How To Study Without Taking Notes

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How To Study Without Taking Notes

Can you recall how you spent your day today since you woke up? You can recall the time you woke up, what you had for breakfast, how the commute was and the phone call you made.

Now, can you recall how you spent your day last Monday? You may remember some key events, but it is unlikely that you remember the time you woke up or if you had cereal or a sandwich for breakfast.

Let us take a different scenario in your day to day life. Yesterday, you read about a formula to calculate the air resistance. Does the below statement sound familiar to you?

“What was that I read? I am this close to recalling it but arrghh. I cannot.”

How to remember what you read without taking notes

Do you often forget what you have read and later struggle to remember the pages you glanced through? Welcome to the problem faced by you, me and the rest of the world. Though you believe you have read the information to enough detail, you cannot recollect the same content, days, hours or minutes later.

You know that taking notes can help you store them better in your memory. You have read enough articles on that technique. But let’s admit, taking notes while reading a book is like safely storing documents in a file. You and I know its importance, but laziness gets the better of us.

Many people, from kids, middle-age students to the book lovers, have wondered how to remember what you read without taking notes.

Why do we forget?

As human beings, we cannot retain every word we hear, every sight we see or every page we read. You will forget most of what you gather using your various senses.

If you love following fashion trends, you will remember the trendy shoes worn by a random person who walked by in the mall today. But will you remember those shoes 3 months later? Most people won’t.

On the other hand, if I showed you 3 similar shoes and asked you which one of those was the person wearing, you may not choose the right one either. You might not have observed the shoes to that level of detail.

Things get worse when it comes to the information you read. If you read a book today, a year later, you cannot recall most of it. You and I go through a forgetting curve, where we naturally forget what we read. If you want to shock yourself with a mathematical formula, here goes:

Forgetting curve formula

Of course, retention varies from person to person. But, as per the forgetting curve, you start losing knowledge faster than the pace at which bacteria multiply. Some studies say you lose 90% of what you read in 7 days, while others state that you forget 80% of the knowledge in 30 days.

Forgetting curve
Ebbinghaus Forgetting Curve

Since such studies cannot zero down on exact figures due to the difference in memory by person, no one can predict your forgetting curve with high precision.

Irrespective of the exact figures, one thing is certain. You will lose information quickly if you do nothing about it.

How to remember what you read without taking notes

To combat the forgetting curve, here are a few things you can do.

1. Think of ways to apply what you learned

Whether you read a self-improvement book or a technique to eat pineapple, make an attempt to apply what you learned. The way your brain stores information is different from how it stores an experience.

By applying your knowledge, you transform the information in your brain into an experience. You thereby stand a higher chance of remembering what you learned.

Once you apply a skill, you have learned it for a lifetime. Think of learning as knowing how to balance a bicycle. Once your brain knows how to, you can ride a bicycle years later with no practice.

2. Use the Feynman Technique

The Feynman technique is named after the Nobel winning physicist, Richard Feynman.

The technique is not only easy to apply but produces great results too. As per the technique, you have to teach what you learn. You can choose any possible way to teach. If you find a person next to you whom you can explain the knowledge you gained, teach the fellow even if he shows no interest in the topic.

Another way of teaching is to pretend an invisible student exists and explain the concept to him. In its simplest form, you can pull out a sheet of paper and scribble what you learned. Writing down on a paper will seem no different than taking notes though, which our lazy selves want to avoid.

3. Ask yourself some questions

ask yourself questions

After learning a topic, question yourself on certain aspects like a self-quiz. When you quiz yourself, you realize the gaps in what you learned. You notice the areas which you have already forgotten. A quick brush up on what you missed cements the learning deep into your memory.

When you learn a topic, you have a fake feeling of remembering each element. A question to yourself serves as a reality check.

4. Stop when you’re bored

Stop when bored

Do you remember reading a book where you went from page 120 to 125 without knowing what those pages were about? I do. Sometimes when I force myself to read through a book I am not interested in, I read the book but do not register half the content.

At times, even if I like what I am reading, my state of mind prevents me from capturing what I read.

Over the years, I have learned to stop reading books I find boring. You should do the same.

