Your Brain on Notes

If you are reading this, you are probably a postgraduate student. And if you’re a postgraduate student, you probably did well as an undergraduate. Which means you’re probably an experienced note-taker.

Maybe you carry a small Whitcoulls outlet worth of stationery with you to lectures. Maybe you have colour-coding systems honed over years of study. Maybe you have an irrational love of post-its.

Hello, my beautiful babies.

But it’s not over! Even if you are now writing a thesis rather than attending lectures, you will still need to absorb information from your supervisor, from speakers at conferences, and from departmental seminars.

So: how does your brain react to your note-taking style?

Just the act of writing down what you’re learning helps to cement it in your brain. But the way you write, and how you revise what you write, can have a big impact on your recall of the information. Here’s a crash course in note-taking and revising for Ultimate Recall (yes, that sounds a bit like an Arnold Schwarzenegger movie).

How to take notes:

  1. Interpret, don’t transcribe. If you copy down exactly what you hear, you’re not filtering the information through your own brain. Restructure the information on the page, put it in your own words, and it will make much more sense to you later.
  2. Connect related material by drawing lines, colour-coding, or mindmapping.
  3. Scaffold your notes: leave space on the page when you first take notes, then add other thoughts & details as you revise later, to build up from brief notes to a full and well thought-out treatment of the topic.

How to revise your notes:

  1. Rewrite them. Speak them. Dance them. Reinterpret your notes in a way that is meaningful to you rather than just rereading them.
  2. Write halving summaries. As you review your notes, rewrite them so that your new notes are half as wordy as your old notes. Next time, make them half-length again. Keep doing this until all of your content fits on a single index card. (Don’t worry, by this time the content you’ve cut will be in your head!)
  3. Beat the Forgetting Curve. The forgetting curve says that we forget on an exponential curve over time. If you are exposed to information and never review it, your recall will drop over time to near 0%. But if you review the information repeatedly with diminishing frequency (i.e. after one hour, then one day, then one week, then one month, and so on) recall can stay near 100%.
forgetting curve
Credit: Ethan Bloch, from Hermann Ebbinghaus’ theory.

There’s lots more great info on effective note-taking over at The Conversation. There is probably also a wealth of information in your own experience – so share your tips with us in the comments below.

About Anaise Irvine

Dr Anaise Irvine is the Editor of Thesislink and leads the Researcher Education and Development team at Auckland University of Technology. Her PhD research analysed how contemporary films and novels represent genetic engineering as a social justice issue. These days she works with researchers at all levels to improve their research skills, and the most obscure of her own research skills is being able to turn novels into phylogenetic trees!

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