Jeremy Côté

Active and Passive Notes

I never use my notes from class.

Honestly, do you?

I’ve been a student for over a decade now, stretching from elementary to graduate school. I don’t remember exactly when I started taking notes, but it definitely happened all throughout secondary school. Since then, I’ve been an obedient student, taking notes in each class and making sure I jot down everything the teacher said.

I remember the odd time I saw someone not taking notes. I assumed they weren’t interested in being as good of a student as I was. After all, “good” students took notes every day. These few students were just exceptions.

For some irrational reason, it always bugged me. I was putting in the work, and they were just listening to the professor! It felt like I was doing a lot more in class, and they were passing without as much effort.

But when I went to university, I started wondering: what were my notes good for?

Sure, I had something to study from that was in my own words, but often what would happen is that I would just copy down what was written on the board in class. I might make an extra note here and there with my personal thoughts, but if you had swapped my notes for another person’s in the class, it wouldn’t have made a difference. Therefore, what I had was a transcript of the professor’s thoughts, hardly my own words.

I was taking notes, but I was doing it out of habit. I had no purpose. It was simply what I always did. Seriously, if ever I didn’t take notes, I was weirded out and began again the next time.

Granted, I did tell myself that taking notes in class helped me be a more active listener. To some extent, I think this is true. But I’ve also realized that my notes are only useful before my final assessment. After that, I never look at my notes again, and I’m guessing this probably describes you too (if not, you’ve figured out something I haven’t!).

One lesson I did learn during the first semester of my graduate studies is that there is a huge difference between taking notes actively and passively. Unfortunately, the active way is almost impossible to do while you’re sitting in class.

Here’s what happened. One of the homework assignments in a course was to produce a set of lecture notes for a particular lecture. As someone who takes notes all the time, I thought this was going to be easy. I’d simply have to copy my handwritten notes into a digital file and ship them off. Super-easy, right?

Except for the fact that nothing made sense. I would look at my notes, and could barely construct coherent thoughts from them.

From this assignment, I learned that there’s a big difference between showing up to class and taking notes versus writing notes that you can understand. The former is copying while the latter is interpreting. And the reality is that interpretation can be tricky.

It’s easy to just write down what the teacher is saying during the lecture, even if you don’t really understand it. You might tell yourself that it’s all in there somewhere to puzzle out later. But then, if you do look back at your notes, you realize that you had no idea what was going on in class.

This happened for me throughout this assignment. Thankfully, the lectures were recorded, so we could watch them again at our leisure. However, this turned what I thought would be an easy assignment into one that was devilishly difficult. I couldn’t just transcribe my notes. It would have been a mess. Instead, I had to listen to the lecture, pause the video, and think about what was said. Only then did I write down an explanation that made sense to me. Rinse and repeat until the whole lecture was done.

This was an enlightening experience. First, it taught me that I did not have as good of a grasp on the material as I thought. It’s easy to get out of a lecture and have a few vague ideas about what went on, but it’s another to place these ideas into a coherent discussion. Going through the lecture a second time was really helpful in that regard.

Second, it made me aware of all the gaps that I still couldn’t figure out on my own. This made me ask more questions in class, since I had specific issues that I needed addressed. If I didn’t have to write these lecture notes a second time, these questions would likely have never come up.

This assignment showed me just how passively I took notes. It feels like copying down everything the professor says is the best tactic for decoding what went on in the lecture two weeks later, but I think what it really does is lull you into a false sense of security. It was only because I had to write lecture notes that I found this gap.

I think this is the difference between active and passive note-taking. The latter is what I’ve done all my life. It works, but barely. It also isn’t great for absorbing the material. On the other hand, actively taking notes by writing down how you’re interpreting the information that is being presented to you is much better at storing it for the long term.

Unfortunately, you might have spotted the downside: active note-taking requires a lot of time. I wrote my lecture notes after the lecture, and it was part of my homework assignment, so I dedicated time for it. If there was no pressure for me to do so, I probably wouldn’t have ever tried. Not only that, but when you have a full schedule of classes, it can be difficult to dedicate an extra few hours per lecture to review the material and create your own lecture notes.

As such, I’m left with mixed feelings. I think there’s something here. Only copying what’s on the board is the strategy I’ve followed for my whole life, and it’s not great. If I spend the time to create my own lecture notes, I find that I remember the material for much longer, and I understand it at a deeper level. Therefore, my goal is to try and find a good compromise between these two methods, because I know that I can’t do this for every single lecture I attend (or else I would need no other homework assignments!).

What I’ve learned though is this: Don’t mistake copying down everything that the professor says as evidence that you understand the lecture.