Development Study Tips: Reverse Note Taking

In this guide we’re going to go back in time and walk through when I developed the system of reverse note taking. A quick Google search will show that I have coined the term, however I did not invent the process.

Back when I started computer science grad school at Texas Tech I was struggling with one of my classes. It had been about a decade since I had been in a classroom environment and I was having a difficult time paying attention to the 1.5 hour lectures.

The Problem with Traditional Note Taking

During this time I spent quite a bit of time meeting with Dr. Richard Watson. And during one of our meetings I brought up the issues I was having. His first question was based around how I was taking notes for the course.

I showed him my notes and he instantly told me that I was taking notes completely wrong. He pointed out multiple places in my notes where I had missed key concepts that were unifying elements. And without noting these items I wouldn’t understand the topics at all.

In reviewing the notes I realized he was completely right. I spent my time writing down facts and what I thought were key terms. However I regularly failed to articulate how everything worked together.

For example, for my notes on tree data structures I outlined each of the key elements of binary search trees and B-Trees. But I failed to describe the innate differences of the tree components from a behavior perspective. This would be similar to taking notes in a history class and writing down the names, dates, and locations for Napoleon’s loss at the battle of Waterloo without describing the critical differences between his old armies with the one he lost with.

Reverse Note Taking

Finding out that I was taking notes wrong was great. But it wouldn’t have been too useful without learning an alternative approach. So Dr. Watson asked me to try a different type of note taking technique.

He said to put my pen and paper away during class. And instead of taking notes during class he recommended that I simply listen to the lecture. He instructed that as soon as the lecture was over I should find a quiet place and THEN write down all of the topics that I remembered from the discussion.

Initially I was skeptical of this approach, mainly because I was afraid that the important concepts would go in one ear and out the other. He added that I should tape record the lecture so that I could use the recording as a safety net for the topics that I failed to remember.

Despite my negative perspective on the approach I decided to give it a try. (Obviously my natural note taking approach wasn’t effective, so I didn’t have much to lose).

I followed Dr. Watson’s advice to the letter. And I was pleasantly surprised to discover that I remembered much more information using this reverse note taking approach compared with simply trying to write down concepts during the lecture.

Benefits Reverse Note Taking

I started following this reverse note taking process years ago and I still use it today. Through this time I’ve noticed a number of key benefits to this approach.

Narrowed Focus

First and foremost, by having the knowledge that I will have to recite back the key components of the lecture force me to have an increased level of focus. This is opposite to how I used to take notes. My old way of taking notes would many times distract me from the concepts being discussed. I would hear a concept that I felt was important and I would take my focus away from the speaker and focus on writing down the topic.

Many times this would inadvertently result steal my focus away from another important concept, or a description on how the topic I was writing down worked at a high level.

Additionally, as a naturally competitive person I would make a game of how much I could remember from each lecture. If I was able to remember enough to write down two pages of notes on Monday, I would try to write down two and a half pages on Tuesday. By making a game of the practice it forced me to narrow my focus even more on the content.

Story Based Mindset

Another benefit to reverse note taking is that forced me to think of the lecture as a unified story instead of a series of facts. Let’s go back to our illustration of Napoleon’s battle at Waterloo. If you listen to a lecture about the battle and take notes during the class you’d probably do things like write down:

  • General names
  • Cities where battles took place
  • Dates
  • Etc

However if you simply listen intently to the lecture and recite it back afterwards you won’t repeat dates and locations. Instead you will naturally remember the battle in story form. You’ll discuss the struggles that the Duke of Wellington had to overcome in order to lead the charge against the French army. And because it’s a story, your retention of the topics will be considerably higher compared with attempting to memorize facts and figures.

If I were to ask you to remember back to a high school history class and to a movie you saw in high school, would you have a better chance of remembering the plot of the movie or the history lecture?

So getting back to my computer science grad school experience. By leveraging the reverse note taking strategy I forced myself to think of the topics discussed during the lecture as a story as opposed to a bunch of theories and math equations.

Forced Repetition

Lastly, the reverse note taking approach made it easier to review the lecture material compared with my old style of note taking. Previously I rarely would listen to a lecture recording. Even if I had the intention to listen to the recording, other priorities always seemed to override the task. I mainly attribute this failure to the fact that I, for some reason, trusted my notes.

However, when I started reverse note taking I would always listen to the lecture a second time to fill in any items that I missed during my post note writing session. I discovered this single benefit to be critical to my success since it became an automatic habit to reinforce my knowledge. In contrast to my old approach where I trusted my untrustworthy notes, with reverse note taking I didn’t trust my memory, so I knew I had to reinforce my memory. And the consequence was that I always would listen to a lecture twice, with the final result being a dramatic increase in retention.

Summary

This approach is not for everyone. I know students who excel with a more traditional note taking strategy. However if you find yourself in the situation like me I highly recommend you giving reverse note taking a chance. You may be surprised how effective it can be.

Jordan Hudgens

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