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Improve your anatomy learning through better note taking

“Therefore, since brevity is the soul of wit,

And tediousness the limbs and outward flourishes,

I will be brief. Your noble son is mad. . . .” - Polonius, Hamlet Act 2

Similar to the way brevity is the soul of wit, notes are the soul of your learning. Whether it involves putting pen to paper or synthesizing them subconsciously while reading your favourite book, we constantly create them. They are the immortal essence for understanding, encoding, storing and remembering information. Essentially, they are the scaffold of knowledge.

Everyone is aware of their importance. You don’t learn by remembering filler words or regurgitating pages upon pages of read material. Instead, your mind stores fragments or meanings of ideas, paragraphs and pages, sometimes even just a few terms, onto which it latches all the extraneous or extra information. The result of reading is a representation of the material inside your brain, similar to a reflection seen in a mirror.

Luckily, your mental note taking system, which works subconsciously, is extremely well-oiled. Unfortunately, major problems arise when this process enters the consciousness. Many learners fall into avoidable traps when they try to take notes, putting them at a disadvantage from the get-go.

This article will discuss the common pitfalls associated with note taking and ways to improve this essential process. It will also try and put to bed the main conundrum of 21st century students - taking notes by hand versus on a computer.

  1. Pitfalls of note taking
  2. Note taking or note typing?
  3. Improving note taking
  4. Using your notes
  5. Highlights
  6. Sources
+ Show all

Pitfalls of note taking

You sit comfortably at your desk with your anatomy book open, or in a lecture room listening to your professor teaching. Your hand is aimlessly writing all the words on the page or those echoing within your ears, while your thoughts keep wandering off towards your next lunch break or favourite TV show. You suddenly realise you’ve written for almost forty five minutes, but you are not able to summarise the information in a few lines even if someone puts a gun to your head.

More than likely, the above scenario does not only occur frequently during your anatomy learning sessions and lectures, but every-single-time. Should taking notes not help you? How come you cannot remember what you’ve just heard or read? You should “focus on the process, not the product” because the problem is not the act of note-taking itself, but how you actually do it.

Staring at a page with words is useless if you don’t avoid the most common pitfalls of note taking:

  • Writing too much - If you end up with more pages of notes than the number you are actually trying to condense, you’re definitely not doing it right.
  • Not writing enough - Notes are indeed brief records of ideas, but if you can condense the entire anatomy of the upper limb in half of an A4 page, there’s a problem.
  • Not processing the information - Note taking should not be dictation or xeroxing. To maximize the benefits, you should process the ideas and write them down in your own words. It should be challenging and time consuming!
  • Not revising your notes at the end - How many times have you put away your notes without actually revising right after you’ve prepared them? By the way, I don’t mean reading them for five minutes while waiting for your bus to arrive. For proper consolidation, the suggested revision time should be equal to the time it took to prepare the notes.
  • Creating a work of art - If your notes look like da Vinci’s paintings and museums are competing to expose them in their exhibitions, you should revise your note taking strategy.

Note taking or note typing?

Note taking has certainly not escaped the technological boom of the 21st century. Nowadays, many learners are balancing the benefits of taking notes by hand or on a computer. There are a few reasons supporting digital note taking, the biggest ones being speed and organisation. However, the importance of condensing information is to remove the need of re-reading all those thick anatomy books, to remember what your professor said and most importantly, to actually learn, memorise, and understand the information.

How well does typing compare to writing in terms of learning? According to science, way more poorly!

