Meet Bernard. He’s a data strategist at PwC and a committed lifelong learner. After earning his double master degree, he subscribed to Coursera Plus, and has continued to study topics such as artificial intelligence, design, and professional development. Today, he’s taking a pause from his five years of consistent online learning to share some advice and tips—his focus in this article is on the importance of note-taking.
I began studying on Coursera after realizing that the “professional world” couldn’t satisfy my thirst for knowledge. For the past five years, I’ve continued to study for at least five hours per week. During this time, I have tested and improved my note-taking system as a means to better identify and remember information. I would have liked to have had this system from the beginning, as I’ve lost a lot of information because my note-taking system was incomplete!
In this post, I’ll talk about why I believe you need to take notes and how digital note-taking can take your studying to the next level. I’ll also provide my top takeaways for note-taking.
Why you need to take notes
My first course on Coursera was the great “Learning how to Learn” by Dr. Barbara Oakley and Dr. Terrence Sejnowski. I ended up having to take this course twice in three years because I hardly took any notes the first time and I had forgotten most of the concepts.
This led me to the conclusion that I was not remembering as much information as I wanted to. I realized four things in particular:
- I was quickly forgetting most of the things I learned. I was even thinking I might have a memory problem because I was retaining so little information. But after some research, I felt reassured that I was normal.
- I was struggling to explain what I’d learned in a clear and structured way. This happened even when I remembered what I’d learned. This meant I was not fully understanding the concepts in the first place.
- I could only remember approximate details. Even when I remembered something and was able to explain it clearly, I often had to approximate dates, names, the exact function of certain concepts, and more. I didn’t like having to explain things with only approximate details.
- I wasn’t applying my learnings right away. Even when I was starting to be really comfortable with a topic, I wasn’t finding the opportunities to apply my learnings immediately in real life. Sometimes, I wasn’t using new concepts until several months later. By that time, my knowledge was approximate again because I hadn’t been practicing or reviewing.
To try and address these problems, I started to take notes on paper. This helped me synthesize ideas and concepts, and I worked to improve my note-taking system month after month. For example, I started adding the names of Specializations in the top corner of my sheets and color coding different chapters. By the end of a 10-hour course, I’d usually have multiple pages of notes.
I recommend taking notes to help you remember information later. Otherwise, it’s my experience that you’ll forget the majority of what you’ve learned if you are not reviewing the course information. I also believe you should take notes to avoid having “shaded knowledge” (grey areas of knowledge with approximate details) about a subject that you think you know. Finally, I think you should take notes because the subject might become more and more useful as you progress in your life.
How digital note-taking can take your studying to the next level
After more than three years of exclusively taking notes on paper, I switched to computer note-taking. Today, I usually end up with around twenty pages of notes per course. What I realized is that, rather than just taking notes on the main points of a course, it was better to put more information down, and to use a clean structure.
I believe comprehensive note-taking is more valuable. For example, if you have to explain what you’ve learned to someone else, you’re going to need more than just keywords to rely on. Plus, if you have to go back to your notes to look for a certain detail, a clean system will help you retrieve what you’re looking for, and the more information you have in your notes, the more likely it is you’ll have the information you’re looking for. Finally, more information with a clean structure and hierarchy system will make your note-taking more qualitative and more precise, which in turn will make it easier for you to recall the material you’ve learned.
Using a computer for note-taking has many benefits. Here are four reasons of them:
- It’s more practical. Having my notes on a computer cloud means I don’t have to carry a voluminous file folder around. I can have my “knowledge toolbox” (an online folder with thousands of pages of notes sorted by themes) at the ready whenever I need it.
- Navigation is easier. The navigation pane of a word processor such as Google Docs or Word is a great tool for online note-taking. Using the title system, you can create a very structured document that follows the chapters of your online course.
- It’s easier to find what you’re looking for. You can use the search function of a word processor to quickly find specific information. That’s not possible on paper and it can be frustrating when you can’t find the content you’re looking for.
- You can include screenshots. The screenshot app of your computer or device can make your life easier when you have to reproduce matrices or schemes in your courses. A screenshot will always be better and faster than drawing something on paper.
I know it’s been said that it’s better to write notes on paper because you remember more information for longer when you have to write it out manually. I actually agree with that point. However, when you have hundreds of pages of notes from hundreds of different courses, computer notes are way more practical. It’s far easier for me to search through hundreds of files when I need information quickly than it is to comb through sheets and sheets of paper notes. So I make sure to pay close attention when I write on the computer—I’m careful about what I write, and I focus twice as hard, to make sure the information “prints” in my head.
My top takeaways for note-taking
I’d like to share some specific advice for making the most of note-taking on your computer.
- Bold your keywords. This will make it easier to find what you’re looking for when you’re reviewing your notes later.
- Highlight important text. You can even use color coding. For example, I highlight names in purple, book names in red, and interesting concepts in blue. This makes it easier to search later, and it also helps me stay attentive while I’m writing.
- Write notes in your own words. This will help you actually understand the concept as opposed to just repeating something you’ve just heard.
- Create a useful structure. Having your titles align with the structure of the course is an efficient way to organize your notes.
- Prioritize. You don’t just want to write everything down, but how do you know what’s important? I ask myself three questions: is it important to me right now, will I need to know it in the future, and would I use this if I needed to teach this to someone else? If I answer yes to any of these questions, then I add the information to my notes.
I believe note-taking is a great investment when you’re learning online, and I hope this article will help you in your quest for knowledge and in the construction of your “knowledge toolbox.”
Good luck, and learn well!39