Why Mindful Lecture Notes Beat Writing Everything Down

A recent study found that a pen and pad is better for taking lecture notes than typing them on a laptop.

This may say more about the way we use tools for making notes. Fast typing can cause you to take notes word for word, even when you’ve been told not to. Change could be minimal, since the ability to take near-verbatim notes is there.

How do you take notes in a lecture?

Fear of missing out is one possible issue. As with social networks and instant message notifications, the fight to keep up can drive us mad. With a laptop and touch-typing skills, you can transcribe all the words. You know, just in case…

This ‘just in case’ method of writing everything down stops you from engaging with the content, even though you’re recording it all. While some students can revisit the content and engage with it effectively afterwards, many others don’t work this way. Either way, you set yourself up to spend more time on the lecture content than you need.

I see notes differently. I don’t bother with notes at all sometimes, although I begin with the expectation that I’ll write something down. Some of my lecture notes are two or three lines of writing and nothing else. I take down what I feel I need and nothing more.

At times, the notes have flowed and I’ve had a lot to get through. Unfamiliar topics can do that. But it’s still not the same as typing up as many words as I can, with the possibility that I’ll need it all. No matter how many notes I end up writing, the process is mindful. I engage with the content and act accordingly. Don’t just hear the words, hear concepts and ideas and questions and arguments.

After a lecture, a lot of information can be missing from the page, but not from my thoughts. Alternatively, I know that the rest of the information is elsewhere and in a format that I will fully engage with anyway.

In a lecture, the idea is to mindfully consider your notes and carefully listen to the speaker. By typing almost everything out, you’re noting down but not engaging with the information. When you come to the notes later, you read them almost as if they’re in book form…a book you’re coming to for the first time.

You need to work more deeply with the content. Repetition doesn’t help. It’s the same reason why advice to keep reading your notes until you know them back to front is not that helpful in boosting your understanding.

When your lecturer talks about something you aren’t clear about, write down key points and any questions you have. Treat the lecture as an information source that you’re selecting from, rather than a wall of noise that you need to grab as much as possible from.

That one difference in attitude should give you the ability to record your notes in whatever way you like. Even if you keep typing instead of handwriting, the secret is to extract what’s useful to you. You can only do that when you are mindful of the content.

Whatever you do, don’t ignore your notes. Write a brief summary outlining what you found out and explored in the lecture. No more than a few sentences. With a summary and your original notes, return to them in a week and then in a month.

  • Find out more about the things you’re still unsure about;
  • shorten notes and simplify where possible into key points as you become more familiar with them;
  • add context and additional findings where necessary;
  • remind yourself that the purpose of your notes is to strengthen your ability ongoing, with the ultimate aim to use them as a springboard to jump from when considering coursework and revising for exams.

When you no longer need the notes or when they have taken on a new identity, congratulations. You don’t need notes forever. You outgrow them. They get replaced by new notes. Eventually, they get replaced by the essays and exams that you’re proud of.