during class (and didn’t record lectures either btw. This was over a decade ago). He was always one of the best students in class and soon convinced me that taking notes often takes up so much of your attention that you stop listening to the content. I think the only useful note taking is correcting material not on slides/handouts/texts or a short notation for a question to ask later. Since slides for most lectures are generally available to students and since most classes have a textbook as well, I actually realized that honestly, I seldom even looked at the notes I took.

  4. About two years ago, I decided to stop taking notes when I realized that I never went back and looked at them. (This is for my liberal arts classes, not my science and math classes, for which my notes included lots of sample problems and formulas). Now I just pay attention in class, occasionally writing down something that sounds useful. Although, most of what I end up writing down is some interesting or funny comment from a professor that really has nothing to do with the topic of the lecture. This works well in my major (history), though, because our tests and assignments have more to do with our understanding of the material than the material itself. If we can demonstrate that we understand the significance or influence of certain actions or events, the amount of points deducted for citing the wrong date or misspelling someone’s name (on tests, not papers) is minimal. When it comes to term papers, most of the material in lectures is too generalized to be useful, anyway, except as a starting point. Also, since I attend a small school, I have had many of the same profs over and over again. Since I have learned their testing style, I can adapt my study habits to their testing style.

    I think the biggest problem with note-taking is that so many students try to transcribe every word the prof says, without bothering to make sure that they understand the material. At least, that’s what I see happening when many of my fellow students take notes.

  5. A couple of comments. First, the quick and dirty: Don’t have time to listen to lectures more than once? I certainly don’t have 30 hours at the end of the semester to revisit all the lectures. But do I have two later that week? Sure. I waste more time while studying each week to allow for that. Especially if I can do it at the pub.

    Second, wrt math courses: remember the 5 Ps.

    I’m taking third semester of calculus this fall, after taking calculus I & II a few years back, so I’m reviewing the book and my notes. What do I notice? My very difficult to read notes (“stripped of context”) completely parallel the book sections. At this point, I’ve tossed my notes in favor of the book. Which means that what I’ve discovered since really applies:

    Proper planning prevents poor performance, where “poor performance” in this case is defined as “taking (too many) notes”.

    If a class covers chapters 4.3-5.7 in the book, read it before class. Or at least page through enough to have an idea of what’s in the book. Then, don’t write down the printed page you’ve already paid for! In some of my classes, even history classes, my page (sometimes page and half because I write big and sloppy) of notes really is that overview that I used to try and distill from 5 whack pages.

  6. If only life and studying were that easy for an engineering student. *sigh*

    Eventually, I am going to make a webpage for science, engineering and math students. I’m really tired of people telling me how to study for classes I will never take.

    • I still think this can apply to math or science classes. Only take notes when you need to, aka when you are problem-solving. So instead of taking 10-15 lines of notes on a particular math method, don’t take notes at all, and instead, only write down the example problems that you go through in or out of class.

  7. At 15 I injured my right (ie. writing) hand, and lost the use of it for two years. During this time I recorded all my classes (for UK ‘A’ Levels), and relistened to them quite often. As David pointed out, something which is stressed in a lecture doesn’t necessarily seem important: but when you can listen again, themes and key elements become obvious.

    I don’t normally learn aurally, and the technique I settled on was to teach myself to write with my left hand. This was a slow process, so all the notes I made were well-considered: I didn’t want to waste time on trivia. I eventually learned to type with my left hand only and “re-wrote” the lecture: this is a particularly valuable exercise if you don’t think much of the lecturer, as you can exorcise all that scorn at the same time as thinking really hard about the points they were trying to get across to see how to do it better. (They do say the best way to learn is to teach!)

    Before the exams, I had the opportunity to listen to whole strands of courses in one or two intensive days: this also was revealing.

    The one note of caution I would give is to ask before recording anyone’s lecture or presentation: they will agree to it, but it is only polite.

  8. SSS

    Single Sheet Summary.

