3 rules for better note taking

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In school, taking good notes improved our understanding and retention of the material, leading to better papers and test scores.

In a law practice, good notes can help us win cases by helping us see aspects of the case we might otherwise miss.

Good notes also help us create better articles, presentations, and books.

Learning and using what you learn starts with good note taking. Here are 3 rules to help you do that:

(1) Record the source.

Attribution of authoritative sources lends authority to what you write or say about a subject. Recording the source will also allow you to go back to the original material if you want to take another look, or find other material by the same author.

(2) Don’t just write what someone said. Write what you think about what they said.

One of the best ways to get more out of your notes is to record your thoughts and ideas about the points you read or hear immediately after you hear them. Write down why they are important, other ideas and questions they make you think of, examples from other books you’ve read and from your own experience, and notes about what to do with this information.

In law school, after I wrote a note, I often wrote my opinion—what I thought about the point made by the court, the professor, or fellow student. I also noted related cases or ideas, and questions I wanted to explore further. This helped me study more effectively, recall the material during exams, and write more persuasively.

I did the same thing in my practice. I recorded what a witness said, for example, and then added my thoughts and questions about what they said, and how I might use it, in the left margin of the page.

The Cornell Note Taking Method advocates this. They also suggest that when the lecture, interview, or chapter is done, you immediately add a summary at the bottom of the page.

(3) Reread and review your notes after you write them. Preferably more than once.

Add additional thoughts. Add links to other notes you have on the subject. Then, re-read and reflect on your notes again, to re-enforce what you’ve learned, and explore additional ideas you can use.

Taking better notes takes practice. I know that after I hear a presentation or read an article, I’m usually in a hurry to move on to the next video or article. I have to remind myself to record my thoughts about the subject and how I could use my notes.

When I take time to do this, I almost always find my notes are more useful to me. Try it and I think you’ll find the same thing.

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