Most educated people find occasion, at some time or other, to take notes. Although this is especially true of college students, they have little success, as any college instructor will testify. Students, as a rule, do not realise that there is any skill involved in taking notes.
Not until examination time arrives and they try vainly to labour through a maze of scribbling, do they realise that there must be some system in note-taking. A careful examination of note-taking shows that there are rules or principles, which, when followed, have much to do with increasing ability in the study.
One criterion that should guide in the preparation of notes is the use to which they will be put. If this is kept in mind, many blunders will be saved. Notes may be used in three ways: as material for directing each day’s study, for cramming, and for permanent, professional use.
Thus a notebook may be a thing of far-reaching value. Notes you take now as a student may be valuable years hence in professional life. Recognition of this will help you in the preparation of your notes and will determine many times how they should be prepared.
The chief situations in college which require note-taking are lectures, library reading, and laboratory work. Accordingly, the subject will be considered under these three heads. Testing. Closeup of young students sitting in a row and having a test in their test-books LECTURE NOTES.–When taking notes on a lecture, there are two extremes that present themselves, to take exceedingly full notes or to take almost no notes. One can err in either direction. True, on first thought, entire stenographic reports of lectures appear desirable, but second reflection will show that they may be dispensed with, not only without loss but with much gain. The most obvious objection is that too much time would be consumed in transcribing shorthand notes.
Another is that much of the material in a lecture is undesirable for permanent possession. The instructor repeats much for the sake of emphasis; he multiplies illustrations, not important in themselves, but important for the sake of stressing his point. You do not need these illustrations in written form, however, for once the point is made you rarely need to depend upon the illustrations for its retention. A still more cogent objection is that if you occupy your attention with the task of copying the lecture verbatim, you do not have time to think, but become merely an automatic recording machine. Experienced stenographers say that they form the habit of recording so automatically that they fail utterly to comprehend the meaning of what is said. You as a student cannot afford to have your attention so distracted from the purpose of the lecture, therefore reduce your classroom writing to a minimum.
Probably the chief reason why students are so eager to secure full lecture notes is that they fear to trust their memory. Such fears should be put to rest, for your mind will retain facts if you pay close attention and make logical associations during the time of impression. Keep your mind free, then, to work upon the subject-matter of the lecture. Debate mentally with the speaker. Question his statements, comparing them with your own experience or with the results of your study. Ask yourself frequently, “Is that true?” The essential thing is to maintain an attitude of mental activity and to avoid anything that will reduce this and make you passive. Do not think of yourself as a vat into which the instructor pumps knowledge. Regard yourself rather as an active force, quick to perceive and to comprehend meaning, deliberate in acceptance and firm in retention.
After observing the stress laid, throughout this book, upon the necessity for logical associations, you will readily see that the key-note to note-taking is, Let your notes represent the logical
progression of thought in the lecture. Strive above all else to secure the skeleton–the framework upon which the lecture is hung. A lecture is a logical structure, and the form in which it is presented is the outline. This outline, then, is your chief concern. In the case of some lectures, it is an easy matter. The lecturer may place the outline in your hands beforehand, may present it on the blackboard, or may give it orally. Some lecturers, too, present their material in such clear-cut divisions that the outline is easily followed. Others,
however, are very difficult to follow in this regard.
In arranging an outline you will find it wise to adopt some device by which the parts will stand out prominently, and the progression of thought will be indicated with the proper subordination of titles. Adopt some system at the beginning of your college course, and use it in all your notes. The system here given may serve as a model, using first the
Roman numerals, then capitals, then Arabic numerals:
In concluding this discussion of lecture notes, you should be urged to make good use of your notes after they are taken. First, glance over them as soon as possible after the lecture. Since they will then be fresh in your mind, you will be able to recall almost the entire lecture; you will also be able to supply missing parts from memory.
Some students make it a rule to reduce all class notes to typewritten form soon after the lecture. This is an excellent practice but is rather expensive in time. In addition to this after-class review, you should make a second review of your notes as the first step in the preparation of the next day’s lesson. This will connect up the lessons with each other and will make the course a unified whole instead of a series of disconnected parts. Too often a course exists in a student’s mind as a series of separate discussions and he sees only the horizon of a single day. This condition might be represented by a series of disconnected links:
O O O O O
A summary of each day’s lesson, however, preceding the preparation for the next day, forges new links and welds them all together into an
A method that has been found helpful is to use a double-page system of notetaking, using the left-hand page for the bare outline, with largest divisions, and the right-hand page for the details. This device makes the notebook readily available for hasty review or for more extended study.
READING NOTES.–The question of full or scanty notes arises in reading notes as in lecture notes. In general, your notes should represent a summary, in your own words, of the author’s discussion, not a duplication of it. Students sometimes acquire the habit of reading single sentences at a time, then of writing them down, thinking that by making an exact copy of the book, they are playing safe. This is a pernicious practice; it spoils continuity of thought and application.
Furthermore, isolated sentences mean little, and fail grossly to represent the real thought of the author. A better way is to read through an entire paragraph or section, then close the book and
reproduce in your own words what you have read. Next, take your summary and compare with the original text to see that you have really grasped the point. This procedure will be beneficial in several ways. It will encourage continuous concentration of attention to an entire argument; it will help you to preserve relative emphasis of parts; it will lead
you to regard thought and not words. (You are undoubtedly familiar with the state of mind wherein you find yourself reading merely words and not following the thought.) Lastly, material studied in this way is remembered longer than material read scrappily. In short, such a method of reading makes not only for good memory but for good mental habits of all kinds. In all your reading, hold to the conception of yourself as a thinker, not a sponge. Remember, you do not need to accept unqualifiedly everything you read. A worthy ideal for every student to
follow is expressed in the motto carved on the wall of the great reading-room of the Harper Memorial Library at The University of Chicago: “Read not to contradict, nor to believe, but to weigh and
consider.” Ibsen bluntly states the same thought: “Don’t read to swallow; read to choose, for ‘Tis but to see what one has a use for.”
