Tired of note taking techniques during lectures that sound like they’ll be effective …
…but ultimately fail to help you remember information?
You know the kind:
The ideas look good, but … not exactly something you would ever do.
And every time you try some new note taking technique …
No matter what, all of them seem to lead to one place:
You … writing down loooooong strings of notes verbatim.
It’s usually boring, and (stand by for truth pill) …
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Boring Note Taking Rarely Works!
It gets worse:
These boring note taking styles mean that you’re always struggling to keep up. You often wind up missing huge sections of the lecture and struggle to reconstruct what was said from the notes.
And if you’re anything like me, you don’t want to struggle with your memory!
Pause for a second.
Do you have time for a quick question?
Do you like live discussions? Here’s one about note taking that I think you’ll enjoy:
We had some great questions and contributions on the call and some really interesting books and resources were mentioned. Click play and see if this kind of learning experience suits you! 🙂
Back to our regular scheduled blog post:
If you’re tired of struggling with your memory after note taking, then you’re in the right place. I’m going to give you some counter-intuitive note taking techniques to try.
Some of them even tap into episodic memory and how to improve it (check out that post and Magnetic Memory Method Podcast episode for 4 super-powerful episodic memory exercises).
But please understand the following …
This is The Brutal Truth About
Note Taking Techniques
You can read all the articles on note taking in the world, but it’s never the note taking techniques that should take the blame when you fail to remember information.
There are other factors at play and they all meet in one central place:
So if you’re taking lecture notes verbatim, that’s the first thing that should change. This practice is taking you out of the presence of the information at a moment when your focus should be on its source.
To help you increase your focus and memory, get ready for techniques that I’ve used myself to remember more and develop tremendous confidence in any subject area.
The 6 Guiding Principles That Govern
Magnetic Note Taking
But before diving into my Magnetic Note Taking Techniques, let’s take a step back and look at a few other factors.
We need to be aware of them for one simple reason:
All the best note taking techniques in the world won’t help you for even a second if you haven’t got the following aspects handed. After all, your note taking can only ever be as good as the state in which the notes were taken.
1. Be well rested
Seriously. I’m on YouTube Live every once in awhile, and always astounded by how late some learners in the world stay up.
I don’t care what note taking techniques you use. They all suffer if you’re tired.Click To Tweet
And exhaustion means this:
No note taking efforts in the world can help the information enter your mind at the highest possible level. We can’t properly pay attention to what we’re learning when we’re tired and often wind up taking notes about unimportant details.
But when you’re well-rested, you pay closer attention to the information that matters. This raised level of awareness already makes every note taking technique you try instantly better.
To help you get a better rest and benefit from the improved memory abilities sleep creates, check out this Magnetic Memory Method Podcast episode on sleep and memory improvement.
2. Nutrition and Hydration
Foods that improve memory aren’t hard to find. Luckily, many of us don’t have a hard time finding water either.
We don’t need to dwell on this topic for long, but please understand that your brain shrinks when it’s not properly hydrated. Many foods deplete your hydration. By making a few simple dietary changes and drinking more water, your note taking abilities will go way up automatically.
3. Fitness and Meditation
Your brain is a physical entity. The more you exercise it, the greater focus you’ll experience.
Likewise, meditation primes your brain to pay attention and remember more. Meditation improves concentration and memory too.
4. Knowledge of how memory works
Note taking skills work better if you know about the Primacy Effect and Recency Effect. You’re much more likely to remember the beginning and end of a lecture, for example.
But even if these general rules don’t fall in your favor, the forgetting curve will take its toll unless you do something about it.
The science of memory, particularly as it stands in support of a Memory Palace approach, should be covered immediately. It will add a great deal to how you think of note taking from a meta level.
Never forget: practical tips are great, but understanding why the tips work is golden. Using tips based on understanding makes you and your memory Magnetic.
5. Be Prepared
We’ll talk in a moment about pre-reading, but as a global point, too many learners show up to lectures unprepared.
As a student myself, I can’t tell you the amount of times I heard people asking, “what’s this week’s lecture about?”
That should never be the question on your lips. You should know the syllabus or plan inside and out so that your brain is primed and prepared to lock-in on the most salient points.
If you want to help yourself remember more, stack the chips in your favor by reading as much as possible in advance.
Heck, you can even email the speaker and ask what you should read to be better prepared if it isn’t already clear to you.
I’d even suggest pushing for more suggestions. Even if you only have time to skim over the suggested material, you’re feeding your brain with velcro hooks. And the more hooks you have before you show up, the more material will stick.
6. Know Your Learning Preferences
Finally, a huge shortcoming to all note taking is that many people aren’t aware of their learning preferences. They don’t know if they’re primarily visual, auditory, kinesthetic or conceptual.
