Instructions for notetaking

Harold Thimbleby

I recommend the Cornell note taking method.

This is your own life you are helping by your active notetaking. Take responsibility for these notes; they are yours and of value to you and what you want to achieve in your life. Ensure your notes are legible, else you won’t be able to read them later. Take pride in them, and have an attitude of making your notes better and better, and of making them more and more useful to you.

Here are your ten steps:

  1. Plan:
  2. Record: During the lecture, use the notes column to record the lecture using brief telegraphic sentences. Devise your own symbols, icons and codes. If you think of any questions, write them down in the questions column. You may want to ask the lecturer!
  3. Highlight: Use different colours to highlight key points, so you can find them easily later during revision. Use highlighting to help code key points to organise into coursework. Choose some consistent colours.
  4. Summarise: Use a few short sentences to write down at the bottom of the page your summary of what you have learnt.
  5. Questions: As soon after class as possible, formulate new questions based on your notes. Writing questions helps to clarify meanings, reveal relationships, establish continuity, and strengthen memory. Also, the writing of questions sets up a perfect stage for exam-studying later.
  6. Reflect: Reflect on the material by asking yourself questions, for example: “What’s the significance of these facts?” “What principle are they based on?” “How can I apply them?” “How do they fit in with what I already know?” “What’s beyond them?”
  7. File: Keep your notes in a dedicated folder or ring binder.
  8. Review: Spend at least ten minutes every week reviewing all your previous notes. If you do, you’ll retain a great deal for current use as well as for the exam or other work — for your life. Cover the notes column with a sheet of paper. Then, looking at your questions, ask yourself or another student the questions: can you answer the questions well without looking at the notes?
  9. Assess: Self-assess your notes: out of 100% how good are they? Once you’ve done that, get another student to peer-assess them and discuss.
  10. Practise: You will get better and better at notetaking, and it will soon feel more rewarding and, soon, very much more useful. If it feels like hard work and unfamiliar, practise, practise, practise, and keep referring to these instructions to see if you are missing something — or can think of something better to do or a better match for you and your own learning styles. But do not give up on this technique unless you have a better idea.

You need the write stuff

If your lecturers are not giving you the right stuff to put in these lecture notes, please engage with them and see how to fix whatever is going wrong. It could be anything from them not knowing what they are teaching to you not knowing what they are teaching! But all problems are fixable — if somebody knows about them.

The approach here was inspired by How to Study in College 7/e by Walter Pauk, 2001, Houghton Mifflin Company.

If you want to know why questions are an important part of learning (especially the ones you yourself ask, rather than the ones someone else is going to ask in the exams!), if you want to reflect on learning and how to ask more incisive questions, please see Time to Think: Listening to Ignite the Human Mind by Nancy Kline, 1999, Ward Lock.

If you want to understand the overarching philosophy, please see Mindsets: The New Psychology of Success by Carol Dweck, 2007, Ballantine Books. This is a popular book and a very easy read, and is even enjoyable if you are interested in your own learning and overcoming obstacles. Dweck has also written excellent research monographs and research papers if you want to hunt them down.

If you want to get keen on useful colours, see Six Thinking Hats by Edward de Bono, 2009, Penguin.

If you want to know what notetaking has to do with computer science more generally (and with HCI in particular), please see The Nurnberg Funnel: Designing Minimalist Instruction for Practical Computer Skill by John Carroll, MIT Press, 1990.