    I learned the technique in 10th grade from the best teacher I ever had. Every course can be summarized on a single sheet. Every time the sheet fills up, you re-do the sheet in a more compact form. you add to it after each class, or when there’s something important to add.

    the SSS helped me get a 4.0 average. its awesome. Listening to lectures on ipod is something i do now, even though i’m not in school, and its definitely great.

  9. DottyWine:

    I am a Ph.D. student in Human Factors Engineering with a concentration/specialty in software engineering. I have used the same method for note taking and studying for the last 3 years and I have earned 4.0. It is all about discipline and knowing what could be troublesome for you.

    • I agree with this, Joe! I had just responded to Dotty Wine, as well, saying that I think this method can work for math or science or engineering students as well. I mentioned that, for instance, instead of taking notes about a certain math technique or method, don’t take notes at all. And instead, only write down the example problems that encapsulate/practice on that new method. So yeah, you will only have a bunch of example problems in your notebook.

  10. ehm. I am wondering if this was a liberal arts major. Try taking a class on circuits or electrical systems without taking notes, esp drawing circuit diagrams that are drawn on the board and your destined for a hard time.

  11. I dont know what school David went to, but it must have been one with really good professors. I can’t pay attention or stay awake to the boring dribble that comes out of most of my professor’s mouths while I am in lecture… I’m sure listening to them while trying to do anything else would just be annoying/tranquilizing.

  12. ehm. I am wondering if this was a liberal arts major. Try taking a class on circuits or electrical systems without taking notes, esp drawing circuit diagrams

    He was a liberal arts major. Notice the following quote from the article:

    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.

  13. Several comments allude to the “fact” that this won’t work in science or engineering classes. Like Jen said, it depends on the type of learner that you happen to be. I am an auditory learner and find that taking notes, even in science classes, causes me to miss out on important material. I have a BS, MS, and PhD in physics and found (for me) that the most effective way to take classes was to read the material before the lecture and truly pay attention to what was being said by the instructor. I gave myself bonus points if I could find mistakes in the lecture (okay, I was probably really annoying to have as a student). On those rare occasions that I took notes, I found that I never looked at them again. So it does work in science, if you are the right type of learner.

    • Thanks for saying this, David! I agree. I think that this method can definitely work for science/math/engineering. For instance, if your professor is going over a new math topic/method/technique, instead of taking notes about it or about the steps involved, you can only take notes on when you actually do an example problem that encapsulates it all. So your notebook would just be filled with example problems.

  14. This is a great technique for auditory learners. People who learn though seeing still might be better served by notes, or re-reading the text.

  15. I have to weigh in on this. For the record, I am double-majoring (yeah I know) in Zoology and Marine Biology so all of my classes are heavy science with labs. Also, I have never been an auditory learner. I have always learned best by writing and re-writing notes. Though I’m generally a good student, I have specific issues with recall, regardless of how long/hard I study. I recently bought a voice recorder and started recording all my lectures and it has CHANGED every aspect of how I study. I don’t stress about getting everything written down because I can go back and get it! If I miss something, I put an R circled at that point on my printed lecture slides. I have single hour gaps in my lecture schedule which are perfect for sneaking in a little extra time. If I need visual (which I frequently do), then I sit down at my computer and pull up those PowerPoint slides and listen to the lecture. For most of my lectures, I can put my recorder near the keyboard of my professor and I get a click of the keyboard when the slides are changed. It’s also a good motivator to actually attend all my classes because if I don’t then I don’t have the audio. As far as the science stuff goes, both my recorder and digital camera go with me to every lab. I record the pre-lab talk and anything else relevant and take photos of the available lab material. The thing that impresses me is that my recall is starting to improve. I’ve always had this problem and this is my third year at university and now, at the age of 25, I’ve found a way to improve my recall through a method I never thought would work. It sounds daunting to find the time to listen to lectures again but it’s not that hard. You find time and the beauty of it is, you don’t have to listen to a whole lecture at once! I listen the 15 minutes before lecture starts or a half-hour before bed or … It’s a good trick, even in a science/math heavy major. It’s certainly not for everyone but I never thought it’d work for me and it did. So, it’s worth a shot if you can figure out where it’s useful and where it isn’t.