Ask yourself, when beginning a printed discussion, What am I looking for? What is the author going to talk about? Often this will be indicated in topical headings. Keep it in the background of your mind while reading, and search for the answer. Then, when you have read the necessary portion, close the book and summarise, to see if the author furnished what you sought. In short, always read for a purpose.
Formulate problems and seek their solutions. In this way will there be the direction of your reading and your thought.
This discussion of reading notes has turned into an essay on “How to Read,” and you must be convinced by this time that there is much to learn in this respect, so much that we may profitably spend more time in discussing it.
Every book you take up should be opened with some preliminary ceremony. This does not refer to the physical operation of opening a new book, but to the mental operation. In general, take the following steps:
1. Observe the title. See exactly what field the book attempts to cover.
2. Observe the author’s name. If you are to use his book frequently, discover his position in the field. Remember, you are going to accept him as authority, and you should know his status. You may be told this on the title-page, or you may have to consult Who’s Who, or the biographical dictionary.
3. Glance over the preface. Under some circumstances, you should read it carefully. If you are going to refer to the book very often, make friends with the author; let him introduce himself to you; this he will do in the preface. Observe the date of publication, also, to get an idea as to the recency of the material.
4. Glance over the table of contents. If you are very familiar with the field, and the table of contents is outlined in detail, you might advantageously study it and dispense with reading the book. On the other hand, if you are going to consult the book only briefly, you might find it necessary to study the table of contents in order to see the relation of the part you read the entire work.
5. Use the index intelligently; it may save you much time. You will have much to do throughout your college course with the making of bibliographies, that is, with the compilation of lists of books bearing upon special topics. You may have bibliographies given you in some of your courses, or you may be asked to compile your own. Under all circumstances, prepare them with the greatest care. Be scrupulous in giving references. There is a standard form for referring to books and periodicals, as follows:
C.R. Henderson, Industrial Insurance (2d ed.; Chicago: The University
of Chicago Press, 1912), p. 321.
S.I. Curtis, “The Place of Sacrifice,” Biblical World, Vol. XXI (1902),
p. 248 _ff_.
Scientist taking notes while using a laptop in laboratory LABORATORY NOTES.–The form for laboratory notes varies with the science and is usually prescribed by the instructor. Reports of
experiments are usually written up in the order: Object, Apparatus, Method, Results, Conclusions. When detailed instructions are given by the instructor, follow them accurately. Pay special attention to neatness. Instructors say that the greatest fault with laboratory notebooks is a lack of neatness. This reacts upon the instructor, causing him much trouble in correcting the notebook. The resulting annoyance frequently prejudices him, against his will, against the student. It is safe to assert that you will materially increase your chances of a good grade in a laboratory course by the preparation of a neat notebook.
The key-note of the twentieth century is the economy, the tendency in all lines being toward the elimination of waste. College students should adopt this aim in the regulation of their study affairs, and there is much opportunity for applying it in note-taking. So far, the discussion has had to do with the _content_ of the notebook, but _its form_ is equally important. Much may be done by utilisation of mechanical devices to save time and energy.
First, write in ink. Pencil marks blur badly and become illegible in a few months. Remember, you may be using the notebook twenty years hence, therefore making it durable.
Second, write plainly. This injunction ought to be superfluous, for common sense tells us that writing which is illegible cannot be read even by the writer, once it has “grown cold.” Third, take care in forming sentences. Do not make your notes consist simply of separate, scrappy jottings. True, it is difficult, under stress, to form complete sentences. The great temptation is to jot down a word here and there and trust to luck or an indulgent memory to supply the context at some later time. A little experience, however, will quickly demonstrate the futility of such hopes; therefore strive to form sensible phrases, and to make the parts of the outline cohere. Apply the principles of English composition to the preparation of your notebook.
A fourth question concerns size and shape of the notebook. These features depend partly upon the nature of the course and partly upon individual taste. It is often convenient and practicable to keep the notes for all courses in a single notebook. Men find it advantageous to use a small notebook of a size that can be carried in the coat pocket and studied at odd moments.
The fifth question of a mechanical nature is, Which is preferable, bound or loose-leaf notebooks? The latter will be found more desirable. Leaves are easily inserted and the sections are easily filed on completion of a course.
It goes without saying that the manner in which notes, is to be taken will be determined by many factors, such as the nature of individual courses, the wishes of instructors, personal tastes and habits.
Nevertheless, there are certain principles and practices which are adaptable to nearly all conditions, and it is these that we have discussed. Remember, note-taking is one of the habits you are to form in college. See that the habit is started rightly. Adopt a good plan at the start and adhere to it. You may be encouraged, too, with the thought that facility in note-taking will come with practice.
Note-taking is an art and as you practice you will develop skill. We have noted some of the most obvious and immediate benefits derived from well-prepared notes, consisting of the economy of time, ease of review, ease of permanent retention. There are other benefits, however, which, though less obvious, is of far greater importance. These are the permanent effects upon the mind. Habits of correct thinking are the chief result of correct note-taking. As you develop in this particular ability, you will find the corresponding improvement in your ability to comprehend and assimilate ideas, to retain and reproduce facts, and to reason with thoroughness and independence.
READINGS AND EXERCISES
Adams (1) Chapter VIII.
Dearborn (2) Chapter II.
Exercise 1. Contrast the taking of notes from reading and from lectures.
Exercise 2. Outline this chapter.
Exercise 3. Make an outline of some lecture.