Back to School Mastery: Part 2 — Highlighters and Notes

Do you try to transcribe everything the teacher says (until your hand cramps)? There is a better way! Let's go over some strategies for effectively capturing information in the fast-paced world of Nursing School.

Handwritten Notes or Typed Notes?

Typed Notes

Typed notes have definite advantages, but let's look at some of the strengths: Speed: Typing is faster than writing. If you are the student trying to transcribe everything said in the classroom, typing might be the method to use. Legibility: Some people have terrible handwriting that they cannot read who really should type their notes. The ability to search an online notebook or document is terrific, too. Accessibility: No need to worry if you brought your notebook while waiting at the Dentist's office. Just whip out that tablet or phone and read, annotate, or edit. Organization: Copy and paste. Drag and drop. Sort and file. E-notes make it simple to organize your notes, to pull in relevant web sources, to use copies of class PowerPoints.

Written notes

Written notes seem to have the upper hand, here's why: Distraction: Written notes do not lead to distractions in the way that an electronic device can — unless you doodle excessively, but doodling is not as distracting as your Amazon shopping list. Processing: Most people do not write as fast as they type. This forces the brain to process material when it is heard to determine what is relevant, what is key information to write. Retention: Writing notes promotes encoding. This is the first step in creating a memory. The encoding process involves the brain converting information into a more usable form in the memory. Recall: Seeing personal handwriting cues the brain to recreate associated thoughts from the learning period, deepening connections within the brain and making information retrieval easier.

The Best of Both Worlds?

Stylus technologies that work with laptops and tablets, along with ingenious inventions from Livescribe, are changing the way written and typed notes can interact with the note taker. These technologies integrate typing, writing, and audio-playback in ways that make learning infinitely customizable. This area of technology will continue to grow in fun and increasingly more useful ways. However, just like buying a home gym machine will not make you a body builder and downloading the Lose It app will not make you thinner, having incredible technology will not make you a better learner. Really consider how you learn best.

Everyday Note Taking

The Cornell note taking method has a few variations, but the main premise is that there is a section for notes, a section for thoughts called cues, and a section to integrate both called summaries.
  1. Notes: Lecture notes, short sentences or phrases, lists, abbreviations or shorthand.
  2. Cues: Thoughts, main ideas, questions, connections, study prompts.
  3. Summaries: Summarize, main ideas, tie the notes together, create idea integration.
I would add to this that you should choose your colors and placement for notes, cues, summaries, and stick to them. Following are suggestions, with variations on the Cornell method:
  • Obtain and use a pen with three or more colors in it. I keep one in primary colors and one in bright colors.
  • The written text is always print or written in black and on the left.
  • What the prof says in class regarding the class material, text material, or in response to your questions (notes) is always color 1 (maybe always in red like the New Testament).
  • Your questions or comments on class and text material (cues) is always color 2 (always blue, for example).
  • Your summary should be at the bottom and in color 3 (maybe always purple because that is your favorite color).
Setting your colors and formatting from the start will help your brain immediately recognize what it is looking for and adds additional memory cues for retention and recall.

Using Power Point/Slide Print Outs

Often students have access to the teacher's Power Point slides ahead of class and enjoy printing them. If printed in the three-slides-per-page format, there is a section for taking notes included. Here is how a student might apply the Cornell notes method to the Power Point slides:
  • (Left side-Print/Black) print slides 3 to a page.
  • (Right side- Color 1) write what the prof says in the rt column where the lines print out, only write key words or phrases.
  • (Middle - Color 2) write personal notes in the spaces between slides in color 2, this is essentially your cues column.
  • (Anywhere - Color 2) circle or star muddy points in a different color so you know to go back and review, this provides additional cues.
  • (Bottom - Color 3) leave a space at the very bottom or top for consolidating notes and ideas.

Pre-class Preparation

  • (Left side - Print/Black) make an outline of material to be covered (be brief and intentional, or this will take all your time).
  • (Right side - Color 2) your muddy points, questions, brief.
  • (Anywhere - Color 1) what the prof says to address these points
  • (Bottom - Color 3) - summarize at the bottom of the page
Do not be tempted to skip pre-class preparation. In the vast sea of things you need to get done, this has to remain a priority. It is much more difficult to understand what is being said in class if you aren't even familiar with the terminology. Pre-class preparation will help you quickly move from knowledge level thinking to application and analysis level thinking. Application and analysis level thinking is what is required on most nursing school exams.

How-To Use Highlighters

Don't. This is seriously an option. If your highlighter use makes the whole page bright yellow, PUT DOWN THE HIGHLIGHTERS. When you aren't sure what is important, but it all seems important, the temptation is to highlight everything. It's a complete waste of your time, though very pretty. If you insist on highlighting everything in the textbook, though, try to provide some organization in the chaos. Choose a color system for noting what is important and why it is important and stick with it. Yellow-quotes Orange-key words Dark pink-due dates Green-primary points A smart way to use your highlighters includes marking content territory like this, so you can more easily find the information you are looking for or to get a quick sense of how much material there is for a topic. For each chapter, use a different colored highlighter and swipe it across the top of each note card and corresponding section in the text book. Now you have color coded cards and text! Ultimately, the point of highlighter use is to draw the eye more quickly to something that is essential to you: a topic covered in class, a key term, a fuzzy topic, or something crucial. If you are not sure what is important, skim the material, attend class, and then return to the text with the highlighters. Maybe yellow highlights are the points reviewed in class and blue highlights are points you recall being on the test, after the examination. Looking at the text material after the exam is a great way to further integrate what you learned, to see where class and test intersect (now they'll be green), and to deepen your memory in preparation for the final exam. In lieu of highlighting, consider creating annotated notes in the textbook. Use color, with a purpose, to summarize important information in the margins of the book. CIRCLE key terms UNDERLINE words you need to revisit QUESTION mark for questions you have DRAW ARROWS to connect ideas or text sections WRITE important thoughts in the margin Highlighting and annotating are typically possible with e-books, too, depending on the electronic platform. Sometimes, the online platform is even better because if you always use orange to highlight confusing or muddy topics, you can select the option to read only your orange highlights, quickly reviewing your muddy points all at once without searching many pages. What strategies were you surprised to find did not work in nursing school as well as they worked elsewhere? What are your favorite note-taking strategies?