In colleges across the country, a new academic year is about to begin. In some ways, it will be a different year from any we have experienced. Yet, in other ways, students will face the same challenges I did as a freshman decades ago.

Professors will give lectures and students will be tested on their mastery of the material. The difference between an “A” and an “F” is often a good set of notes from which to study. What you’re about to hear isn’t a rehash of the Cornell Method or using special paper or pens. It’s actually much simpler.

Class Notes are a Draft

Whether in person or through a Zoom meeting, professors don’t lecture in “outline form.” And as far as the much-repeated advice to include “the most important things” in your notes, those decisions are often difficult to determine in the heat of the moment. Sometimes a story is nothing but a “bird walk.” Other times, the details of a story comprise the heart of the lesson. Determining which is which isn’t always possible until the end of the class session.

Get the information down on paper. Spelling doesn’t count. Neatness doesn’t count. Outline form doesn’t count. Trapping it all is what counts.

Notice I said “on paper.” I’m a very digital person. But when it comes to trapping large amounts of raw information delivered in a non-stop fashion, I’ll go with paper.

Spin Straw into Gold

The magic happens later in the day. It happens when you sit down, in a quiet place, with a notebook, the text, and the draft notes you took in class. Here is where the “A” student makes decisions about what was important and what was not. Here is where outline form and spelling become important. This is the point where the “A” student turns to the textbook or Google to clarify anything in the draft that didn’t make sense.

When the process ends, the draft goes in the trash. What’s in the student’s notebook is pristine. The notes are clear and logical. The process has given the “A” student a chance to interact with the material a second time. Research tells us most forgetting happens within the same day. The student is ready for success in the next step.

It’s Time to Study

Doesn’t revising the “draft” take time? Sure. But the “A” student recoups that time, and much more. When it’s time to study, studying doesn’t take as long. Because the student interacted with the material a second time in the “Straw into Gold” exercise, less is forgotten. Less time is needed for review. Because the notes are clear, they’re easier to understand. The story makes sense.

So what happens to that notebook when the class is over? The notes that earned an “A” in this class continue to pay dividends. They earned an “A” on the test and another “A” on the final exam. But there’s more.

When the student applies to graduate school, a standardized exam is usually one of the hurdles. The university may also have its own placement tests and require extra coursework for those who score beneath a certain threshold. Those pristine notes from undergraduate courses provide the perfect study material. Many graduate classes are an extension of their undergraduate parallels. History majors will continue to study many of the same people and events. The notes from one class serve as a starting point for other classes.

Here’s more on notes…

If you liked this post on taking notes, you will likely enjoy this set:

The notes you take in class serve as a draft. That one simple principle served me well through more courses and more degrees than I care to count. It will do the same for the young people going down that road today.