From: How to Use Your Mind
Most educated people find occasion, at some time or other, to take
notes. Although this is especially true of college students, they have
little success, as any college instructor will testify. Students, as a
rule, do not realize that there is any skill involved in taking notes.
Not until examination time arrives and they try vainly to labor through
a maze of scribbling, do they realize that there must be some system in
note-taking. A careful examination of note-taking shows that there are
rules or principles, which, when followed, have much to do with
increasing ability in study.
One criterion that should guide in the preparation of notes is the use
to which they will be put. If this is kept in mind, many blunders will
be saved. Notes may be used in three ways: as material for directing
each day's study, for cramming, and for permanent, professional use.
Thus a note-book may be a thing of far-reaching value. Notes you take
now as a student may be valuable years hence in professional life.
Recognition of this will help you in the preparation of your notes and
will determine many times how they should be prepared.
The chief situations in college which require note-taking are lectures,
library reading and laboratory work. Accordingly the subject will be
considered under these three heads.
LECTURE NOTES.--When taking notes on a lecture, there are two extremes
that present themselves, to take exceedingly full notes or to take
almost no notes. One can err in either direction. True, on first
thought, entire stenographic reports of lectures appear desirable, but
second thought will show that they may be dispensed with, not only
without loss, but with much gain. The most obvious objection is that
too much time would be consumed in transcribing short-hand notes.
Another is that much of the material in a lecture is undesirable for
permanent possession. The instructor repeats much for the sake of
emphasis; he multiplies illustrations, not important in themselves, but
important for the sake of stressing his point. You do not need these
illustrations in written form, however, for once the point is made you
rarely need to depend upon the illustrations for its retention. A still
more cogent objection is that if you occupy your attention with the
task of copying the lecture verbatim, you do not have time to think,
but become merely an automatic recording machine. Experienced
stenographers say that they form the habit of recording so
automatically that they fail utterly to comprehend the meaning of what
is said. You as a student cannot afford to have your attention so
distracted from the meaning of the lecture, therefore reduce your
classroom writing to a minimum.
Probably the chief reason why students are so eager to secure full
lecture notes is that they fear to trust their memory. Such fears
should be put at rest, for your mind will retain facts if you pay close
attention and make logical associations during the time of impression.
Keep your mind free, then, to work upon the subject-matter of the
lecture. Debate mentally with the speaker. Question his statements,
comparing them with your own experience or with the results of your
study. Ask yourself frequently, "Is that true?" The essential thing is
to maintain an attitude of mental activity, and to avoid anything that
will reduce this and make you passive. Do not think of yourself as a
vat into which the instructor pumps knowledge. Regard yourself rather
as an active force, quick to perceive and to comprehend meaning,
deliberate in acceptance and firm in retention.
After observing the stress laid, throughout this book, upon the
necessity for logical associations, you will readily see that the
key-note to note-taking is, Let your notes represent the logical
progression of thought in the lecture. Strive above all else to secure
the skeleton--the framework upon which the lecture is hung. A lecture
is a logical structure, and the form in which it is presented is the
outline. This outline, then, is your chief concern. In the case of some
lectures it is an easy matter. The lecturer may place the outline in
your hands beforehand, may present it on the black-board, or may give
it orally. Some lecturers, too, present their material in such
clear-cut divisions that the outline is easily followed. Others,
however, are very difficult to follow in this regard.
In arranging an outline you will find it wise to adopt some device by
which the parts will stand out prominently, and the progression of
thought will be indicated with proper subordination of titles. Adopt
some system at the beginning of your college course, and use it in all
your notes. The system here given may serve as a model, using first the
Roman numerals, then capitals, then Arabic numerals:
In concluding this discussion of lecture notes, you should be urged to
make good use of your notes after they are taken. First, glance over
them as soon as possible after the lecture. Inasmuch as they will then
be fresh in your mind, you will be able to recall almost the entire
lecture; you will also be able to supply missing parts from memory.
