The University 411: Note-taking Part 1, or the Jasnah Kholin Method

Continuing my series of “how to student effectively” today we’ll be talking about approaches to notetaking. As prep for today’s post I did a quick google search for notetaking methods. And. Yikes. What the heck is the Cornell Method? Why does it matter if I write my notes in columns versus sections? Are we being graded on our notetaking presentation?

So I’m going to go ahead and propose my own method. I’m going to assume other people use it too simply because while reading Brandon Sanderson’s Stormlight Archives, I came across a scene where one of the characters describe their notetaking method and thought “hey! I do that too.” So I’m calling it The Jasnah Kholin method after Sanderson’s character.

Okay. First of all, it doesn’t matter if your first set of notes are in columns or sections or morse code. Just get words on the page. This is especially true if you’re taking notes during a lecture. There’s going to be a lot of information thrown at you. If you’re worrying too much about making every mark in your nice, new shiny notebook perfect, you will never get anything down.

So you want to think about what medium is the quickest and most convenient for you. As an undergraduate, I brought a laptop to lectures. I was a fast typist and I essentially wrote out every single word spoken by the lecturer. This is not an effective note-taking process, and of course it depends on your typing speed. BUT, while it’s not something I generally recommend, ultimately it DID help me start to process how to take in information disseminated via lecture. (If you recall in my previous post (Identify Your Learning Style), initially I struggled to pay attention in lectures. So writing out everything was the best way for me to start paying attention.) But once I started developing the skill of listening to the spoken word for an hour+, I eventually began to listen to the whole while only taking notes on the “essential” parts. (We’ll talk more about identifying “essential” parts as this blog series continues).

Some lecturers cram a LOT of info into their lectures with very little visual aids. So a laptop or a tablet with keyboard (if you can afford either) might be a way to go. If you have a smart phone, you can look into pairing a keyboard to your phone. (You don’t need a top software programme to take notes during lecture.) If you want to avoid tech altogether, thay’s fine too. If your instructor provides handouts, you can consider taking your notes directly on that, or even directly in your book/textbook (only if you’re not considering reselling it later). Or if they post their PowerPoints online before class, you can print out an outline version. Alternatively, a simple notebook works too. I’ve started using a bullet journal for everything. I.e. ONE notebook that I use EVERYWHERE instead of carrying several for each subject. (I talk more about bullet journaling here.)

As I moved into postgraduate work I began preferring hand written notes more because it lets me draw connections better – and I mean literally draw connecting arrows. When I used to type my first draft of notes on the computer, instead of arrows I’d make a note that said something like “this connects back to what lecturer said earlier about x” . But taking the time to write that sentence is time you don’t have, so I prefer symbols and shorthand: this part on page 3 of my notes connects back to page 1, so I’ll mark both sections with a quick astrix or some sign making a shorthand connection.

Oh. And speaking of shorthand, create a system for words that you use commonly. Maybe you use a forward slash / to replace the letters ‘tion’ or you write out just the initials instead of a person’s full name. Who wants to write out Shakespeare 50 times when you can write WS? You might also want to consider symbols for phonetic vowel sounds. This is for when you’re not entirely sure what word the lecturer is saying or how to spell it (especially for proper names or technical jargon). Rather than worrying over the spelling of the word, try to write it out phonetically to look up later. (Personally, I think the English alphabet sucks for phonetics. So maybe figure out what the heck is a macron and long vowel sound, or develop an equivalent short hand that works for you. I – honestly – use the Japanese alphabet. I have not been able to read or speak Japanese since I studied it in grade school nearly 20 years ago, but I remember the alphabet and it’s a phonetical system so that’s what I use.)

Keep a key or index somewhere so you remember what the symbols mean when you re-read your notes. And for goodness sake, label your notes. Write the date, the title of the course/topic, and the lecturer (or author if you’re note-taking during reading/research instead of during a lecture).

