The Paperless Guide (2) – Making sense of lecture notes

Lecture notes are a funny thing: They are incredibly practical, because you don’t have to write everything down frantically. On the other hand, they also tempt you not to really learn – but only to pretend to learn.

On the one hand, simply reading along (and occasionally annotating) can make you think you have understanding where there is none. You think that everything you read is understandable and logical, but you don’t realize that you haven’t really understood any of it. The second problem is that you might fall into what is called cramming while studying for the exam. This means that you simply go through the script over and over again, concentrating on marked passages and trying to hammer into your brain what you have read. Most of us have been learning this way since our school days. Unfortunately, this is the completely wrong approach. Neuroscience has shown that with this method, you retain something for a very short period of time at most, but you don’t really learn.

Learning properly with your own notes

So how do you learn better? Of course, lecture notes are a good basis to start from. After all, you already have them, and you can be sure that they are relevant, since they are provided by the professor.

But you also have to work with them. And not just consume them. What does that mean in concrete terms? The most important point for me is to reformulate what you read and hear into your own words. It’s crucial to form your own contexts of meaning and to really acquire knowledge. A possible approach could be to go through the script and write down important passages in your own words as a note. In this way, you can still refer to the knowledge later, for example, when you write a thesis and also learn much more effectively.

In order to be able to remember something, among other things the so-called cues are crucial, which one connects with a piece of information. If you always try to learn the script by heart, only relatively few cues are attached to the information, since you always perform the same activity: reading and memorizing. If, however, you are writing yourself and rephrasing in the process, you are dependent on understanding what you have read. In addition, there are the many little memory cues – the feel of the keyboard keys, the environment while writing, continuing thoughts – that further anchor the learning material.

The right tools

So, which apps can be helpful if you want to use lecture notes in this way? As always, there are of course many apps that do more or less the same thing. Therefore, here are two hints on app categories: Apps for handwritten notes and apps for flashcards. The first category includes apps like Notabilty or GoodNotes and is great for simply taking notes during lectures. Scripts can be imported into GoodNotes and then annotated. However, if one would rather use the keyboard to take notes, I would go for an app like Obsidian.

That leaves index cards. These apps are especially useful in courses where you have to learn a lot of definitions and technical terms. I will write a separate article about this and compare different apps. The front-runner certainly is Anki. Even though I don’t want to present Anki in detail here, the app made a good impression on me, so I can definitely recommend it.

Do you still have questions? Then post a comment or email me.

(Upcoming) articles in this series:

Which device?
How do I work efficiently with lecture notes?
How can I usefully capture and manage literature?
Acquiring knowledge with the Zettelkasten technique
No backup, no pity
Avoid deadline panic with time management


Cover based on: Photo by Avel Chuklanov on Unsplash

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