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

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.

40 thoughts on “Monday Master Class: Rapid Note-Taking with the Morse Code Method”

  1. I like doing this kind of thing when our Biology professor hands out his PowerPoint slides, too. I’m constantly writing on my laptop what he is actually saying (my prof actually uses powerpoint correctly; as a tool, not as the speech notecards!); then on the slide handout I mark the slides with very important information with some kind of marking. Usually I pull out a highlighter or something, though instead of just the dot-dash thing. I never thought of this for reading assignments, though; thanks!

  2. @Amy:

    I wonder if there is some set of efficient and meaningful markings that would make sense for the specific environment of Bio power point slides? (like a “D” for definition; “T” for technique, etc.) It would be interesting to explore how the technique might generalize.

  3. @Study Hacks (Cal)

    I’ve never thought about it; his slides typically seem to be a format of either important information or background information (i.e. This is a basswood plant; this is where you will find sclerenchyma cells…[next slide] Sclerenchyma cells have a basic structure like ….) I wonder if I attempted to make the slides that I print a bit larger to better see what could be important and mark the information on each slide instead of the slides themselves. I’ll keep you posted!

  4. Thank you for this very simple and efficient technique. I like it. I would like to use it when reading some on-line articles, however I don’t have any tool to mark Web Pages. Do you have any idea?

  5. @Stephane:

    Good question. Google Notebook let’s you roughly accomplish this (using a browser extension to capture text from web pages). I think I have seen, however, tools for adding notes to specific parts of web pages…but I don’t know their name off hand.

    Can anyone help here?

  6. This sounds promising, I can definitely see myself using this for readings in this class about biochemical engineering. I’m not sure, however, if it would work for the more technical reading..say..a thermo or organic chemistry textbook – although the textbook serves as more of a background to lecture- I tend to take notes /highlight points as I read it, which may not be that great of an idea.

  7. This is a great addition to your note taking methods Cal. Since I am doing a Bio major this will be a great benefit when reading and taking notes as I tend to use a lot of my time to memorize a lot of the information and facts (I tend to understand Biological facts very quickly which is a great asset).

    Your idea though about using letters for different points in bio lecture slides is interesting, only the problem with most of my professors lecture slides would be that there would be many “D’s”. I think Biology is a lot of definition, yet very few techniques explained in lectures. I am not sure if this is because I am only in first year but we will see.

  8. Hey! This is a skill I could use in class…my online classes! I can either print out and read using this method or I can make quick notes on index cards using this method I can go back to the lecture or PPT and get those key points that I already dit dat dashed…yea!!

  9. to explain-on my index cards – this is during live chat (lecture) I write down a key word on an index card then with this method I can just write a dot for an important point and the dash for follow-ups or supports. just one word then when i have the more time i can go back to the places in the archive and pick out what i really need to know for my final paper!

  10. This looks like a good idea…going to try it. Right now, most of my reading is scientific papers, and it’s challenging to find the balance between quantity (reading enough to get a feel for a research area) and understanding the experimental logic well enough to be able to critique it.

  11. How about if your reading is all in library owned text books, or if you don’t print out articles because you don’t want to use up the paper which you then have to store.
    Could you use a dictaphone maybe? to say the bit you just read that was a big idea, and then the first couple of words of support sentences? Or would this be too cumbersome to go back through?
    Lol, I kind of answered my own question – will get back to you when i’ve tried it myself!

  12. OK, so I tried out the recording thing and there were good points and bad points. I talked about the article as I read it, saying what was important and stuff, all in my own words. Then I took notes from that, with the article open in case I needed clarification.
    My notes were definately better – less detailed but more relevant, with the issue-support thing going on (except in technical sections). However, because I recorded the whole reading time, I had big long gaps of silence and it was difficult to skip through. I think that’s because I used the recorder on my phone. If I had a proper dictaphone I would use it like you see doctors doing on tv, only recording when I’m speaking into it.
    Verbalising helped me to understand ideas so that my note-taking self often had written what my reading self was about to say, because I had already learned it.

    Good method, bad technology, is my evaluation.


  13. While I appreciate the notetaking tips for books and articles, I wonder how reading effectively is different and can be improved on the Kindle/ipad/online, where you cannot mark passages the same way you would a piece of paper? Also, how do you read quickly and effectively on this technology, without breaking concentration to type up notes in the margins, or press buttons to pull up the scroll/highlighter bar? I was just wondering if you had any advice on online reading.

  14. Cal, I cannot thank you enough for this technique. I’ve just started a Masters programme after being away from education for 3 years and its very hard to get used to reading so much.

    This technique and your book has made me so much more organised and I feel less overwhlemed.

    Thank you so much!

  15. While I appreciate the notetaking tips for books and articles, I wonder how reading effectively is different and can be improved on the Kindle/ipad/online, where you cannot mark passages the same way you would a piece of paper? Also, how do you read quickly and effectively on this technology, without breaking concentration to type up notes in the margins, or press buttons to pull up the scroll/highlighter bar? I was just wondering if you had any advice on online reading.

    Second that, most schools seems like they are moving away from the textbook and doing things online more…I really hate this since having to do readings on a computer provides so many distractions and as you say makes it difficult to employ tactics like these where you cant mark anything.

  16. Thank you Cal, this will no doubt prove invaluable to me in my studies. I would also like to know how this could be applied to online reading assignments? Printing out hundreds of pages of case law, is intimidating and not environmentally friendly.

    Many thanks for your ideas.

  17. I like the simplicity of this, but I don’t know that I’d ever be able to implement it–personally, I like writing out sentences and such.

    The way I read articles/textbooks/etc is similar in the reading momentum way: I’ll read for ~5 minutes, or until I’ve finished the section or article, and then take notes. As I’m reading, I talk myself through it. This hits on everything for me, since I see the text, talk to myself about it (subsequently listening to my own words), and then physically write it down (to read later). This pretty much insures that I remember what occurred.

    I used to try to take notes as I read, but that made the reading/note-taking take so long that the Brain Drag was inevitable even a few paragraphs in. Somehow I powered through it, though, back then. A few weeks ago I started reading through your blog (just skimming through the archives, I didn’t see this article till now) and devising better study methods…

    I still prefer my way better, though it means I end up reading the article/textbook several times.

  18. If you would like to add something extra, you can do (brackets) for definitions, since some profs expect exact definitions as in book.

    It is better than underlining the whole definitions, or for some folks out there you can just underline the first few words and then bracket the rest.

    Well, it does for a more pristine and un-muddied notes which are better to look at.

    Well, i have to accept that i was forced to use this concept when i was young (by my mom), but lately i have come to understand its elegance and i appreciate it :-).

  19. Re working with kindle texts. With the kindle version I have on my tablet when you press on the word you want to highlight a menu bar gives 4 different choices of highlight colour. Use 1 colour for ‘big ideas’ and another for ‘support’.

    I think using a pencil to do light dots and dashes in a library book would be okay, as long as you rubbed them out before returning it.

    The method sounds fantastic

    The method sounds great though.

  20. for anyone reading this now, there is a windows pdf reader called Xodo which enables you to draw, highlight, and add text/comments to pdfs. you can go through it with the drawing tool as you read and add the dots and dashes as you see fit. ive been using the app for years but just now discovered this article (through crash course study skills)

  21. Hey Cal, love your thought process and this method.

    Question: can you post an image of what this would look like? I keep encountering difficulties in my reading, particularly dotting and dashing every other line. I would love to see an example of your usage frequency when using this technique.


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