Posted in Tips for Students, Tips for Teachers

Stop Taking Notes And Pay Attention

What’s one of the worst study habits that many students have which, if they stopped doing it, would drastically increase their retention and understanding and decrease their stress? Hint: it is a habit that many teachers and professors actually encourage!

It is amazing to me that the practice of note-taking in class is so widespread, given how ineffective it is. Chalk it up to tradition, I guess, a hold-over from the days when books were a scarce resource. We already know from studies of business environments that multi-tasking doesn’t work, so why should students be encouraged or even required to multi-task while they are trying to learn? If you are a student, it is best to focus on just one thing while you are in class: listening!

The philosophy of note-taking is patently absurd when you really think about it. The idea is that in class, the teacher verbally recites relevant facts, while students are supposed to split their attention between listening and writing them down, essentially taking dictation and creating a very low-fidelity personal copy of their textbook on the fly. Then the students are supposed to go home and re-learn (or learn for the first time) the information that the teacher gave them in class from this hastily constructed replica.

Isn’t it obvious that the best way to win this game, if you are a student, is to not play it? Isn’t it obvious that the best way to go about things is to read your professionally prepared and neatly organized textbook ahead of time, extract as much understanding from it as you can, and then go to class with a Zen mind, ready to be fully present, listen with your full attention, and ask questions if necessary to fill in the gaps in your understanding? Repetition is necessary for learning, and this way you get exposed to the material twice with your full attention. Unfortunately, if you try to take notes while you are listening, and then try to study from your notes later, you are receiving half-way exposure twice that doesn’t even add up to a whole.

You might object that in your particular subject, there is so much material to remember that taking notes is essential. But this is like saying that the more information there is, the more important it is to transmit it inefficiently. One of the worst subjects for note-taking dogma is organic chemistry, but here is the transcription of an irreverent and light-hearted lecture against lecturing written by a highly influential organic chemistry professor about the “Gutenberg method” of teaching, that makes the same case that taking notes, or expecting your students to, is a waste of time. An excerpt: “Now, if you can’t find a book that is even remotely acceptable to you, then you have to write your own. That’s how books get written. (Well, actually, it’s how books get started; they get finished because your third child is on the way, and you have no money to pay the rent.)” You can read about another professor’s experience with the Gutenberg method here.

You might also object that in this particular class, the teacher or professor teaches in such a way that you HAVE to take notes; that the material required for exams isn’t in the textbook, that you will be tested on information that is presented only once, in class, and nowhere else. While such incompetent teachers and professors may indeed exist, I think what is more relevant is the fact that note-taking is a self-perpetuating process. If you have spent your time in class trying to write things down rather than listening fully, of course you won’t remember what was said, and will feel later like you have to rely on your notes. So just try not taking notes and see what happens. Also remember the importance of pre-studying; read the relevant sections in the textbook ahead of time, so that when you see the material in class it will actually be your second exposure. Also don’t hesitate in asking questions in class; as soon as you feel that something is missing, speak up. As long as you keep up with what is being discussed, you will have no problem absorbing and understanding new material. It is when you start to fall behind in class and stop paying attention, a downward spiral that is enabled and exacerbated by note-taking, that problems start to pile up.

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Author:

Dane Dormio is an online tutor and academic coach who specializes in helping all types of students achieve life and academic success, especially homeschooled students and those preparing for STEM careers. More information and resources can be found on his website at www.synergy-tutoring.com.

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