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To Take Notes or Not to Take Notes, That is the Question

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I like to take my class notes via Latex for the following reasons

  • It feels faster than hand writing (although I should actually test this)
  • It’s more enjoyable
  • I get to practice typing
  • The notes are easier to read (aside from drawings)

That being said, there are definitely some problems:

  • It can be distracting to take notes on a computer
  • It’s easy to waste time fixing a latex bug
  • You can become too focused on making the notes pretty, rather than actually understanding
  • The idea that handwriting notes helps you to remember it better (although I see this idea deriving more from correlation than causation)

I’m pretty confident that when lecture notes are not provided for a course, it is worthwhile for me to take notes this way, albeit there probably isn’t much benefit over handwritten notes. What I haven’t yet figured out, is whether or not it’s worthwhile to take notes this way when there are lecture notes accompanying a class, either typed or handwritten. In this scenario the important pros and cons become:

Pros

  • The chance to record information information that won’t be included in the course notes
  • Taking notes can help you to keep your mind from wandering during a lecture
  • The ability to write down questions about the material (Cornell Notes)

Cons

  • It may actually prevent you from remembering what was said, if you are blindly copying down what the teacher writes down without trying to internalize its significance

The pros seem nice, but the con is quite significant. Assuming the worst case scenario of copying down notes without taking away anything from the lecture, it is mostly a waste of time. You won’t have learned anything, and the time you spend reading over your own notes to gain understanding will be comporable to that you would have spent reading over the professors course notes.

This begs the question, what steps are necessary to ensure that you internalize what is being taught in the lecture. Interestingly, this may be less related to the note taking strategy, and more related to your overall approach to a class. There are potentially three major types of students (idea credit):

  • “The student can be as proactive as possible. He or she might preread the material and attempt the homework before I lecture. Then lecture serves to fill in holes and give additional context that the book doesn’t give, and the student can ask any particular questions that he or she finds necessary for the homework right then. At the end of lecture, the student can rest assured that he or she is capable of completing written assignments and understands the material (or knows exactly what to ask me about during office hours).”
  • “The student can be partially proactive. He or she might preread the material and try to conceptualize the material. Then lecture serves to fill in holes and give additional context, and the student can ask conceptual questions about things he or she didn’t understand from the book. At the end of lecture, he or she should have total understanding of the material, or at least figured out exactly what they do or don’t understand.”
  • “The student can be totally reactive. My lecture will be the first time he or she is exposed to the material. The advantage here is that he or she might find out what is truly important (at least locally) based on what I focus on. When later attempting homework, the student might only flip back to sections reflecting individual problems, and never actually read the text or lecture notes.”

The source of this idea mentioned being somewhat convinced that a mixture between #1 and #2 might expend the least total amount of energy, and that student #3 probably expends the most, especially for math students.

Basically, this gives me the impression that a person’s note taking technique is negligible compared to which of these three major paths a student takes in his or her approach to a class.

So what is the takeaway? I’m going to keep taking notes, partially motivated by the idea of putting them on this website. That being said, I will try to recognize when I am getting lost during a lecture, and prioritize understanding the material over writing it down when lecture notes are provided. Most importantly, though, I need to work on becoming the type of student who prereads the material and stays on top of the game.

Thanks for tuning in. Let me know what you think! Till next time.