You get the idea. Kiewra writes that in one study, students were able to retain 80 percent of a lesson’s main ideas, but recalled less and less as you went down to Level 2, Level 3, and Level 4. In particular, only 13 percent of students wrote down examples, even though examples are often the best way to understand new ideas.
You’re sitting in an important meeting with a client, a professional workshop that you’ve paid a lot of money for, or an MBA class. You want to absorb as much of the information you’re getting as you possibly can. Is there a way to take notes that will help you both remember more information and be able to bring back as much as possible when you read over your notes later on?
Yes, it turns out. Kenneth Kiewra is a professor of educational psychology at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln who's been studying note-taking techniques for 40 years. In 2019, he distilled that knowledge into a Quartz piece offering seven steps to taking better notes. It's all great advice and well worth the read. Here are my favorite of his tips:
1. Write as much as you can, writing by hand rather than on a keyboard or mobile device.
If you’re anything like me, you may find this advice contradictory. After all, I can more or less capture everything someone says when typing on a computer keyboard and much less if I’m writing longhand, even when I’m using abbreviations, such as “bsns” for business and “mgt” for management.
But, Kiewra explains, there are two reasons that taking notes on paper is better than taking notes on a laptop. The first is that students who are using a computer are much more likely to multitask, checking email, doing other homework or even playing video games whenever they get bored during a lecture. (Yup, I’ve done that.) The second reason is that my tendency to write down everything someone says, what Kiewra calls verbatim notes, may be useful when I’m doing interviews, but it’s not the best way to absorb information. For one thing, it’s easy to miss visual information, such as charts and graphs. For another, research shows that verbatim notes are associated with “shallow, non-meaningful learning,” he writes. “Because longhand notes are qualitatively better than laptop notes, reviewing them leads to higher achievement than reviewing laptop notes.”
2. Sweat the details.
Most of us, and most college students as well, are pretty good at writing down the main points of any lecture or presentation, or what Kiewra refers to as Level 1 learning. But we gain much more knowledge and understanding when we go deeper than Level 1, past the main points and general principles into the facts and details.
As an example, let’s take Brexit (Britain's planned exit from the European Union), something I’ve been writing about a lot lately.
Level 1. Brexit is a mess. British leadership can’t seem to agree among themselves or with European leaders about what the relationship between the E.U. and Britain should look like when (and if) Britain leaves the E.U.
Level 2. The biggest disagreement among Britons is what should happen if--as seems likely--Britain is unable to negotiate trade agreements with the E.U. that Parliament will approve by October 31, which is currently the deadline for Brexit. Some, including Britain’s new prime minister, Boris Johnson, favor a no-deal or “hard” Brexit, but most members of Parliament, and most British people, seem to be against that.
Level 3. The biggest area of disagreement, and thus the likeliest reason for a hard Brexit, focuses on Ireland, where there’s a line dividing Northern Ireland, which is part of Britain, from the Republic of Ireland, which is a member of the E.U. Back when that line was an international border, it was a focal point for violence. No one wants to see an international border, complete with checkpoints and customs and immigration officials there again. Unless Britain is willing to abide by E.U. customs laws, at least temporarily, there’s no way to avoid it. But some Brexit proponents say abiding by E.U. customs laws defeats the purpose of leaving the E.U.
Go deeper than Level 1 whenever you can, writing down as many details as you can capture. And for heaven’s sake, make sure to write down any examples that come up.
3. Revise your notes as soon as you can.
Kiewra writes that one common mistake people make is that they take notes, and then review notes, but never revise them. You should revise your notes as soon as possible after a lecture, meeting, or workshop, or even during the event if there’s a pause or break. Read over your notes, Kiewra advises, using them to try to recall what was said. Write down any additional details or points of information or ideas that reading your notes helps bring to mind. (It’ll help if you leave plenty of space in your original notes for these additions.)
Your revised notes will contain a lot more information and detail than your notes taken in the moment did. And both the notes themselves and the act of having written them and then added to them will help you retain much much, more of what you learned for future use.
Minda Zetlin is a business technology writer and speaker, co-author of The Geek Gap, and former president of the American Society of Journalists and Authors. She lives in Snohomish, Washington.