Guide to Awesome Note-Making
Reading time: 8 minutes
Quick Checklist: How Good is Your Note System?
Discover how well your notes are serving your learning. Do you have a note system that helps you learn faster? Think about this – yes, maybe, or no? The good news – wherever you are it’s easy to supercharge your system so you can learn more effectively. Faster learning means you can accomplish more – in less time. Start with this “audit” of your current practices and then discuss them. Begin today to find ways to improve your note system to make it really awesome!
“An audit is an evaluation or examination of something by a person or group of people used to improve it.”
My Note System Audit
Review what you do and honestly examine your note habits by answering these questions (click here to save this list):
Don’t fix it – improve it! Boost your ability to learn!
21 Rules for Better Note Systems
Tackle one a day for the next three weeks and discover great progress.
Use these rules to create a top-notch note-taking system to boost your learning. Carefully consider and discuss each “rule” and use it to guide a conversation on improving your system. As your note system evolves and boosts your learning, periodically loop back to these fundamentals as a “double-check” to think about how you can get even better.
1. Transform your thinking about how you create notes and why you need them. Stop thinking about Taking Notes and think more broadly about Making Notes. Taking notes is a passive activity while making notes means creating a new structure in your own words you use to help you remember and connect ideas. Eliminate note-taking from your vocabulary.
2. Start with this mindset – it is a system you are creating. Systems should have good reasons for being and should support your goals. For example, your note system should at least:
|· Save You Time
· Reduce Your Efforts
|· Promote Memory
· Support Review and Practice
Which is most important to you?
3. Do not think of your notes as a “filing system,” this is too narrow thinking. Notes should instead serve as your memory system. You want to make notes to help you study, of course, but also to remember, and recall information. But don’t end up creating your own private Wikipedia that becomes a crutch for not learning things because you rely on finding them easily.
4. You should have this one goal: the entire structure (all the steps you do) around your system must help you be more efficient at learning. If it doesn’t begin to do this, don’t waste your time – you are just tidying your desk up a bit. Recognize initially, you will face a learning curve. Power through the initial pain, and you will be greatly rewarded.
5. Set your system up so it can supercharge your learning through recitation, self-testing, and spaced practice. We think the best method is the Cornell Note system which uses two-column notes with the left column containing summaries and key points. Or create fill-in exercises with answer keys on the next page. The point is to be creative when making your notes so you can interact with them now and in the future.
6. A good system does not encourage rereading information – we know this to be an inefficient learning strategy. Set it up so you can find key information and ideas, and also note how information connects. Don’t make it a dumping ground for transcribed information because you will only be repeating things which is fake learning. Write down or include things that will help you study tomorrow, next week, and months from now.
7. Organize information by concepts. Folders are not how the brain works. The brain works by thinking of something and then finding connections. You should be able to search and find anything almost immediately. How you organize things should not depend on the folder labels, but rather the connections or ideas that consider how you will use them. Sometimes you won’t initially see the concept but keep working and you will eventually discover it.
8. The first rule of being productive? Your system must mimic how your brain searches don’t set it up as another task that you must learn. You want to remove the friction from using your notes in the future. This is a big reason why the parent should not set up the system for their Help your kids make a system they own by doing it with them.
9. Make it intuitive. You shouldn’t have to spend time having to think about your system – if you do you will not use it very often. It should feel natural. How does the child think and learn? Begin with this thinking. For this reason, the parent’s system should not be the child’s system.
10. Poor design will age rapidly. Set up your system so it will serve your future studies. Don’t organize it to fit only today’s information. You want to be able to link future information to it. You want it to be able to grow and stretch to fit college-level work in the future. Even though you will likely start with a simple system – keep this in mind.
11. Follow the 5-Second Rule. This states you must be able to find anything you are looking for in under 5 seconds. It doesn’t matter if it’s your digital or physical system — your goal is to be able to find what you are looking for fast.
12. Follow the rule of ‘two actions’: if it takes more than two actions to find and complete something, you are doing it wrong. And for digital information? Same rule, different name: call it ‘two clicks’. When you are looking for a specific fact or concept, and you have to go through folder after fold to find it, then you have a broken system. Change it.
13. Create a “second brain” with apps like OneNote, Evernote, Google Keep, or similar. The app you choose is where you will store information for rapid access. Paste information in the app when you know you will need to access it often. This practice will help you enable #11 your 5-second rule.
14. As part of your system, create “how-to” sections where you record how you successfully have done something so you can quickly repeat it. For example, once you discover a method to solve a math problem, record the steps or create flow diagrams, and note the reasons why. Practice recording more than what – include why and how. Also, note on your diagram the things you tend to forget. You want to remember the process.
15. Create mind maps in your notes to connect information, this will boost your memory. Consider buying mind mapping software like Coggle, Freemind, or Imindq so you can digitally create and save the connections along with the relationships you have made in your brain. Make it easy to review so it supports your recitation practice – the key to remembering things.
16. Integrate study apps into your notes so notes and how you study fit together. Digital tools are great because they can be accessed from anywhere. You can study and take notes in short bursts whenever you have a little time. For example, if you use the ANKI flashcard system (it’s great!) to study, track the daily results you achieve in your note system.
17. Better learners use mnemonics to remember and help them retrieve information. You will want to capture these in your notes. Draw or create little diagrams that represent the mnemonic in your notes. These also make learning more fun!
18. Develop the habit of drawing lots of symbols and flow charts that connect ideas or show how something works. The time you spend creating a diagram or graphic is also learning time for you because you are working to mentally “connecting the dots.”
19. Setting your system up to accommodate the way your brain works will make it easy to start, evolve, and continue to use it in the long run. You are building something to support college-level work and beyond. This should become a life habit.
20. Start your system small. A good system will take time to discover, and expect some trial and error in setting it up. But it’s worth it because a good note system will supercharge your learning and boost your retention. Trying to do too much, too fast, will likely cause you to abandon it and regress to those mindless and easy-to-do but ineffective note-taking practices. Treat it like a layer cake, lay down one solid note-making practice at a time, and get good at that, before applying another layer.
21. Less is more. Systems thinking tells us the simpler the system, the more efficient. Don’t make it more complicated than it needs to be. With younger kids, start with one or two effective note practices and build on that. Don’t wait until middle-school age to begin a note system, you may end up finding yourselves fighting well-entrenched bad habits.
This Guide is taken from the learning toolbox in lesson 4 of the online Pa 10 course – Improving Your Learning Power. For more details, check out the course syllabus.
- When you find something that you hadn’t thought about before, celebrate this as a success. Discovering how to “up your game” is good news.
- For the audit, narrow the ideas you want to discuss and improve. Ask your child to identify two or three areas he or she thinks are candidates for improvement. Guide thinking by asking lots of whys? Improve those skill areas one at a time.
- Note-making is a fundamental skill that enhances many other learning strategies. Draw comparisons to fundamental skills in other endeavors your child can relate to like sports, exercising, music practice, etc. Make this point – when you want to excel you have to get good at fundamentals first before you can get good at other things.
- Introduce the concept of systems to older children. This can be a good independent learning project. What is a system? Why are systems so powerful?
- Note-making is a shift in mindset from note-taking. Have a conversation about positive mindsets and why they are important.
Turn the rules into an interesting activity in categorization. Ask older kids to group them into three buckets – practices you do well now, practices you do just OK, and practices you need to improve.