  16. I usually don’t pay any attention in class, don’t take notes, and study very little.

    Of course, I don’t get super grades and all my material is in the book / online, so this is pretty easy, but…

  17. I would argue that this method works best in science/math classes. If you are able to pay enough attention to figure out what the professor is actually doing it requires very little memorization of the formulas and processes because you understand exactly what is happening and can recreate it on the test the same way as the original scientist/mathematician did. the key is to really engage your brain and make the effort in class to understand what is behind the process.

  18. I agree with Jeremy on this one. This technique is actually a much better method for science/math classes. I do agree though it is not for everyone, and only those science students who are auditory learners, but the fact that you should understand formulas and not memorize them is something even Professors keep reminding us students. The fact is, a formula can be explained with words and not just symbols, simply because those symbols have names too.

  19. This is an old article so you probably won’t reply…

    But I learn aurally mainly and visually to a lesser extent, but I learn best with both combined. How can I apply a method like this for science and math classes? I’m unable to record in classes but in terms of studying at home, how can I implement this method for science subjects that require concepts and equations etc.?

  20. 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 think this could be at it’s best for maths – I found that once I realised what the big, major and over arching points were in a course, the rest made so much more sense. I didn’t have to remember things as much as just say to myself “What does it make sense to do here?”.

  21. This works amazingly! And not just for liberal arts classes. I went through a year of ORGANIC CHEMISTRY without taking any notes and I ended with an A in the class. I actually didn’t even record the lectures either. For math/science classes simply read the material going to be covered before class, become 100% absorbed and actively questioning during lectures (I sometimes write down questions I come up with to go over in office hours or figure out on my own later). Spend the rest of your time working problems. I find reading over my notes is pretty useless when I did try to take some.

  22. I just completed a 36 hour course where the facilitator would not allow us to take notes regarding his work. When asked about this, since some of us are not aural learners and need to take notes for understanding,he stated that research shows we “learn better when we listen without taking notes” Does anyone know where there is research to support this statement?

  23. Well my contention with this is that it assumes all professors are of the same quality and teach the same way. Many times professors put things on tests that aren’t in their lectures but rather in the book. Furthermore, this hardly works for mathematics. To get at mathematics you have to practice on the hard questions, not the simple plug in the answers to the equation.

  24. I believe this method works. I know I attempted an excitement tying this method over the summer this year and got an A in anatomy and microbiology at my university. However I already have a deep rooted interest in biology so that might be helping me actively listen. This method sort of works with chemistry’s big idea concepts but the analytical portion of the class and calculus require conventional “show me how style”. I am 90% less worried now about getting my doctorates in pharmacy now. I am not afraid to learn or master anything

    Thank you Internet .

  25. It works for Math and sciences too. Other than writing formulas, I never took notes in my Bachelors; Masters or PhD in the science field of Mechanical Engineering. I didn’t record the classes either. I simply absorbed as much as possible in the class and made sure that I understood the concept right there in class. Which was great because I didn’t lose time taking notes. It was more efficient. I would ask follow up questions to the teacher if I didn’t get it. I would practice problem solving in loose sheets of papers. After solving problems I immediatly threw the sheet away because I didn’t like the clutter. If I didn’t understand something in particular from the problems, I brought it to class the next day so that the teacher can not only explain that in more detail to me but also to the rest of the class.
    It worked for me. I found most of the classes to be easy and didn’t need to study too much for the exam nor did I have to go through notes.

  26. This technique worked very well for me and I went from doing pretty poorly to doing very well with the technique – walking and listening to lectures/recordings. However any suggestions for people who study very well this way in programming/math classes?? Flash cards don’t work for me for some reasons :/!


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