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Study Skills Part One: Take Note

Study skills are one of those things that need continuous development – as medics we’re always learning new things, and some methods work better for different information and circumstances. Below are a few humble suggestions on the subject of note-taking, to help you with whatever you're trying to learn this exam season!

Most students I have spoken to said that they take word-for-word notes in lectures, but rarely look at them again, preferring instead to use lecture slides, books and the internet for revision. This begs the question...what was the point? It's easy to seek the comfort of a simple method of taking notes, and there are many options to choose from, but these are some factors that I would encourage you to bear in mind to get the most out of it.


Electronic vs Handwritten

Many students use electronic devices to take notes and though your own mileage may vary, students have been shown to write notes faster when typing them out. However, when tested, these students had less recall than others who had written their notes by hand. The researchers concluded that this was because they were spending more effort processing what had been said in their working memory in order to type it quickly, at the expense of contextualising and prioritising the information. Everybody is different, and some people will have better recall using a computer, but it's worth thinking about whether racing to type everything the lecturer is saying is actually benefitting you.

There are also options to handwrite electronic notes on tablets; integration with apps also allows the possibility of greater organisation, which may be of benefit to some. Nevertheless, be aware that tablets with integrated social media functions are set up to be distracting, and research shows that dividing your attention between more than one task is an ineffective use of your time!


Laying out your notes

This is probably one of the most difficult parts of the whole process to get right if you want useable notes, and there are many ways to do it. In my mind there are two approaches to this problem: your notes can either distil all the important factual information from your lectures (highlighting key points of high-yield information that you are likely to be tested on or experience frequently in clinical practice); or they can be an altogether more abstract expression of the way you think, including arrows, diagrams, mind maps and questions littering the page. Both methods can be effective. If you like to use your notes rather than the lecture slides as the main source of your learning material then the former method will most likely suit you. However, if you're unlikely to use your notes again as anything more than an aide memoire then the second method allows you to be more present in the lecture, avoiding the folly of dividing your attention.

If you do fit into the camp of people who use their notes once they've written them, I'd suggest that you structure your notes in a way that allows you to engage in active reading when you review them. A popular method of doing this is to split your page into three using the well-known Cornell method. Whichever method you use, consider how you will engage with your notes. If you reread your notes and force yourself to write summaries at the end (such as with the Cornell method) then by manipulating the information you have learnt in the lecture you are much more likely to recall it!




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Guest Blog: Alastair Coulson, 19.11.2018


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