And when you lack that knowledge, you can’t determine your MMM Learning Hierarchy. I’ll be talking a lot about how to do this in a new book I’m releasing. For now, just understand that you probably have a sensory preference of which you’re unaware.
The following techniques on offer here reflect some of mine. Regardless of how I learn, the most important thing is this:
Experiment with different note taking techniques based on your MMM Learning Hierarchy. You’ll quickly find yourself remembering more when you honor the way your brain prefers to learn by matching your note taking approach to these preferences.
Heck, you might even find yourself focusing and concentrating on your studies like a Zen Master.
You’re about to discover some of my most prized – and totally counterintuitive – techniques for taking notes at lectures.
These are significantly different from how I would take notes from a book. You can explore that approach here on my podcast and infographic about How to Memorize a Textbook. Everything in that teaching applies here as well, provided that you take your notes on index cards or move them over to index cards.
None of the techniques you are about to discover are mutually exclusive. You can use some of them at the same time. You can even use all of them to varying degrees in the same lecture.
But what you should never do is experiment with new note taking techniques when the stakes are high. Like gambling, only try something new when you can afford to lose.
With that caveat in place, here are …
My Favorite And Most Magnetic Note Taking
Techniques For Lectures
1. Release Yourself From Note Taking
To be honest, I often prefer not to take notes at all if I can avoid it.
At least … not the first time around.
How is avoiding note taking possible?
How is it even responsible? Desirable?
Especially when you’re someone dumping thousands of dollars into a university education, a certification course or other live educational event.
Just press record.
Many speakers will allow you to record their talks. And when you can record, you can simply release yourself to absorb the information without distracting yourself with the need to capture any of it.
I know this is counter intuitive, but it’s well worth practicing. I suggest that you go to a few public lectures where you don’t need to remember anything and then use the room as a Memory Palace as you listen.
Don’t know how to create a Memory Palace? No problem. Just grab my:
Once you have the Memory Palace tool working in your favor, cool things can start to happen.
When you remove the consequences of forgetting and then think back to the lecture and allow yourself to remember, I think you’ll be pleasantly surprised by what comes back.
It’s almost as if you’ve said to your memory, “Go ahead and forget everything. It will be fine.”
Of course, you’re not actually saying that, and this “reverse psychology” could backfire. But by releasing the outcome, you’ll likely focus more on the proceedings and remember more by default.
You can practice being more present in the room and using a Memory Palace.
Allowing yourself to recall information without notes provides you with profoundly powerful memory exercise.
Things can go wrong with recording devices. But if you have a solid network of friends, they can supply you with their notes and commentary.
2. Take Notes From The Recording
Recordings are powerful assets. You can listen to them anytime you want in the future, as many times as you want.
And you can take notes at your leisure with one powerful asset:
You’re encountering the information for the second time, not the first.
You’ve already got the broad overview, and you’ve primed your memory with reverse psychology. And you’re also in a position to listen more strategically.
Plus, when you take notes from the recording, you’re able to do it in a preferred environment free from the distractions of other people in the room. You’re even free from the visual distractions created by many speakers themselves.
You can review recordings as often as you wish.
If you like 2x-ing your content, you can listen to it faster on the second review.
You can also pause the recording so that you’re taking notes without missing out on any of the information yet to come.
Speakers often don’t prepare lectures for the purpose of creating recordings. Their lack of intention to perform for your posterity can make the recording slow, punctuated by “dead air” and filled with the sounds of people and paper shuffling.
3. Minimize Notes, Maximize Creativity
Although I do like to attend lectures and take no notes at all, I still always have a notebook.
And in that notebook, I like to doodle. I’ve doodled in lecture halls around the world. And it’s also a great activity while watching or listening to recorded lectures.
The longer the lecture and the more attention they require, the more I find doodling beneficial.
Because long content can make me fidgety. No matter how enthralling it is, I like to be moving.
The best part?
Drawing doesn’t exclude note taking. Rather, it shapes and informs it.
As I draw, I write down keywords and notes that seem interesting to me and useful for further exploration.
In a way, doodling while paying attention to information is like mindmapping, but without creating a deliberate mindmap. It also helps me focus on the information as it flows in real time without being distracted by writing down things said seconds or minutes ago while new information is accumulating.
Wow – Cool!
Two Kinds Of Drawing
There are also different kinds of drawing that are useful. I would divide these between doodling abstract shapes and forms and drawing characters.
For many years, I drew abstractions almost entirely. Then I started drawing figures. Doctor Fuse Less is one figure in particular who came up in my notebooks again and again.
In either case, I found that by drawing the same things repetitively while focusing on lectures helped me focus even more on the material. It’s being creative and giving the body something to do without creating anything from scratch.