  • More is not necessarily better - There’s no denying, anyone can type faster than write. On paper it sounds like an incredible advantage, but in reality, it encourages learners to type a lot more information. You would expect that having more notes to study from in the future can only be advantageous. Things are seldom what they seem! Research has shown that even if allowed to study their notes, learners who wrote them manually outperform those who typed them. Experts believe taking notes by hand creates more effective memory cues which stimulate short and long-term retrieval.
  • Tendency of verbatim - Typing also comes with a cost of transferring the information word for word. Interestingly, even when specifically asked not to write down information verbatim, students still do it when typing. It seems like taking notes on the computer automatically forces learners to use less demanding and mindless cognitive processes. However, if you write your notes manually, you do it slower, cannot write as much so you force your brain to do some mental weightlifting and process the information more deeply in order to obtain the essence.
  • Distractions - A computer means instant online access to social media and multimedia. Learning about the anatomy of the pelvis might be fascinating, but do you honestly think it can compete with the above entertainment?

However, note taking or typing does not need to be completely black or white. You could first take the notes by hand and then type them. Why go through so much work? By typing them, you are actually reviewing your notes, hence you are mentally processing the information. The process of having to decode your own handwriting can also be quite beneficial to the learning outcomes.

Improving note taking

Perhaps you are aware of the mistakes you’re making when note taking, but you simply don’t know how to rectify them. Luckily, taking good notes is a skill, meaning that it can be improved through good note taking habits. After all, practice makes perfect and who doesn’t want to perfect their learning? Here is how you can sharpen your note taking:

  • Avoid the common pitfalls - Captain Obvious’ favourite solution, but it certainly works!
  • Write rather than type - Old school, but never fails.
  • Write the notes with the book closed - To avoid excessively long notes and copying ideas word for word, write them without looking at the book. Notes should reflect your own understanding and be written in your own words, so own them!
  • Review and preview - This is about warming up your brain and familiarising yourself with the information, in order to discriminate the important information. It involves reviewing the previous study session/lecture notes and previewing the textbook for the current lecture. Your heart probably sinks whenever you hear this. Who has time for all of this when learning anatomy? It is a RE-view and PRE-view, so it should take no more than fifteen to thirty minutes per session/lecture. Invest this time and your note taking will be focused, effective and easy!
  • Go “on a diet” - Relax, you don’t need to start eating salad or cut away sweets to improve your note taking (although it will certainly do wonders for your health!). However, you should reduce the calories of your notes. Specifically, you should write them short-hand, using a lot of abbreviations and incomplete sentences. You can save tons of time, especially if you make your abbreviations one letter. Just prepare a short key and write down what each letter represents before you start writing down your notes (remember the previewing step?). Basically, write them in a way that would make an English teacher lose their mind.
  • Use a note taking system - Rather than playing it by the ear, why don’t you follow a format designed to make your note taking as easy and effective as possible? If you want to learn the origins, insertions, action(s), and innervation of the lower limb muscles, use the charting method. If you want to see a greater picture of the brain for example, use the outline or mapping methods (check out the power of mind maps here). Perhaps the most versatile method is the Cornell note taking system. It can incorporate flashcards, questions, summaries, outlines and the king of learning, active recall, all in one. Use it and tackle all that anatomy information from every angle.
Mind Map - Proximal End of Humerus

Using your notes

Now that you have your notes in front of you, what do you do with them? You certainly do not simply read them and you definitely should not just re-read them! You can do better than that!

Bored of note-taking and looking for a more exciting way to support your anatomy learning? Interactive practice tools are the best way to learn fast and effectively.

Learn in the most effective and efficient way possible using Kenhub's quizzes and fill-in-the-blank exercises! Do you want to be a child again and study by playing games or convince yourself that learning styles are a myth? Perhaps you want to become a master memorizer by learning about mind palaces, in order to crush all the branches of the maxillary artery. Go and check the section out! These only represent the tip of the iceberg. However, you might not need to do any of the above because Kenhub’s videos are notes themselves. They deliver essential knowledge in a brief and easy to understand teaching style!

As you can see, note taking is not as easy as everyone makes it out to be. If you simply open your anatomy book and start writing down information, you can easily fall into the common traps which cannot wait to trip you up! Luckily for you, taking notes is a skill and if you are aware of a few secrets, you can easily improve it!

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