Should I Take Notes? (Letters to My Students Series)

August 27, 2019
“Life moves pretty fast. If you don’t stop and look around once in a while, you could miss it.” — Ferris Bueller

Yesterday, one of my new composition students raised their hand and asked asked if they needed to take notes in class.

The question seemed innocent enough, and I responded as such.

No, not really, they didn’t need to take notes, I said. I wouldn’t quiz or test them on the material we’d cover. They should make sure they know the big concepts and ideas we’ll cover (about rhetoric, audience, appeals, exigence, constraints, qualifiers, concessions, etc.), but most of our in-class time would be discussion and group-work based.

Almost immediately, I wasn’t really happy with my answer, but the student was. Other students in the class nodded in approval. We moved on.

Now, though, this answer seems painfully inadequate. And the question seems anything but innocent.

I woke up this morning drafting a new, better answer to the question.

Should you take notes?

Well, it depends.

It depends on why you’re taking notes. And how you take them, and what notes you take. And also, what you do with them.

But, if you want to get the most bang for your undergraduate buck, and if you want to squeeze the most happiness out of your brief human life, I’d say yes, unconditionally yes, you should be taking notes.

Here’s why:

FIRST: Taking careful notes can help you be more present and engaged in class and in your life — which is crucial for both professional fitness and mental health.

Paying attention is a skill, and, as Barry Shwartz so brilliantly argued for Slate, attention must be paid!

Opportunities come (and go) quickly. Listen to Ferris Bueller, the sage of experiential education: “Life moves pretty fast. If you don’t stop and look around once in a while, you might miss it.”

Cultivating a focused attention when paired with a mindfulness practice, can help relieve anxiety, stress, and depression. (fun side note: the Sanskrit word for Buddhist practice, bhavana, get’s poorly translated into English as “meditation.” The word really means “cultivation” or “familiarization.”)

We cultivate ways of being. We familiarize ourselves with states of consciousness like attention, or compassion, equanimity, or love. There’s neurological and scientific proof that these practices work and make real concrete changes in your brain. Change your Mind, Change your Brain.

(another fun side-note: According to Harvard researcher George Valliant, in the longest longitudinal study on (male) adult development ever published, Happiness is Love.)

SECOND, taking better notes helps you read, write, and think better. As a budding communicator, you should take every opportunity to identify important / relevant details. Active noting helps you read alphabetic texts, but it also helps you read (and think about) your life and the whole world better. You’ll need to read situations if you’re going to be succeed. You’ll need to read people if you’re going to be able to write to them effectively. What are they doing? Why?

In some ways, you don’t really hear something until you write it down; you don’t really see something until you try to draw it. Noting directly helps your thinking, allowing you to access what you would otherwise forget.

Written language is still one of the most powerful technologies ever. Notes can help you explore this truth.

THIRD, taking notes can be much more fun, especially if you make them creative or personalize them in some way. I’m not sure when we learned that putting a pen to paper isn’t fun — but I’d personally much rather have my little notebook out and take copious notes about people than just sitting there.

FOURTH, taking notes, as a course of self-study, can add immense value. College is expensive. Why not leave with a carefully hand-made souvenir that offers you a window into what you thought was important in 2019?

If we take the lead of philosophy — one proper study of higher education is learning yourself. A record of your notes, what you’re thinking, what you’re noticing probably tells you more about yourself than a blank notebook does.

This question about taking notes — and questions about education in general —reveals that we don’t have a consensus about what education is actually for.

Luckily, I asked my students what they thought college is for. I noted their answers:

  • College provides a gateway to the future
  • College helps you develop and better yourself
  • College helps you acquire skills you’ll need in your careers
  • College helps you figure out your life by trying stuff
  • College helps you learn how to learn
  • College helps you network
  • College helps you better understanding the world and yourself

Note-taking, I’d argue, can help you with all of this.

So yes, please, for the love of learning — please take notes in my class.

I hope this helps.

Feel free to reach out to me — with any questions, suggestions, or notes.