Some students make it a rule to reduce all class-notes to typewritten
form soon after the lecture. This is an excellent practice, but is
rather expensive in time. In addition to this after-class review, you
should make a second review of your notes as the first step in the
preparation of the next day's lesson. This will connect up the lessons
with each other and will make the course a unified whole instead of a
series of disconnected parts. Too often a course exists in a student's
mind as a series of separate discussions and he sees only the horizon
of a single day. This condition might be represented by a series of
O O O O O
A summary of each day's lesson, however, preceding the preparation for
the next day, forges new links and welds them all together into an
A method that has been found helpful is to use a double-page system of
notetaking, using the left-hand page for the bare outline, with
largest divisions, and the right-hand page for the details. This device
makes the note-book readily available for hasty review or for more
READING NOTES.--The question of full or scanty notes arises in reading
notes as in lecture notes. In general, your notes should represent a
summary, in your own words, of the author's discussion, not a
duplication of it. Students sometimes acquire the habit of reading
single sentences at a time, then of writing them down, thinking that by
making an exact copy of the book, they are playing safe. This is a
pernicious practice; it spoils continuity of thought and application.
Furthermore, isolated sentences mean little, and fail grossly to
represent the real thought of the author. A better way is to read
through an entire paragraph or section, then close the book and
reproduce in your own words what you have read. Next, take your summary
and compare with the original text to see that you have really grasped
the point. This procedure will be beneficial in several ways. It will
encourage continuous concentration of attention to an entire argument;
it will help you to preserve relative emphasis of parts; it will lead
you to regard thought and not words. (You are undoubtedly familiar with
the state of mind wherein you find yourself reading merely words and
not following the thought.) Lastly, material studied in this way is
remembered longer than material read scrappily. In short, such a method
of reading makes not only for good memory, but for good mental habits
of all kinds. In all your reading, hold to the conception of yourself
as a thinker, not a sponge. Remember, you do not need to accept
unqualifiedly everything you read. A worthy ideal for every student to
follow is expressed in the motto carved on the wall of the great
reading-room of the Harper Memorial Library at The University of
Chicago: "Read not to contradict, nor to believe, but to weigh and
consider." Ibsen bluntly states the same thought:
"Don't read to swallow; read to choose, for 'Tis but to see what one
has use for."
Ask yourself, when beginning a printed discussion, What am I looking
for? What is the author going to talk about? Often this will be
indicated in topical headings. Keep it in the background of your mind
while reading, and search for the answer. Then, when you have read the
necessary portion, close the book and summarize, to see if the author
furnished what you sought. In short, always read for a purpose.
Formulate problems and seek their solutions. In this way will there be
direction in your reading and your thought.
This discussion of reading notes has turned into an essay on "How to
Read," and you must be convinced by this time that there is much to
learn in this respect, so much that we may profitably spend more time
in discussing it.
Every book you take up should be opened with some preliminary ceremony.
This does not refer to the physical operation of opening a new book,
but to the mental operation. In general, take the following steps:
1. Observe the title. See exactly what field the book attempts to
2. Observe the author's name. If you are to use his book frequently,
discover his position in the field. Remember, you are going to accept
him as authority, and you should know his status. You may be told this
on the title-page, or you may have to consult Who's Who, or the
3. Glance over the preface. Under some circumstances you should read it
carefully. If you are going to refer to the book very often, make
friends with the author; let him introduce himself to you; this he will
do in the preface. Observe the date of publication, also, in order to
get an idea as to the recency of the material.
4. Glance over the table of contents. If you are very familiar with the
field, and the table of contents is outlined in detail, you might
advantageously study it and dispense with reading the book. On the
other hand, if you are going to consult the book only briefly, you
might find it necessary to study the table of contents in order to see
the relation of the part you read to the entire work.
