Note-Taking for Self-Taught Students

How to take exceptional notes while teaching yourself

As self-taught students, we are becoming attuned to our learning strengths in a way that traditionally-taught students may never have tapped into.

When we do anything independently, it reinforces our self-discipline. You know that the outcome of your efforts is within your control; in your hands. You can choose to succeed or fail. Rather than trying to make other people happy and satisfy their expectations of us, we are learning to test our ownlimits and exceed our own expectations. We understand that failure is not an end, but rather a beginning. When we learn by our own rules, the possibilities are endless.

You’re going to be re-teaching yourself a lot of habits through fresh eyes, and the skill of note taking is a very important one to revisit. I floundered helplessly when it came time to put pen to paper. And I know I’m not alone.

Why take notes?

The goal of note-taking is to aid us in absorbing and retaining the information we encounter. Our brains are limited in functionality, in a constant state of shuffling newer information in front of older information. As a result, the information, while still there in our minds, develops a kind of short-term half-life.

While we can’t be expected to re-take a course over and over again to keep information fresh, we can revisit the notes we take to remind ourselves of this important information.

Note taking is a skill that requires practice

When I went through middle and high-school, I had absolutely no idea how to take notes. I often peeked at what other people were writing. When I had to copy them from a missed class, I was always taken aback by the quality of others’ notes. People always seemed to know what to write.

The best notes I’ve seen have been precise, and with just the right information highlighted. Note taking is definitely a skill, and not an inherently obvious one. It takes practice to improve.

Meanwhile, I was filling up notebooks with everysingleword. that the teachers said. Sometimes I’d get hand cramps. Years and many grey hairs later, it occurred to me that I had this totally irrational fear of missing the entire class, simply because I had to make sure I got every last detail.

Focusing on note taking, I wasn’t focused on learning in the moment. It wasn’t efficient, it wasn’t effective, and it most definitely wasn’t sustainable.

When it came time to study for an exam, the top students weren’t looking at their notes for the first time. They revisited them within the first 24 hours to “seal in” the information that they already understood. And, of course, I was scrambling to re-teach myself the information for the first time. Madness ensued.

Years later, in college, I tried recording classes. That might have actually worked, if I had actually listened to them. Hmm.

My point here, though, is that note-taking can make the difference between being prepared, and being totally out of the loop. It can determine whether your learning experience is an enjoyable one, or a stressful one–with lots of unnecessary hand cramps.

[Author’s note: Please note that this is just what’s worked (VERY well) for me. With web development in particular, I don’t even really rely on notes anymore, unless it’s a very specific thing like the name of a tool or resource, or a URL. That’s honestly how well it works.

Before you start any learning session, like an online or in-person course, be mindful and relax! Learning is exciting, and road bumps in understanding happen. You’re going to do great.]

What should I use to take notes?

Some people like to hand-write notes, and others prefer to type. The choice is ultimately yours. There is no right way.

Typed

If you decide to type your notes, save time with cloud tools like Evernote, so you can easily flip through your notes on your phone in your idle time. If you get in the habit of doing this, you will be a superstar!

The biggest problem for me, apart from taking awful, excruciatingly long notes, was revisiting those notes. Because I wrote so much, I decided to type them. But despite being on my computer, where I spent most of my time… I didn’t revisit them, and my notes’ value dropped drastically after the first 24 hours.

Hand-written

There is lots of evidence suggesting some people’s brains store the information much more readily when it’s written out by hand. This especially seems to be the case for tactile/hands-on learners.

Keep your notes neat enough to read. If you are prone to writing errors, use pencil or erasable ink, or consider typing them.

Using removable (loose-leaf) paper over a bound notebook makes sense here, as well. Loose-leaf paper removes pressures of perfection. Mess something up? Just remove it. It’s like it was never there, and keeps you focused on the real task at hand: taking useful notes.

What types of things need a note?

