Master Notetaker

Living in an “Information Age” can be a double-edged sword. On the one hand, information is plentiful. In the book Information Anxiety, Saul Wurman states, “A weekly edition of the New York Times contains more information than the average person was likely to come across in a lifetime during 17th Century England.” On the other hand, because we have so much information bombarding us, it can all become a blur, as the same book illustrates.


Our information is only as good as our ability to find it when we need it. If information is good, more information is not necessarily better. Instead, it becomes clutter that causes resistance. Just ask anyone who sports a messy garage. The very tool you need may well be there. Having to wade through the clutter to find it causes us to just make a trip to Home Depot to buy another one.

Our Focus: Becoming a Master Notetaker

The notes we take as students, meeting attendees, researchers, and average citizens can either serve as a rich treasure trove or additional clutter. This post is the first in a series to help you refine your own system for taking and retrieving notes. We begin with my own experiences as a student. As the month progresses, you will see strategies for those who like to organize digitally and strategies for those whose preference is pencil and paper.

“Get Out Your Notebooks”

Taking notes in class typically starts in upper elementary school. For those whose experience was like mine, note taking up through high school was an exercise in writing what the teacher said to write in the form the teacher said to write it. A teacher might even write the notes on the chalkboard for us to copy verbatim. The surrounding lesson provided the meaning, interest, and skill building. The notes we copied provided the “takeaways” for which we would be accountable on the test.

The experience taught me two major things:

  1. How to structure an outline form. My junior high and high school days provided countless examples of finished products. While some will argue the teachers should have duplicated and passed out the notes, the act of physically writing down the information in an outline form makes the concepts automatic and permanent.
  2. How to determine what is important. By comparing the notes (what the teacher felt was important) to the totality of what happened in class, my classmate and I gradually learned how to glean the big ideas and organize it all so that it made sense.

The College American History Class

As an entering freshman, I signed up for an American History class. Not knowing any of the professors, I picked a section based on the convenience of the days and time on which it met. As I told a sophomore friend the name of the professor, the horrified look on her face said a lot. Her words supplied the rest: “I failed his class,” she said.

Fearing the worst, on the first day of class, I was hungry for any hint from the professor on how to do well in his class. I was not disappointed. His message was clear:

Take notes to your heart’s content. But when you get back to your dorm room, sit down and recopy your notes. Use your textbook to augment your notes and clarify whatever didn’t make sense during class.

That advice shaped my approach to that class and every class I would ever take. I took notes on the back of scrap paper. I didn’t worry about outline form, spelling, or trying to determine what was important. I just tried to get it all down. Sometimes what seemed like a bird walk would turn out to be a segue into the whole point of the lecture. Other times, I would write half a page, only to hear him say, “Ya’ll don’t need to write any of that down.”

As a daily ritual, later in that day, I would recopy the notes into my notebook. At this stage, a neat outline form became important. With dictionary in hand, I verified spelling on unfamiliar words. Grabbing the textbook, I filled in whatever holes seemed to have been left.

While my initial effort was just to survive the day, I later realized I was accomplishing three major objectives:

  1. Increasing retention. My psychology class taught me that most forgetting happens within 24 hours after exposure to new material. By recopying my notes the same day, I was automatically reviewing the material during the time in which most of the forgetting would otherwise happen.
  2. Creating great study material. When test time rolled around, I had a pristine set of notes from which to study. What was important was there. Clutter was nonexistent. The outline format provided the optimal way to see the big picture and the details at the same time.
  3. Decreasing study time. Processing and recopying my notes the same day I took them meant better retention and less time needed to study them before the test. Because the notes were so clear, zero time was spent trying to decipher them.
What I realized as a freshman is a concept many people never grasp. Taking notes is one action. Cleaning them up is a separate one. Trying to mix the two is a recipe for frustration.

The ritual of cleaning up class notes didn’t end with that class. It’s a practice that continued through every class I would ever take. Usually, the finished product was a logical outline. Sometimes the format of the class didn’t lend itself to an outline. My notebook would take on a question/answer format. Questions appeared in red followed by answers in blue.

Advice for Current Students

I am a digital person. However, if tomorrow I found myself 30 years younger and sitting in a college classroom, I would approach the classes the same way…taking notes on the back of scrap paper. Others may have their laptops, but paper offers the most effortless process for entry. Studies are showing that taking notes on paper also enhances recall. Later in the day, you would find me dissecting those notes, creating the pristine outlines digitally, and printing the updated notes to go in a three-ring binder.

This advice, the advice given to me by a professor more than three decades ago is as valid now as it was then. What worked for me will work for others. If you are interested in how I fared in that American History class, I made a “100” on the first test and an “A” in the class.

Where Do We Go From Here?

Our information is only as good as our ability to find it when we need it. You witnessed information in the form of notes which would be needed for a test. In the coming posts, we will tackle the challenge of notes taken during meetings, phone calls, and workshops. We will talk about the notes which results from the good ideas you have that quickly become forgotten if not recorded somewhere.  In addition, we will examine these challenges from the standpoint of the person who likes to organize digitally as well as the person who prefers a paper system. It should be a great journey.

What is/was your system for note taking as a student? Feel free to leave a comment.