5. Use the index intelligently; it may save you much time.
You will have much to do throughout your college course with the making
of bibliographies, that is, with the compilation of lists of books
bearing upon special topics. You may have bibliographies given you in
some of your courses, or you may be asked to compile your own. Under
all circumstances, prepare them with the greatest care. Be scrupulous
in giving references. There is a standard form for referring to books
and periodicals, as follows:
C.R. Henderson, Industrial Insurance (2d ed.; Chicago: The University
of Chicago Press, 1912), p. 321.
S.I. Curtis, "The Place of Sacrifice," Biblical World, Vol. XXI (1902),
p. 248 _ff_.
LABORATORY NOTES.--The form for laboratory notes varies with the
science and is usually prescribed by the instructor. Reports of
experiments are usually written up in the order: Object, Apparatus,
Method, Results, Conclusions. When detailed instructions are given by
the instructor, follow them accurately. Pay special attention to
neatness. Instructors say that the greatest fault with laboratory
note-books is lack of neatness. This reacts upon the instructor,
causing him much trouble in correcting the note-book. The resulting
annoyance frequently prejudices him, against his will, against the
student. It is safe to assert that you will materially increase your
chances of a good grade in a laboratory course by the preparation of a
The key-note of the twentieth century is economy, the tendency in all
lines being toward the elimination of waste. College students should
adopt this aim in the regulation of their study affairs, and there is
much opportunity for applying it in note-taking. So far, the discussion
has had to do with the _content_ of the note-book, but _its form_ is
equally important. Much may be done by utilization of mechanical
devices to save time and energy.
First, write in ink. Pencil marks blur badly and become illegible in a
few months. Remember, you may be using the notebook twenty years hence,
therefore make it durable.
Second, write plainly. This injunction ought to be superfluous, for
common sense tells us that writing which is illegible cannot be read
even by the writer, once it has "grown cold." Third, take care in
forming sentences. Do not make your notes consist simply of separate,
scrappy jottings. True, it is difficult, under stress, to form
complete sentences. The great temptation is to jot down a word here
and there and trust to luck or an indulgent memory to supply the
context at some later time. A little experience, however, will quickly
demonstrate the futility of such hopes; therefore strive to form
sensible phrases, and to make the parts of the outline cohere. Apply
the principles of English composition to the preparation of your
A fourth question concerns size and shape of the note-book. These
features depend partly upon the nature of the course and partly upon
individual taste. It is often convenient and practicable to keep the
notes for all courses in a single note-book. Men find it advantageous
to use a small note-book of a size that can be carried in the coat
pocket and studied at odd moments.
A fifth question of a mechanical nature is, Which is preferable, bound
or loose-leaf note-books? Generally the latter will be found more
desirable. Leaves are easily inserted and the sections are easily filed
on completion of a course.
It goes without saying that the manner in which notes, are to be taken
will be determined by many factors, such as the nature of individual
courses, the wishes of instructors, personal tastes and habits.
Nevertheless, there are certain principles and practices which are
adaptable to nearly all conditions, and it is these that we have
discussed. Remember, note-taking is one of the habits you are to form
in college. See that the habit is started rightly. Adopt a good plan at
the start and adhere to it. You may be encouraged, too, with the
thought that facility in note-taking will come with practice.
Note-taking is an art and as you practise you will develop skill.
We have noted some of the most obvious and immediate benefits derived
from well-prepared notes, consisting of economy of time, ease of
review, ease of permanent retention. There are other benefits, however,
which, though less obvious, are of far greater importance. These are
the permanent effects upon the mind. Habits of correct thinking are the
chief result of correct note-taking. As you develop in this particular
ability, you will find corresponding improvement in your ability to
comprehend and assimilate ideas, to retain and reproduce facts, and to
reason with thoroughness and independence.
READINGS AND EXERCISES
Adams (1) chapter VIII.
Dearborn (2) chapter II.
Exercise 1. Contrast the taking of notes from reading and from
Exercise 2. Make an outline of this chapter.
Exercise 3. Make an outline of some lecture.
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