Taking Notes in English – PART 1 of 7: Tools

In this post I’m diving into the first post of seven in a series about note-taking in English. If you’re learning English at university through content-based instruction, you’ll definitely need to know how to take notes. How do you take lecture notes in English when it’s not your first language? Let’s find out. Now, write this down!

Why take notes?

Taking good notes in class is an important part of academic success in college. Why take notes? Well, here are my top 5 reasons:

  1. Taking notes makes difficult ideas clearer and gives more information about things that you think need more detail.
  2. Taking notes helps you develop your critical thinking skills. In order to take helpful notes that are a short but complete in an outline form of the most important points, you must listen carefully and critically to what is being said.
  3. Taking notes helps you become a better listener. You can think about four times faster than a lecturer can speak. To listen effectively, you need to use a lot of your mental energy.
  4. Note-taking will help you to develop your own learning style over time.
  5. Most importantly, taking notes helps you understand and remember. It’s easier to understand and remember than reading any materials given to you if you write it in your own words. And if you use a system of note-taking, revising, and reviewing your notes, you will understand and remember much, much more!

If you’re first learning a new fact or idea through a lecture, video, or audio recording, your main goal is to be able to remember it for a long time. To retain (keep) new information over time, you need to store it in a place in your brain that you can easily access later on. Cognitive science tells us that you need to put what you’re listening to into your own words (PARAPHRASE) to do this. Output (which is speaking and writing) can as important as input (listening and reading) when you receive new information that you want to keep in your brain!

In this series of posts on note-taking,  I’m going to go over what kind of information you have to record as well as some note taking systems, and other important topics, but in this video, let me first talk about the tools you’ll need. Should you take notes on your laptop computer or other digital device, or with a pen and paper?

Pen & Paper or Laptop?

An American study found that students who typed notes using a laptop could record more information than students writing on paper. However, students who typed were not able to recall as much information as students who wrote on paper. This is probably because students who type often record too much information; they type exactly what the speaker or lecturer says, without processing or organizing the information in their heads. But keep in mind that the students in this study were probably mostly native speakers of English who were already familiar with the QUERTY keyboard and therefore could type quickly.

Now when it comes to memory, there are several types. The part of your memory that deals with the new information you’re currently taking is called your working memory. There’s a limit to how much information your working memory can deal with (cope with) at one time. Students who type use more of their mental effort to find keys on the keyboard and write proper sentences. This leaves you with less brain power to try to understand the meaning of what the lecturer or speaker in a video or audio recording is saying. Students who type are probably learning less in class and creating more work for themselves outside of class.

In contrast, students who write on paper tend to write more slowly, so they have to make decisions about how much information to record and how to record it. They use more paraphrasing skills and have to think more while listening to a lecture, video, or audio recording.

Does this mean that using a pen and paper is better that using laptop? Well, not always. If you’re aware of the problem with typing, you could make an effort to type less and pay more attention to what you’re listening to. This, however, requires that you have some self-control.

Likewise, if you’re someone who is not used to typing, or if you’re unfamiliar with the QUERTY system, or just finding typing difficult, you might decide to write by hand until your typing skills improve. Looking for the correct key to press will take mental focus away from what you’re listening to.

Your handwriting speed automatically limits how much attention you can pay to your grammar and syntax. You have to focus more on meaning than language when you take notes. A bonus with using pen and paper is that you won’t have to worry about being tempted to look at social media or other digital distractions during lectures. But for those of you addicted to your smart phones, turn them off or turn off the alerts and put your phone away!

For ALL Tools…

Regardless of whether you decide to use paper or a computer, make sure to come to class well prepared. If you’re using paper, bring a well-organized notebook or binder with loose leaf paper. A4 size or American letter size is best because there is enough blank space. You should also be ready with a good quality pen that you like to write with. Pens are better than pencils for two reasons. First, sharp pens (the one that you roll out – the led) tend to break easily or require changing, and second, you don’t want to be tempted to erase all the time, which makes a mess. Erasing and changing or fixing your pencil moves your focus away from what you’re listening to. Instead, just cross out any obvious mistakes with your pen. It doesn’t matter right now if your notes are messy. This is because later on, you should be rewriting them!

Now, if you prefer typing and are confident that you can control how much you type, then I recommend you find a note-taking app. A word-processor like Microsoft Word is an obvious choice, but also consider apps like Evernote, OneNote, and Dropbox Paper. Also, make sure you shut down any apps, websites, or applications that aren’t relevant (or important) to the lecture. This will help you stay focused. You might think that you can multi-task, but really, we humans aren’t good at that. Focus on one task at a time – in this case – listening and taking notes!

Here’s a chart comparing handwritten to digital note taking. Which is better for you? Only you can decide.

Handwritten Digital
Easier to create diagrams and illustrations Faster; easier to take higher volume of notes (if you have good typing skills!)
Sometimes better for visual learners Easier to edit and reorganize for later studying
Provides more focus for students who are easily distracted by digital media Can be backed up, shared, searched, etc.
Can be better for comprehension and retention of conceptual information Can be better for comprehension and retention of factual information

Now that you’re prepared and have the right tools for your needs, what exactly should you be recordings with them? After all, you can’t write down every single word. We’ll cover that in subsequent posts.


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