If my mind cannot concentrate on what I am reading, I pause to take a break.

5. Summarize what you read

If you are reading study material like a textbook for an exam or certification, try to revise in parts than in full. Many people have the habit of finishing the entire material first and then revising from step 1. Such a technique makes you learning vulnerable to the forgetting curve.

A better way to keep what you learned is by summarizing bit by bit. If you read about a certain algorithm, summarize the concept mentally right after you finished that content. The summarization helps you etch the concept in your brain helping you comprehend better and retain the learning longer.

6. Use Memory Kegs

A common technique used by memory grandmasters is relating information to kegs. Some card counters use 52 spots to remember the sequence of cards.

You may not have to remember 52 cards, but you frequently have lists to remember, like 6 ab exercises to try today. You can hold such lists in memory by associating them with some real-life objects.

To begin, use a place you know very well. For example, use your own house. Go through your house in a sequence.

You can start with the door, followed by the place where you place the shoes, the couch, the TV, the coffee table and so on. You must follow the exact sequence in which the objects are arranged in your house.

Now to remember the 7 habits of effective people, start with your first object, the door. You can imagine yourself proactively cleaning the mat. You just associated ‘be proactive’ to the door. Next, visualize keeping your shoes ready for the next day thereby relating begin with the end in mind. Continue doing the same with the other items on the list.

Next time if you start from the door of your house, you can recall what you visualized and recollect the 7 habits of effective people.

7. Aim to remember only the important elements

You do not always have to remember everything you read. If you are reading a self-improvement book, you do not have to implement every little tip mentioned through the 250 odd pages.

What I do instead is, focus on a few, say 1-3 takeaways from each book. I may or may not recall the rest of the matter from the book. I am ok with forgetting what I read as far as I gain certain knowledge which helps me grow. I know that applying everything I read from each book is beyond my capacity and I can live with that.

For example, I do not remember every single one of the 99 flaws of the brain I read from the book the Art of Thinking Clearly. But, I remember a few of them well enough to make sure I try to overcome them on a daily basis.

Attempt to learn a few elements and apply them. Trying every single one and succeeding at none does no good.

8. Revisit frequently

Revisit what you read

For content you intend to hold for a long time, revisit what you read. The exact time and frequency to revisit vary based on the person and the kind of information.

If you read the name of a hormone responsible for sleep, chances are you will forget it in a day or two, unless the same name showed up multiple times in the book. Your brain has a hard time remembering term-based data.

On the other hand, your brain can hold concepts that you understand, longer. If you read how the Rapid Eye Movement(REM) sleep makes you more intelligent, you will recall the context for years to come.

If you intend to remember the name of the hormone for an exam, you have to revisit the subject again to help you store the term better. To remember how REM sleep works, you may never have to revisit the content again. But if you want to write a blog post about REM sleep, you probably have to open the book and re-read the content.

Use your own judgment to decide if you should revisit what you read the next day, a few weeks later or never ever.

9. Sleep 7 hours

Sleep 7 hours

Are you aware of the magic that happens in your body when you fall asleep? Do not kick yourself if you don’t. Most people are oblivious of the activities their brain carries out after they slip into slumber.

When you gather information through the day using your five senses, your brain stores them all in a part called the hippocampus. If you have to recall the color of the t-shirt your crush wore today, your hippocampus retrieves it for you.

After you fall asleep, during your initial sleep, your brain strips off all the unnecessary information you gathered. A few days later you will no longer remember what outfit your crush wore on every single day. But the important information is replayed at quarter the speed during your Rapid Eye Movement(REM) sleep, like a movie in slow motion.

Like an action replay, your brain tries various permutations and combinations to associate the new information with the knowledge you have. After the process, you wake up smarter. You must thank your REM sleep for making you intelligent and wise.

what to do instead of taking notes

There’s A LOT of bad note-taking advice out there. Some of it’s well-meaning. Some of it is half-true but important parts have been lost. Others are just bits of advice that get parroted around the Internet until no one knows where they came from.

Well today my study buddies, I’m going to debunk these myths and kick 5 pieces of bad note-taking advice to the curb — and teach you what to do instead so you can create great notes that save you time AND give you better results.

