A Nerd About Notes

We were chatting about future plans with one of our sons during their Grade 12 year. He was slowly coming around to considering the question of “what’s next?” Our conversation had me reflecting on the time I have spent pursuing post secondary education. I was somewhat surprised that I had spent the better part of eight years studying. Six of these were spent at Universities pursuing a B.A. degree and going to law school. The other two were done as an adult while in the work world completing an Executive MBA program. During this time I have taken well over sixty courses. Here’s a scary thought experiment, if you’ve been out of College or University for twenty plus years, yes, you’re old, but you already knew that. The question is how many of your classes could you name? Is it 100%? Is it less than 50%? My guess is it’s less than what your marks were during your time in school. How about professors? Can you remember the names of all your professors? When I played this thought experiment, I didn’t get close to 25% of the course names. If we can’t remember much of the course names, how much of its content will we be able to recall? How did I do trying to recall the names of professors? Even worse. The professors whose names I could recollect were less than the number of my fingers. All those years, all that time, and what are we left with? I’m guessing for most of us for each year we’re out of school, our ability to recall the courses and teachers decreases. I’m hoping I’m not alone in my poor performance. Even though I couldn’t call up all kinds of knowledge from past studies, I continue to have great memories of my University time. I can remember plenty of the parties, I think? Of the professors or classes you do recall, what sticks out? For me, my recollection is strongest related to the first semester of my first year. Some of the most important lessons I learned in University and life to date, I learned in those early months of my first semester.

Fresh out of high school I attended University. I had no ambitions, plans, or direction. My first semester had four classes. One, Introduction to Psychology, was a pretty popular course. There were lots of options for when and with whom to take it. I ended up in my class with little prior thought. I didn’t research or care about who the professor may be. I signed up, then showed up. From the first class, I knew this gentleman was different. Dr. Jock Abra was our professor. He was an entertainer over lecturer. Think Robin Williams from Dead Poet’s Society. He was a character. He knew his material, sure, but he was interested in instilling an interest in education and learning over the nuts and bolts of Freud’s theories. Many students were frustrated by his lectures touching topics outside of materials which would be covered on exams. They were even more frustrated that his exams were all written. No multiple choice tests. Students never stopped to consider the burdens he was putting on himself to mark all of these written exams. Students just saw themselves as victims of the draw having a tough professor compared to the simple and easy “guaranteed A’s” coming from other sections of the same course with other professors.

Professor Abra spent time, the entire time of several lecture periods in fact, talking about the value of education. He observed it as a privilege and great experience related to coming of age. It seemed that there was no higher value he had than just the pursuit of knowledge out of interest. He was less interested in the idea of learning for the purpose of getting a credential in order to become marketable. He figured one would be happier and more useful where they cultivated curiosity. He offered suggestions to help one absorb materials from whatever classes one took.

A core area of his advice involved notes. It was the first time I had ever been guided how to take notes. For most of my time in school, notebooks served to indulge distraction by doodling about daydreams. They were a place to play. They were where we’d spend our attention other than listening to teachers. I used to enjoy drawing tanks in battle or drafting football plays. Occasionally, lifting my head to hear a teacher say something about you better write down what I’m about to say because it’s going to be on the test. Then these scribbled notes would be reviewed over and over until I could beat the material into my brain. Professor Abra offered a slightly different approach. He suggested we listen while asking questions in our minds. He encouraged us to ask things like, “Does this seem important?” “What’s the main idea being communicated?” “Is this interesting?” Instead of scrambling to scribble verbatim or doing nothing until we’re told to write something down, using Professor Abra’s approach activated our attention and directed us to write down bits and bites of those things that capture our interest. The goal wasn’t to try to write down everything. Just a few words that when you see them later you can refresh your memory and expand on the idea.

Professor Abra then went a step further highlighting that what we wrote down as notes was less important than what we did with the notes we took. He encouraged us to then take the time after a class to “rewrite” the notes into a separate notebook. The suggestion was to take the time to rewrite notes neatly and expand on the material from the latest lecture. The additional effort was active studying and would help deepen one’s understanding and familiarity with the materials. The act of writing reinforced what was being read and recalled. His suggestion was the exact opposite of what most of us do. In fact, most of us look forward to completing a course just so we can take our notes and throw them out. Our notes aren’t something to preserve. We hold them in such low regard that we can’t wait to discard. It’s ironic that something that can be such a difference maker in all aspects of our lives is not only not taught to us but that our default is to ditch these jewels as soon as possible.