If you wait to address comprehension issues, you lose the innate curiosity that drives us to find solutions. In other words, the need to find the solution simply isn’t as urgent.

As information is being presented to me by any medium, I typically make note of:

  • Small details that are relevant to a larger picture (i.e., the name of a library, a URL, or a detail that is emphasized by the instructor and doesn’t seem intuitive)
  • Outlines that the instructor provides — but make sure to flesh them out with your OWN words that are 1) accurate, and 2) something you will remember
  • Topics emphasized by the instructor
  • Anything else I find particularly cool/may want to check out later

Again, your main goal is to absorb everything that you can from the course itself. Notes are intended to be a reference tool — a way to quickly jog your memory on topics you understand, that will likely be on an exam. Don’t be like me and learn the hard way that notes cannot replace the class!

When should I start taking notes?

Start taking notes as soon as you feel comfortable. As a self-taught student, you have the luxury of reviewing the content at your own pace. Rather than scrambling to keep up with the pace of a classroom environment, you are able to pause and re-start your session whenever needed.

I sometimes like to go through the video at least once before taking notes, for this very reason. That way, I can absorb the information the first time around, making a mental note of the areas I had difficulty with. On the second pass, you may be able to better process the information in question, because it’s not “brand new”.

How do I review my notes?

Review your notes within 24 hours of writing them. Even if it’s just a quick glance-over. Don’t just shuffle them away on your desk and forget about them! This is a major brain hack to keep things fresh and has vastly improved my information retention.

“Ideas won’t keep; something must be done about them.”

—Alfred North Whitehead (1861–1947), English mathematician and philosopher

If you run across any areas that you are unfamiliar with, stop immediately where you are and review the material again. If you wait to address comprehension issues, you lose the innate curiosity that drives us to find solutions. In other words, the need to find the solution simply isn’t as urgent.

Once you understand the concept better, make extra notes for clarification. I tend to make them in a different color to indicate that it was a bit of a struggle topic for me, but I sorted it out. It’s important to keep track of where you’re having issues, to identify trends and possible mental blocks.

If you are studying for a test, instructors are generally happy to indicate what type of information will be on the test. It’s not a mystery, it’s a test of your skills. A good instructor will just want you to be successful in understanding the material. If you know what will be on a test, you can better focus on the areas that need work.

An extra note on video courses

Videos are an amazing content delivery system, because they cater closely to students who learn visually and aurally. Pay attention and be mindful of when your mind starts to wander.

Treehouse and many other platforms have really helpful tools on their videos, like the ability to control speed. Playback speed settings allow you to adjust the speed of the video playback.

The teacher will speak “faster”, but the brain has an amazing way of being able to process this speech very well. I often watch videos on 1.5x or 2x speed, and understand the content just fine. I would recommend anyone start at 1x, and work their way up from there.

Being a highly visual learner, I attribute a great portion of my learning success to being able to pause/rewind my material, and utilizing closed captions. I was able to cover an insane amount of web development content on Treehouse in a truly impressive amount of time.

If you’d like to hear more on this topic, listen to my very first podcast, “My Introduction and Origin Story“! TL;DR: I finished a lot of tracks, and Treehouse featured me as a permalinked student success story on their site. I seriously went beast mode on their content, crushing it like a knowledge-crazed Godzilla.

Be kind to yourself — you’ve got this

As soon as I started learning my own special way, I was almost overwhelmed by the rate at which I started to absorb information. If this happens, take a break and maybe switch to actually using the code you’re learning. Switch brain modes, and try building something. Your portfolio will thank you, and engaging activity will seal in your new knowledge.

You are going to need time to adapt to your own individual learning style. Practice taking notes on a low-stress, easy topic until you can easily recollect the information with as little writing as possible. But most importantly: be kind to yourself, and enjoy the learning process!


Do you have any great note-taking tips? Or did you just figure out how to take notes one day? I want to hear from you! Tweet me your stuff at @lavie_encode, and I might get it up to share with others!