5 pieces of bad note-taking advice and what you should do instead

1. Handwritten notes are better than typed notes

Some studies have shown that students who handwrite their notes have a better understanding of their material than students who type their notes. This isn’t strictly untrue, but it doesn’t give the full picture.

What these studies found is that students who type their notes tend to write verbatim (word-for-word), whereas students who handwrite their notes are more likely to summarise the material and paraphrase it in their own words. It’s a lot quicker to type out a piece of text than it is to handwrite it word-for-word so students who handwrite their notes are more likely to summarise to save time.

Therefore, it’s not really the format of note taking that matters — handwritten or typed.

What’s more important is that you write your notes in your own words. I touch on this more in the medium post, but when you condense your study material into a summary in your own words you are picking out what’s important, engaging more of your brain, and developing a deeper understanding of the ideas.

2. Write down everything you hear in a lecture

It’s pretty much impossible to write down everything you hear in class. And even if you are a super-human typist, your brain is likely to tune out so you’re not actually taking in the concepts — just mindlessly copying them. This method is also likely to stress you the eff out because you’ll almost certainly miss an important part.

While it would be lovely to have your notes completed in class, for most fast-paced lectures, you’re going to have to complete your notes afterwards.

So, during class, focus instead on active listening. Listen to a point then, if it seems important, note it down in your own words. Concentrate on the additional points made by your faculty that are NOT on the slides, in the pre-reading or in the handouts/resources. Note down any stuck points or ideas you don’t understand and ask your tutor after class to elaborate on them.

It may also be possible to record the audio of your lecture — with permission from your faculty first. Even if you do this, be sure to take some notes during class to help you remember what the key points were.

Then, after class, complete a good set of notes in your own words using your in-class notes and any other slides, handouts, or resources.

3. Only write down the things you don’t know

The aim of note taking is to create a clear, accurate record of the most important parts of your subject material. These notes should be a summary of the main texts and be written in your own words to deepen your understanding and start the process of increasing your recall ability so you can use them effectively to write essays and prepare for exams.

Only writing down what you don’t know is bad note-taking advice for a few reasons:
a. you’ll likely forget the stuff you do know — which may be important
b. writing essays will be harder as you won’t have a clear summary of the key essay-relevant points
c. exam revision will be harder and your results lower because you’ll be revising details that may or may not be important
d. what you don’t know will shift which makes this a poor basis for your note taking content.

Let’s ditch this bad note-taking advice and instead focus your note taking on writing down a summary of the important things — whether you know them or not.

4. Revise for your exams by re-reading your notes

Another piece of bad note-taking advice — re-reading your textbook or your notes. This is a waste of time because it’s a passive technique which means your brain isn’t engaged. Re-reading seems like a safe, easy technique but that doesn’t make it a good one. Yes, if you re-read a passage 100 times you’ll probably memorise most of it. But to pass an exam you need to be able to UNDERSTAND the ideas and then RECALL it without your textbook in front of you.

Instead, once you’ve created a good set of notes, focus on active techniques such as:
– testing with flashcards
– testing with quizzes
– completing past papers
– discussing ideas with a friend.

5. Condense your notes into flashcards

I LOVE flashcards and I think every student preparing for an exam should create them. But not all flashcards are created equal. You should condense your notes into bullet points or diagrams and write them on index cards — this is bad note-taking advice!

A GOOD flashcard is a double-card with a question or a term on the front and the answer or the definition on the back. Flashcards are useful for learning the relationship between two pieces of information, and then testing your knowledge of that information multiple times until you understand and can recall it on demand in an exam.

Flashcards should NOT just be a summary of points — that’s bad note taking advice. Writing lists of bullet points on your cards and then carrying them around with you may feel productive but you could be using your time much more effectively. As you know, re-reading is a passive activity so, instead, focus on active revision techniques that involve testing your knowledge.

Turn your notes into flashcards. Pick out some simple questions and write these on the front and the answers on the back. Or pick out important terms you need to know — write these on the front and the definitions or descriptions on the back.

Then test yourself. See if you can accurately recall the answer/definition without looking at it. If you can’t, re-test yourself or go back and strengthen your understanding or recall of the original material.

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