I have no idea what percentage of people pursued the professor’s approach. Over the course of eight years of post secondary education I sat through many hundreds of lectures from a large number of professors. Through all of my studies, I never had any other professor make any kind of similar suggestion to us as students. I don’t know why I tried it, but I did. I took the suggested approach to heart and did it for each class. I started the day he introduced it to us and lasted throughout the balance of my formal education. I made time each day to sit down somewhere and rewrite the notes from the day’s classes. We didn’t have laptops or smartphones. I didn’t have access to a voice recorder that could transcribe things into notes. It was good old fashioned paper and a pen. On the good notes, I then marked up with a highlighter during subsequent reviews. I remain convinced that this single act became the largest contributor to my learning during University. It was worth far more as a useful lesson than the material in any of the classes I took. I still maintain this effort in some way today. If I’m in a meeting and scribbling notes. I will take the time to rewrite, or now type, the notes into a separate cleaner more organized format. This allows the material to be re-absorbed one more time shortly after the initial introduction. The conscious act builds better memory. It’s work, but it’s worth it. It’s work, but it’s less work than mindlessly trying to hammer the nail of knowledge into your skull through brute repetition.

Sure, things are different now. Yes, we have access to technology that helps us take notes. We can type faster than we can scribe. We can record lectures. The professors even do this for us and post them online. We can re-watch them. We can get notes made by others. All kinds of options exist. Instead of being taught how to take notes, we’re sold shortcuts to prepared notes. We’re told to consider shortcuts to avoid reading required materials by digesting the annotated versions instead. There’s Coles notes for virtually any subject and book we study at school. There’s also Cliffsnotes, Schweser study notes, and many more variants. Even these condensed notes are too burdensome and there’s an entire industry around video summaries of texts and courses. In law school a student group offered as a fundraiser what they called CANs for certain classes. These were Condensed Annotated Notes that other students had prepared. We were, effectively, buying someone else’s notes for a course. Again, no one bothered to try to teach us how to take notes. All these “advances” offer is a shortcut which reduces the mental effort we’re bringing to our learning. This isn’t helpful. Our recall reduces. Avoiding these and writing by hand and then rewriting by hand or typing again later boosts your memory. Sometimes, we may benefit by going backward in order to go forward.

300 years ago, German physicist, Georg Lichtenberg detailed the exact approach to note taking as that recommended by Professor Abra observing that “Tradesmen have their ‘waste book’ in which they enter from day to day everything they buy and sell, everything all mixed up without any order to it, from there it is transferred to the day-book, where everything appears in more systematic fashion… This deserves to be imitated by scholars. First a book where I write down everything as I see it or as my thoughts put it before me, later this can be transcribed into another, where the materials are more distinguished and ordered.” Professor Abra’s advice has since been supported by studies. Daniel Oppenheimer of UCLA conducted research that showed memory and recall is improved where a bit of struggle is built into the learning process. For example, writing notes instead of typing them built in a bit more effort. The increased effort resulted in better learning. The act of writing implied more attention and was slower than typing. Our learning is better when we’re forced to think. Just like with our food, If we slow down to process something, our digestion is improved. Writing by hand is slower than typing and involves more mental engagement than just listening. What we consider convenience isn’t constructive to our comprehension. Oppenheimer’s studies also found that writing notes instead of typing forced more mental processing to occur when listening because we simply can’t keep up with writing. Because writing is slower than typing, we must make decisions as to what to write down. We’re processing the information, making decisions, and writing things down which are considered relevant.

The news in favor of handwriting notes gets even better. Not only do we benefit from slowing down and forcing ourselves to think about what’s important to write down, our handwriting tends to be messier than typing. When we take the time to look back at our notes whether it is to transcribe them into more detailed ones as Professor Abra recommended, or just to review, extra mental effort is required to read our handwriting than is required to read type. This additional effort serves to strengthen our learning of the materials. We are, again, lengthening our contact with the material which deepens our connection with it. Wrestling with our writing is the price of poor penmanship which results in the prize of improved retention.

