Thursday, January 6, 2011

Best practices for taking notes

With my final semester at SOM beginning in mere days, I am trying to be as fully prepared as possible. To that end, I did quite a bit of organizing yesterday, including a rather deep introspection on what types of note-taking strategies have worked in the past, and which ones I should employ this semester. I want to see if I can finally get this right, because throughout my academic life, I've gotten it pretty wrong.

I feel as though last semester was yet another example of failing to make the best use of my study time, and failing to read and take notes in the most useful and efficient way. Basically I start each term treating class the same, and that's a mistake because each course's best approach will depend on how the professor teaches, what the class is about, and what the requirements are. Is the class discussion-based, or lecture-based? Is it more quantitative or qualitative? Is the material totally new to me, or semi-familiar? Does the professor pass out notes at the start, at the end, or never? Does she post slides online, or just use the chalk board? Will there be mostly short-term deliverables like case write-ups and pop quizzes, or long-term ones like big group projects and exams? Depending on factors like these, it may or may not be useful to take handwritten notes in class, print out all the readings and attack them with a highlighter, or save smartly labeled files to a folder in one's C drive.

In approaching this new semester, I've decided to try to tailor my reading, studying and note-taking for each class based on what type of material is in the class and what the deliverables are. I've tried to reflect on what's worked and what hasn't, and come up with a distinct strategy for each class. A boiled-down version of what I've come up with so far:

  • Investment Management. This class requires a lot of textbook reading, the material is largely new and unfamiliar to me, and there's math. There's a midterm, a final exam and four problem sets. So I know I'll want to keep track of definitions, formulas and concepts in a place I can easily quiz myself and review them. Hence I'm going to try to use OneNote (pictured above), a program I saw undergrads using in Theory of Media, to keep track of concepts from the reading. I figured I can kill two birds -- learn Investment Management while also learning OneNote, in case I want to use it at work after school. I don't yet know whether the professor will be passing out notes or slides, so I'll deal with that strategy once I observe his behavior.
  • Behavioral Perspectives on Management. This course, on the other hand, is about the psychology of management. In each class, there's a 35% chance of a quiz, and the assignments tend to be short and personal. There's no exam. So it seems unnecessary to print out or save all the readings, but I'll need to do readings and make sure I get main concepts; so I'm going to keep a handwritten spiral journal.
  • Strategic Leadership Across Sectors. This is a long, once-a-week class with prominent guests and a shit-ton of reading, mostly news articles, so it would be futile and environmentally irresponsible to attempt to print them all out. However, there is a final, so some type of review-able log of the course will be useful. Hence I'm going to try to keep Word-based summary of key concepts and blocks of readings, because that final is open book.
My fourth semester-long class has changed, and I don't have a syllabus for it yet. I was going to take New Italian Cinema, but a new course was just offered at SOM that I really want to take, and it conflicts, schedule-wise, with the film-studies class. This one is called Leadership Strategies for Music Presenters, taught by the dean of the music school, and it's about the business of putting on concerts. It's limited to 10 people, but I applied and got the OK to enroll (I doubt it was terribly competitive, since most students, by now, probably have their schedules squared away). I also have a quarter-long class that starts in March, Navigating Organizations, but I'll cross that bridge after spring break.

Anyway, I hope that the efforts I'm putting into thoughtful study approaches are sustainable. I know in real life that it's easy to fall behind and get lazy, but I'm particularly excited about these courses and trying to go in with wide-open eyes and a system of constant assessment and scrutiny, not just in academics but in all areas of my life. It's my last chance to do this whole school thing the way I've always thought I could.

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