This lowers the cognitive drain of the doodling and maximizes how it can focus your attention like a laser on what you’re learning.
After that, the keywords you write down on the page are triggers or catalysts for remembering what was discussed.
You increase your focus on the content.
You give your memory exercise by letting it decode keywords you’ve made, rather than having to read through hastily written notes later.
You might struggle to decode the keywords you noted down.
You also might get better at drawing, but you can’t expect to get an A+ on an exam if you cover it with doodles.
4. Be A Note Taking Maximalist (If You’re Prepared To Follow-Up)
Sometimes I like to take massive amounts of notes. To do this, I just go hog wild.
There is no particular strategy. It’s just to write down as much as I can in a linear fashion.
Is this effective?
Yes and no.
But in order to make sure that it is effective as possible, I tend to type these kinds of notes later into a document or a summary.
I talked about the power of writing summaries last week when we discussed instant gratification, and that raises an interesting point.
Writing down as much as you possibly can during a lecture is essentially succumbing to scarcity. You’re acting out of the fear that you’re going to miss something.
We need to be really careful about this fear.
Because chances are, fear will cause you to write down a bunch of useless information and actually miss the most important points.
Why does this happen? Because you’ll be note taking while the more relevant information is streaming past you, outside of your awareness.
And you can’t write summaries of information you missed.
So if you’re going to use the maximalist technique, back it up with a recording so you can review the lecture later.
Your wrists and arms get lots of exercise. You feel like you’ve accomplished a lot.
Most times you won’t have accomplished much. Instead, it was a bunch of activity that crowded your attention when you needed to be focused elsewhere.
5. Have a note taking strategy and style planned in advance
Now that you have some more approaches in your note taking arsenal, you can start practicing them.
But I find that one of the most important aspects of note taking is simply being strategic about what you write down.
For example, I’ve had a lot of students who write down all the book titles I mention … but they’re not the type of students who ever go and read those books.
As a result, they miss out on what I’m actually saying about those books while writing the titles down.
But if you notice that you have the habit of writing down a bunch of information you never follow up on, you stand to gain a lot by writing down only so much information as you can and will follow up on during the post reading phase.
On the other hand, maybe you don’t have to attend the lecture at all. You can skip a whole lot of lectures entirely by simply reading an article written by the speaker and then reading all the books and articles mentioned in the bibliography. I have done this many times and feel confident that I gained as a result and never lost.
Or, you can combine reading material by the lecturer and attend the lecture. Pre-reading is a great strategy and one that will maximize the value of every lecture you attend.
You’ll be prepared and have maximum flexibility.
None. Unless you’re the type of person who gets so caught up in preparation that you suffer analysis paralysis.
Magnetic Tips For Beyond The Lecture
Speaking of pre-reading and post-reading, one of the best things you can do regardless of how you take notes is read beyond the lecture.
And understand that you get more bang for your buck if you also speak with others about what you’ve encountered in lectures.
Some of my favorite memories of university involve the discussion groups I attended with my fellow students.
In English 1300, for example, a small cluster of us all walked away with the top grades.
Because after many of the lectures and tutorials, we met to discuss the material further.
I’ll never forget sitting up in the 7th-floor Grad Lounge of the Ross Building.
I don’t think we were aware of it at the time, but think of the unconscious message we were giving ourselves.
A first-year course and we chose the grad lounge as our meeting room for discussion. We treated this first-year course as if it was graduate-level material and that gave all of us a cutting edge.
Later, in grad school, I recall other student groups with different dynamics.
In one of my favorites, we would each voluntarily read an article to present to the group. In this way, each of us was exposed to additional reading material for which we had no time. Yet, we could still take notes about the key points, remember these and enjoy the effect of priming our memory for future encounters with that text or references to it.
Effective Note Taking Is A Process That Develops Over Time
Effective note taking skills are everywhere. There are scientific studies well worth your attention too, such as this Scientific American article about not taking notes with a laptop.
Whatever you do, I suggest that you approach note taking as an art and a science. Make sure that you experiment with multiple styles and track your results.
As you pay attention to what’s happening more consciously, you’ll learn more about what works for you and lean towards your preferences with greater understanding.
But at all times, choose flexibility. Make sure you have on hand what you need whenever you attend a lecture or recording of one so that all your bases are covered.
And above all, remove all stress. So many learners bring so much worry about the game of education that they forget to play it.
But learning really is a game. It’s one you can win too, provided you put your memory first.
And to help with that, I’m confident these note taking techniques – if you give them a try in combination with the bigger picture of your rest, relaxation, health and a Magnetic Memory Palace Network – will force you to remember more without so much as breaking a sweat.
Matthew Clark was one of my favorite profs in grad school. Through the magic of the Internet, I now have the chance to take some notes from one of his lectures.