Basically, revisiting our original notes and rewriting them becomes a way to fight off the forgetting curve. Researchers, almost a hundred and fifty years ago, noticed that learner’s memory decreased over time. Our ability to recall something is inversely related to the time since we were introduced to the information. The less time between presentation and recall request, the better our recall is likely to be. We start forgetting almost as soon as we encounter something. It can be after a few seconds of the winds of wisdom wafting between our ears for the information to enter and exit again. Information and insights are lost as fast as they come in. Over time, we forget and our ability to recall worsens. Note taking helps our information uptake. The ink preserves what our memory forgets. We can further disrupt this deterioration by making attempts to retain the knowledge. That is, by revisiting the material, reading our notes, and re-writing our notes, we reverse the forgetting effect while bolstering our memory of materials.

All leads to a more engaged interaction with the material. Our learning is active instead of passive. Our learning is more pronounced as a result. Our learning is improved where we are forced to interact more intensively with information. Most of us are never taught how to take notes. We’re exhorted by our teachers to pay attention. Though, pay attention to “what” is not clear. Our note taking in school follows waiting for instruction from the teacher to write something down. When they tell us to write this down, we write it down. If they don’t, we won’t. We become trained to be alert to when they say things like “this will be on the test, you may want to pay attention.” When we hear phrases like this, we get busy with our pen. An approach instead of trying to copy down verbatim what someone is saying is to note a few words or a sentence in the moment. Then, as we can get some time as close to the learning experience as possible we can sit down and try to elaborate on our notes. This effort forces us to reflect soon after having heard the information and starting our notes. Our notes become iterative as opposed to one frantic, in the moment scribble.

Taking notes reflects a sign of both commitment and competence. As Dante offered, “He listens well who takes notes.” We’re seen as a serious person and a good listener when prepared to take notes. Thomas Edison went even farther preaching the power of note taking when he observed, “Genius is 1% inspiration and 99% taking really good notes.” If it’s worth doing, it’s worth recording. Good notes reduces our dependence on rote. How can we try to improve our ability to take notes? When we attend meetings, what role is one that is often avoided? We tend not to want to be the one responsible for preparing minutes. We consider it menial and tedious work. Yet, the notes taken represent the context and interpretation of what mattered during the meeting. Erica Dhawan in Digital Body Language shares a perspective from Juliet Sweet, the Global CEO of Accenture. When she was asked about what investment we could make in our careers Dhawan captures Sweet’s response writing, “Any employee, even a junior-level one, could significantly heighten their value by articulately summarizing a meeting.” Meeting minutes matter and the person who takes the notes has a disproportionate amount of power to influence what becomes the historical record of the conversation. If you want to increase not just your recollection but your ability to shape the narrative, getting better at taking notes is a great place to start.

Do you recall ever being taught how to take notes? Consider asking this question to colleagues and friends to see where others learned to take notes. Was it by personal trial and error or was an approach offered by someone? An iterative approach to hand written notetaking isn’t easy, but it’s effective. Is this an approach that you have seen very often? Is it one that you have come across in your education or workplace? Instead of what’s effective, we’re too often both looking for or presented with the path that is easy. If you want to improve your retention and understanding at meetings, try adopting Professor Abra’s recommendations and opt for effective over easy. There’s no need to trade in your tablet for Fred Flinstone’s rock tablet. You don’t need to give up your smartphone and pull out an ink Quill. Try writing some notes with a pen on good old fashioned paper. Being able to write it down well is a sure step to advancing in your career. This is even more the case in a remote world. Dhawan notes, “These days, we don’t talk the talk or even walk the talk. We write the talk.” She backs this up suggesting “today, roughly 70 percent of all communication among teams is virtual.” If we can’t write, we won’t be heard. Worse yet, we won’t be taken seriously. Writing it down well is another one of those little things that will make a big difference.

“The faintest ink is more powerful than the strongest memory.” A Chinese proverb remembered because someone wrote it down without writing their name beside it so we remember the words but not the writer. Write it down to remember.