Have you noticed that the best notes, the ones that lead to the best marks and easiest review, are those made by people who know the subject matter, the people who get the high marks?

It is not an accident. You, too, can develop the skills, the ‘how-to’, that will make you a great note-taker and get the marks that those people are achieving. Your notes can be the core for your review group, and be sought after by your classmates. Take it from someone who has been there, never seemed to spend the days and hours studying notes and text books before exams, and yet was never one of the ‘geeks and nerds’ who are usually top of the class!

The secret is to know how learning material is written and taught. Once you have the basics, you can use any note-taking technique that fits with your mindset, and consistently produce really good notes that most of your classmates will want to copy or emulate.

What is this ‘secret’?

It starts with realising that there are four parts in every set of material you will ever study. These are:

Definitions and concepts

Formulas and operations

Primary conclusions

Explications and problem solving

The first lesson about these four areas: the bulk of the material and the time spent in the teaching fall into the fourth part. About 90% of the average text book contains explications, explanations and instantiations of the first three parts. While these explications are important, you can re-create them for yourself if you understand and use the three other parts.

What effect does this have on your note-taking?

You need to realise that, if you try to capture all the explications, you will invariably miss at least as much as you capture. You will have notes that you may or may not be able to understand, because you missed the critical factors – the definitions, the formulas and the primary conclusions.

Problem solving is, by and large, being able to re-state the problem in terms of the definitions, formulas and primary conclusions. To solve the problem of taking good notes, you restate the material in the same terms.

While this may sound analytical and more applicable to the sciences and mathematics, it does apply to every subject.

Every subject has its definitions and concepts.

When you start a course, go through the material that you have available. Whether this is a set of hand-outs or a text book, take a couple of hours and highlight all the definitions and concepts. Learn them thoroughly, and develop your own structure for them. Remember: these definitions and concepts are the skeleton of what you expect to learn in the course.

The next thing to do is learn the formulas and operations.

While it might seem that some subjects don’t have formulas, as in language courses, remember that every sentence has a structure. This might be subject – verb – object, but this is a formula for proper structuring of a sentence, and hence it is a formula. It might be called grammar or the syntax, but, unless you know it, it matters little how good your vocabulary is.

And then the primary conclusions – how the definitions, concepts and formulas apply in action.

These three ‘arms’ are how you structure your notes on the rest of the material, including lectures and classes. Make notes on how they fit with the explications as they are given. You’ll find that all three constantly apply, and the explications give examples of these three in action.

Applying this basic approach to a subject – any subject – will give you a way of grasping the important parts of lectures and text books. But the kicker comes when you need to review your notes.

At that point, you are already an ‘expert’ on the subject. The more you can see how the definitions, formulas and conclusions apply to the examples and problems, the easier it becomes to do the initial work on a new subject or variation on a subject. You start to get the high scores, and you make better notes. It takes practice, but it pays off – simply find the three arms of the subject, and everything else falls into place.