Are taking notes effective?

It doesn’t matter who you are. If you’ve ever been in any class that has been of any remote importance or value to you, you’ve taken notes. But are they really worth it?

More often than not when you’re in a presentation of any sort there are going to be times where you’re going to want to take notes. Why? Well the answer is pretty simple. Notes are our way of taking the most important slivers of information that we’re given and ‘recording’ a summary of that importance for later, so that we can focus more on what is happening now, refer back to the recorded details later and finally give ourselves the chance to learn things later.

In effect taking notes is all about relaxing our brain. It’s a process that we use so that we can ‘reduce’ our effort while information is being presented and delay that effort later to a time of our choosing.

But putting this learning effort off for a later time starts down a dangerous learning slope. Why?

Taking notes means that we can pay less attention, now.

I’ve delivered enough training through the military and also in the corporate world, as well as having spent more time as a student than I can care to count to know what note taking means.

As an instructor where there is a need to cover a finite number of teaching points in a specific lesson, it’s very easy to go into too much depth or attempt to cover too many points within a given time frame.

More often than not as instructors when we get to something that is ‘really important’ we will even prompt our audience to ‘take notes’ on a specific point so that the taught audience has something to fall back onto for later personal reference.

As instructors we know what is important but we are forced to push on. This leads to the next point.

We takes notes so that we can buy ourselves time

As students when the period of instruction must progress, we frantically record what we believe to be of the highest importance or simply write down what we are told is important. We do this as the training session remains in progress in order to buy ourselves time to go through or reference a ‘trigger’ to go back to something in our own time.

In essence this tells us (the student) that we need to look at something later, but that we can focus on what is being delivered now.

Dealing with complex material is also quite taxing. To put this into perspective, a person can recover from a day of physical activity within 24 hours. When dealing with complicated subject material that is mentally taxing, this can take the same person 3 times longer to recover. In Short learning can be tough. (Seriously)

When its not possible to ‘deal’ or ‘process’ complex matter during the period of instruction, taking notes for later reference buys us time to deal with things later. But this too comes at a cost.

Taking notes gives new information longevity so we tune out

By highlighting to ourselves what we need to come back to later we create an ‘information anchor.’ This anchor is a fixed point;

“Detail x is important and we must come back to it later”

By highlighting that we can come back to it later we can allow our brains natural process to run like clockwork.

  • If the new information isn’t an emergency – How can i ignore it or spend the least amount of time on it?
  • If it’s not a crisis – the information is spam!
  • if the details are not dangerous – ignore it!
  • If the details are not new and exciting – ignore it!
  • if it is new – summarise it as quickly as possible and forget the details.
  • Do not send anything to the neo-cortex for problem solving unless it is really unexpected and totally out of the ordinary
    • Oren Klaff – Author of ‘How to pitch anything’

In effect by quickly summarising a key point by taking a note, we can reduce our workload and attempt to focus back on the material at hand. As a student I know that I’ve done this so many countless times it’s a wonder I took notes at all!

But what happens when we come back to them?

Notes taken without context or understanding are just a waste of time. They get forgotten.

Quite often our note taking is pretty poor. Add subject complexity to the mix and it only gets worse, especially when speed is involved. Why?

Because we’re inherently quite bad at adding ‘detail’ or ‘context’ to a note which represents an anchor to something truly valuable. Our need to summarise as quickly as possible simply allows the information that we want to look at later to fall into our mental trash bin. Example.

Imagine you were in a class where the presenter was an expert in fitness and body transformation. Now this instructor has tonnes of information that they give you but the biggest thing they tell you is;

“You body is not made in the gym. Exercise will not give you abs or strip fat. However your diet is the most important thing you need to focus on, write this one thing down … Diet is the most important thing …”

So as a super keen student you do exactly as you are told.

“Diet is the most important thing”

The note has been taken, the anchor has been dropped … you’ll get to it later.

Later comes … a week later after you’ve done another week at the office with all of the issues that come with it and all you have is;

“Diet is the most important thing”

You’ll have more questions that answers. Why is diet important? What were they talking about? Where do I need to look?

Our need to mentally relax has officially failed us!

So how do we fix this?

Trying to bypass the biology is nearly impossible. Telling yourself to remember doesn’t work … it’s exhausting. As an instructor should you give notes or handouts? Not unless you want the endless sound of rustling paper in your training to become the dominant sound. Notes also give your audience a distraction. If you’re going to give hard notes out, give them to your students at the end.

One answer is to create a list of functional action points.

There is a need to take action points

The problem with notes is that we try to record complete details while having incomplete understanding of what we’re trying to remember for later. Instead of simply writing down;

“Diet is the most important thing”

We can quickly add context.

“Diet is the most important thing … Lesson 2, Slide 4 … reference to Chapter 3 …(Why) this is 90% of all results.”

By the time we look at the source and reference material we have enough to ‘recall’ the taught material and the detail to go through and learn in our own time. But an extra element to this is to add in a ‘Why’ because this creates the purpose for the student to go back and learn the content as soon as possible – particularly when the content is an answer to a personal problem they have!

Finally Notes need to be destroyed!

What makes notes so bad for any student is that notes age very badly. Remembering that notes are already summarised, the longer the period of time between the initial recording and note follow up, the less the note makes sense to us. The less that something makes sense the more likely we are to discard it.

The more we discard, the less effective training is, and the more likely we are to ignore future learning opportunities.

So … the radical answer … Notes need to be destroyed.

You telling me to what?

The exams which I got the best results in were the exams where I took my notes and destroyed them prior to the exam. As a student this is frightening. It’s one of the scariest things you can do. To take weeks or months of condensed notes and throw them away.

But you don’t just throw them away for no reason. You toss them out because you’ve turned all of the information within them into a usable product.

Notes themselves (especially for me) serve very little purpose. I’ve learn’t that if i don’t reference them right away, then rather than look for my notes, i’ll go to Google instead for fresh answers.

When you take you’re low quality notes, and turn them into a ‘product’ which you learn how to use, then you’re product becomes your point of reference. The process of checking your information product for accuracy is where you ‘know’ that your product and application of information is correct. Repetition of application takes care of everything else and this is when you’re ready to throw your notes away.

Tossing them in the bin, setting them on fire … is scary, but it is like finally driving a car without an instructor for the first time. You know you can! Your instructors knows you can, but they’ve been the safety net the entire time. You know you don’t need them, and ditching your notes is the final confirmation that you have learn’t.

No one likes clutter & getting rid of your notes is simply getting rid of mental clutter.

For sure take notes. But put an expiry date on them. If the material is valuable, learn it, apply it, turn it into something useful, and get rid of your notes when you’re done.

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#education #learning #educators #presenting #teaching

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