A perfect setting for learning

A note taking system for an intense learning schedule

In 2013 I took part in the Saltire Fellowship, an intense three months of learning at Babson College. The course in Entrepreneurship came with an overwhelming volume of information. Lectures, case-studies, notes, guest speakers, group exercises, and evening reading. It was difficult to keep up, but yet 12-months on I still look back to my notes, thanks to my note taking system.

A pen and paper.

I usually scribble down notes. Pen and paper is the most natural, and likely best way of capturing your thoughts. Studies show that, compared to taking notes on a computer, writing with a pen helps with understanding and recall.

Another key benefit of taking notes by hand is maintaining a focus on the person speaking. In the Saltire Fellowship there was a lot of interaction during lectures. Key learning moments came from thinking and discussing the problems posed by the Professors. Reading and listening are not enough. Open laptops can create barriers to making a connection with the speaker, so I kept mine closed.

Collect all the material

Capture and gather key information — to take down information quickly, or to give context to your hand-written notes

Once you have your hand-written notes you need to collect them together with other resources. I snapped photos of each page from my notebook, took pictures of the blackboard during class, and collected PDFs of handouts.

I used Evernote to capture all the material from each class in one place. Evernote is a digital note taking app which helps you collect and organise just about everything. It has notes, notebooks, tags, and maps. It can store text, pictures, documents and audio. It was an excellent aid in my note taking system.

I made sure that I didn’t miss collecting notes from a lecture by connecting Evernote with my calendar. I used a free tool called If This Then That. Using IFTTT I created a ‘recipe’ which added a new note in my Calendar notebook every time a new event started in my calendar. With all the lectures in my calendar, at the end of each day I had a set of placeholder notes to add all my material to. A blank note means that I have something to type up.

Summerize and Revise

On the evening that I took the notes, or at least within a few days, I typed up bullet points of the key learnings. I added context by putting in links to articles, books and films mentioned in the class.

A quick illustrated summary of the key topics, created in Paper by 53 on an iPad

A few days later I then added in illustrations of the key points, mind maps, and notes from colleagues.

Summarizing the notes in several different ways helped me to understand the subjects in a greater depth, and created reference material that I could easily go back to.

Revisiting Material

A year on, I have a set of digital notes that help me figure out day-to-day business problems. I can see a bulleted summary, glance at an illustration, find further sources of information, and remind myself of the context of the lecture.

You should not underestimate the importance of adding context to your notes. A picture of the lecture theatre, group work, or product you are being shown can trigger memories of the lecture content. Just don’t forget to capture the photos!

My notes are living documents. They aren’t perfect, there are big gaps, and incomplete summaries. I am still revising and adding to them. Learning is a lifelong process, and my notes are the foundation on which my learning is built.

How do you take your notes? Have you got a system? Need help setting this system up? Let me know on Twitter @jamiemchale.

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