Study skills
By Gregory Mitchell - Copyright © 2003
Chapter 6 - More on Note-Taking
Taking notes performs the valuable functions of: 

Since we do not remember complete sentences, it is a waste of time to write them down. The most effective note-taking concentrates on the key words of the lecture or text. In selecting the key words, a person is brought into active contact with the information. The time which would have been spent making long-winded notes can be spent thinking around the concepts. He is not simply copying down in a semi-conscious manner but is becoming aware of the meaning and significance of the ideas, and forming images and associations between them. This increases comprehension and memory. Because the mind is active, concentration is maintained, and review of the notes becomes quick and easy. 

The ability to pick out the most appropriate word as a 'key' word is vital if you want to remember the most important information from any text. We mainly use the following parts of speech when we pick key words:

Nouns: identify the name of a person, place or object. They are the most essential information in a text. 'Common nouns' are whole classes of people or things, e.g. man, dog, table, sport, ball. 'Proper nouns' name a particular person or thing, e.g. Beethoven, the 'Emperor' Concerto, Vienna. 
Verbs: indicate actions, things that happen, e.g. to bring, kiss, exist, drink, sing. 
Adjectives: describe qualities of nouns (people and things) - how they appear or behave, e.g. old, tall, foolish, beautiful. 

Adverbs: indicate how a verb (activity) is applied, e.g. gently, fully, badly.

A key word or phrase is one that funnels into itself a range of ideas and images from the surrounding text, and which, when triggered, funnels back the same information. It will tend to be a strong noun or verb, on occasion accompanied by an additional key adjective or adverb. Nouns are the most useful as key words, but this does not mean you should exclude other words. Key words are simply the words that give you the most inclusive concept. They do not have to be actual words used in the text - you may have a better word that encapsulates and evokes the required associations, and a phrase may be necessary rather than just a word. 

As an example, suggested key words have been indicated in bold type throughout the following text. There may be words you do not understand, even when taking account of the context; in this case it is certainly necessary to look these up in a dictionary. Psychological terminology like 'intrapersonal' may not be in your dictionary, but the prefix 'intra' means within, so the meaning can be derived. 

Though there is no way to place oneself within the infant's skin, it seems likely that, from the earliest days of life, all normal infants experience a range of feelings, a gamut of affects. Observation of infants within and across cultures, and comparison of their facial expressions with those of other primates, confirm that there is a set of universal facial expressions, displayed by all normal children. The most reasonable inference is that there are bodily (and brain) states associated with these expressions, with infants experiencing phenomenally a range of states of excitement and of pleasure or pain. 

To be sure, these states are initially uninterpreted: the infant has no way of labeling to himself how he is feeling or why he is feeling this way. But the range of bodily states experienced by the infant - the fact that he feels, that he may feel differently on different occasions, and that he can come to correlate feelings with specific experiences - serves to introduce the child to the realm of intrapersonal knowledge

Moreover, these discriminations also constitute the necessary point of departure for the eventual discovery that he is a distinct entity with his own experiences and his unique identity. Even as the infant is coming to know his own bodily reactions, and to differentiate them one from another, he is also coming to form preliminary distinctions among other individuals and even among the moods displayed by 'familiar' others. By two months of age, and perhaps even at birth, the child is already able to discriminate among, and imitate the facial expressions of, other individuals. This capacity suggests a degree of 'pre-tunedness' to the feelings and behavior of other individuals that is extraordinary. 

The child soon distinguishes mother from father, parents from strangers, happy expressions from sad or angry ones. (Indeed, by the age of ten months, the infant's ability to discriminate among different affective expressions already yields distinctive patterns of brain waves.) 

In addition, the child comes to associate various feelings with particular individuals, experiences, and circumstances. There are already the first signs of empathy. The young child will respond sympathetically when he hears the cry of another infant or sees someone in pain: even though the child may not yet appreciate just how the other is feeling, he seems to have a sense that something is not right in the world of the other person. A link amongst familiarity, caring, and the wish to be helpful has already begun to form. 

Thanks to a clever experimental technique devised by Gordon Gallup for studies with primates, we have a way of ascertaining when the human infant first comes to view himself as a separate entity, an incipient person. It is possible, unbeknownst to the child, to place a tiny marker - for example, a daub of rouge - upon his nose and then to study his reactions as he peers at himself in the mirror. During the first year of life, the infant is amused by the rouge marking but apparently simply regards it as an interesting decoration on some other organism which he happens to be examining in the mirror. But, during the second year of life, the child comes to react differently when he beholds the alien coloring. Children will touch their own noses and act silly or coy [embarrassed] when they encounter this unexpected redness on what they perceive to be their very own anatomy. 

Awareness of physical separateness and identity are not, of course, the only components of beginning self-knowledge. The child also is starting to react to his own name, to refer to himself by name, to have definite programs and plans that he seeks to carry out, to feel efficacious when he is successful, to experience distress when he violates certain standards that others have set for him or that he has set for himself. All of these components of the initial sense of person make their initial appearance during the second year of life. 

(From 'Frames of Mind' by Howard Gardner)

Looking at the marked key words separately from the text, the sense of the passage can be re-constituted: 



  facial expressions


    specific experiences

     intrapersonal knowledge


       other individuals


         ten months





              second year





Read the Foreword to this course and write down the words that you consider to be key words. Then from your notes, try to reconstruct the full information of the text. In retrospect, then see if you could have made a better choice of key words. Then choose another text and repeat the exercise.

Key words are the ones which are most loaded with meaning, the ones that unlock your memory. When you practice picking out key words, you will probably find that you tend to take down too many words, 'just in case'. Try to reduce the number of key words, and concentrate instead on finding key words that hold many associations, and which remind you of the meaning of the text. 

The more that notes are oriented around key words, the more useful they are and the better they are remembered. Ideally, notes should be based upon key words and accompanying key images, and incorporate summary diagrams and illustrative drawings. This concept is further expanded in the next chapter on 'Mind Maps'. 

When taking detailed notes at a lecture or conference, it is important to include the following:

Logical deductions cannot be made from your notes if any of the above are omitted as the result of a false economy of recording and observation.

Put things in your own words; this necessarily involves you in thinking about what you’re writing. Capture the meaning. Sometimes you need to take duplicate notes but most of the time, what you should try to do is capture for yourself the essence of what is being said and shown in lectures.

In addition, useful notes taken while reading or listening may well include thoughts that were not the speaker’s but spring from your own conclusions. You may well have had new insights that you will want to remember, and plans of action for implementing what you have learned.

Also, every time there’s something you can’t quite understand, write down your questions (maybe in a special color just for such questions). You can find out the answers later, or ask the lecturer, but if you hadn’t noted your questions, a few hours later probably you wouldn’t remember them and they would never be answered.

‘The more the merrier’ is certainly not a good rule in note taking. The more notes you take, the more difficult they will be to use later. Be economical and well organized - use key words as the basis of your organization. Try to boil down a whole passage into a single sentence; the very process of paraphrasing a text can enhance your comprehension and fix it in your memory. Whenever possible include diagrams and labeled illustrations in your notes, as these will be easy to remember and convey a large amount of meaning. 


1. Introduction
2. Barriers to Learning
3. Setting Objectives
4. Reading Techniques
5. Key Word Noting
6. More on Note-Taking
7. Associative Networks
8. Asking Questions & Listening
9. Thinking Clearly
10. Word Definitions
11. Defeating the Decay of Memories
12. Physical Learning
13. Sight, Sound, Action...
14. The Decision to Fail
15. What's Next?


Copyright © 2004 Gregory Mitchell - Published by Trans4mind

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