Now onto the nitty gritty of note taking itself. The key thing to keep in mind (IMHO) is that there are multiple layers to note taking. First you start with a fact or concrete concept: A historical date; A chemical property; The name and artist of a painting; A physics formula; etc

I’m going to use an English literature example because that’s my training. Author/playwright/poet wrote x. That’s your basic concrete idea. A quote from a text. Let’s take an important Sanderson Stormlight quote to stick with today’s theme: “You must find the most important words a man can say.”

Next you (or your lecturer) add(s) layering and depth. You’ve got a quote. What does it mean? What does it mean in the context of that particular scene? Does the meaning change as the narrative progresses? Maybe you gain additional information about the world building or events later in the text. Does the meaning change depending on the point-of-view character? Does the meaning change for you if you go back and RE-READ the scene, this time with the knowledge of how events unfold and characters develop? Does the meaning change if you have extra knowledge of the author’s background or events in the world at that time? These are some of the questions that your lecture or required reading might cover and essentially what you’re taking notes on. (You are unlikely to cover every single question; these are just examples of layering. While I use English lit as a example, think about how layers and depth works for your field.)

Ah, but wait. We still haven’t talked about the Jasnah Kholin Method of note-taking. This is the part where you REWRITE your notes. Your first set of notes will be scribbles getting info and ideas now. Now take that draft and make it coherent and legible. Pretty it up in whatever format you want (columns or sections or whatever). But also make sure you’re synthesizing the information: cut out extraneous words or ideas that don’t add much info or knowledge; write out the loose connections and ideas and layers you formed in your mind but didn’t have time to write out fully during lecture. Add MORE connections if you think of them off the top of your head or include examples or practice questions. If you have the time, you might want to consider how the material in front you connects to earlier lectures in the module, or to lectures from an entirely different module. Maybe your discussion on Brandon Sanderson has points of connection with your Shakespeare module. Note that down!

Format here doesn’t matter. And that’s why notetaking techniques/blogs which focus on handwritten format is baffling to me. Format and presentation is not the important part. So long as you write it in a way that works for you. Maybe you’re typing up hand written notes, or re-writing them in a different subject specific notebook. Maybe you have a recording app on your phone and need to talk our your ideas. Maybe you’re writing them out on index cards as prep for studying for exams. Or maybe you got a poster board of each of your courses/module and you’re concept mapping your ideas. Maybe you’re doing a combo of things. (And please share if you have completely different techniques/format. I’m always interested in using different approaches myself.). The important part is you’re reprocessing the information into a medium and method that works for you.

The Jasnah Kholin method: Rewrite your notes. Do this the same day or within the week so that your ideas are still fresh in your mind and you can figure out what the scribbles and half-formed thoughts mean. But DON’T stress overly about adding further connections and layering immediately. (We’ll talk more about stress/time management later). A thought or connection might come to you after you read something else, or maybe while you’re taking a walk or in the middle of a shower. That’s your brain mulling over and processing ideas. But you don’t have to write down every single thought or piece of knowledge in your head. The rewriting method is not meant for you to solve the world’s research questions. Instead, by re-processing the information, you’re making sure you know and understand the material to build off it for further learning. And if you find that you DON’T understand the material, that’s okay too. This is why you’re reviewing your notes. Make note of your questions! Try to find the answer by working through practice questions, or in a study group. Ask your instructor at the next lecture or pop in to see them during office hours. (Seriously. We’re not going to resent the opportunity to chat about the subject we’re passionate about.)

An incredibly underlooked aspect to note-taking is making sure you understand the material. Your note-taking for a lecture/research isn’t finished until you’ve done that. Your set of re-written notes are the foundations of your essay/ project/ exam prep. And it’s a good, solid foundation.

The first draft of my notes for an upcoming blog piece.

Check out my “Tackling the Blank Page” posts for next steps on how to start a project/assignment. You can find the first of this series here. And check back in a few weeks for a series on exam prep and study tips. But in the meanwhile, check out the seminar prep and identifying your objectives for some advice that may apply to you.

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