Jeremy Côté



It’s no secret that if you walk into a classroom at random (but more specifically, a science or mathematics classroom), you will see a lecturer up front, with a bunch of students listening and taking notes. Sometimes, it might even seem like the students are barely paying attention to the words of the teacher, preferring to just copy what is on the board or screen.

I’ve heard many people criticize this aspect of school, saying that educational institutions have transformed learning into a state of copying what’s up front and not even thinking during lectures. I’m sure you’ve also seen the odd student in a classroom who isn’t taking notes. Often, they just don’t care about paying attention in class, but other times, they feel like they learn better from only listening.

I’ve thought about both of these approaches a lot, and I can’t completely come up with a perfect answer to which one I think is better. It’s probably tradition more than anything that made me take notes through each year of school. I still do, in almost every class.

Critics of taking notes might say, “But you can get all the stuff the professor is saying from books! Lectures are for listening and absorbing the way people think.” (I’ve gotten this line of reasoning as I read Richard Dawkins’ An Appetite For Wonder.)

I agree with the general idea, but I think this misses a crucial aspect of what writing notes does, at least for me. When I write notes, I don’t necessarily write everything down from what the teacher does, because some of it isn’t important. What I do write down is usually different laws or equations, and their derivations. To me, this is useful to have. Yes, I could get it all from a textbook, but writing it down in my own notebook allows me to make the information even more dense. I don’t have to go about explaining all the things that are obvious to me. I can jump right ahead to the heart of the matter. This way, I rarely have to flip through a textbook to find what I want, because I have it in my own writing.

The added benefit of doing this is that I can write down explanations that I need while looking at a concept, which others might not find useful. Since I’m writing notes while the lecture goes on, I can give myself little reminders here and there to help me out for later. This may seem trivial, but it can be a big help for when I look at my notes later (which I do, though Dawkins says he never did).

Additionally, I think there’s something to be said about remembering things you’ve written down. I forget things easily, but it seems like just the act of writing them down helps me remember. I often don’t even need to look at the reminders I write for myself because I remember writing them. I think it’s very possible that this same sort of thing happens when writing notes in class. I don’t have research on this, but writing the ideas down seems to help me internalize them, much like actually doing problems is more useful to me than simply skimming through them. Therefore, I think taking notes isn’t quite as bad as it may seem at first glance.

The way I take notes is simple: I write down equations and lines of arguments. I usually end up writing definitions, but only insofar that they help me understand what is next. Crucially, I try to participate often in class, which means I’m not just writing down notes and staying consumed in the act of writing all the time. I try to stay connected to questions being posed, and I also try and think of my own questions.

My advice is this: if you feel that you’re doing fine without taking notes, there’s absolutely no need for you to start. Personally, I find taking notes in class allows me to skip having to go and look at all the equations and theory later while I’m doing homework. I have it all in front of me in my notes, which are usually easier to read at a glance. If you do take notes, keep in mind that you don’t have to write down everything that is said and put up front in class. A lot of it is context, and the key is to give yourself enough context to remember the content of class, but you don’t have to recreate it. Notes are fine, just don’t go overboard.