Different Ways to Take Notes during an Online Class

Online classes are tricky. No one is watching, no one (except you) cares if you do your homework. No one knows you have 63 other browser tabs open, and a phone on your keyboard. How do you focus?

A major part of my ability to focus in online classes comes from good, old-fashioned taking notes. Here’s my rule: If I can’t write down what just happened, I don’t know what just happened, and I need to close the TV Tropes Periodic Table of Storytelling and actually watch the lecture.

But how do I actually take notes? Pen or keyboard? Crazy diagrams, paragraphs, inscrutable bullet points? What am I actually doing?

Short answer: It depends how hard the material is.

Here are the two basic note taking techniques I use.

Technique One: Gathering Trivia

I use this technique if I’m just recording bits of information. For example, the slide is presenting a list of helpful shell commands. I should be awake; I should watch the lecture. I should not spend big piles of effort to record what mkdir does.

In this level: I take notes by typing. (I find typing gives less retention than handwriting, but it’s much faster, and we already agreed that this material is pretty easy.) I allow myself to use screen grabs to capture graphics, rather than drawing them myself. I do this because I need the diagram only for reference; I do not need to internalize some new concept from it.

If I find I have made a long list of things I must remember, then I might go back at my notes and make flashcards.

The goal of this type of notes is to make it so that I can review a list of information without re-watching whole videos. The result is usually a document with a few screenshots pasted in, and some lists of facts and terms. This technique is fast, but is only useful for easy material. 

Technique Two: New Concepts

(This technique is for use in areas of Highly Efficient Learning.)

I use this technique when I am learning something that was, before I studied it, completely foreign, or that is such an important and central concept that I must understand it really well. The main difference between this technique and technique one is that here I am trying to master a concept, not record a fact. 

This is technique completely different from Technique One:

First, I take notes on paper, ideally on a graph paper notebook.

Second, I pause the video constantly. The video might be paused for 2/3s of the time I am working with it. Why? So that I can write down key concepts. 

What do I write? I write short explanations, to my future self, about the concepts. I use the time when the video was paused to translate what the instructor said into something that I will remember.  If the instructor gives on definition of a term, I will try to give an equivalent definition in my own words. If the instructor uses a term I don’t know, I will pause the video, look it up, and write down the definition. I also spend a lot of time making connections. I might pause the video and write furiously for a few minutes about how the video relates to another class I am taking, for example.

In this technique, I do not take screenshots. I will recall diagrams and equations better if I draw them myself. If there’s a complicated diagram in the video, I will pause the video, copy down the diagram by hand, then write a sentence explaining what I drew.

The end result is a notebook full of short sentences that represents how I explained this concept to myself. The goal of this notebook is to be able to refresh the conceptual knowledge that was embedded in the video.

The next time you’re in an online class, I encourage you to decide which of these two situations you’re in, and try the associated technique.

Till next week, happy learning!



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