I think that the advice I give here can also be used for other subjects but I want to focus on my experience with technical subjects because I study Computer Science. Here I’m going to explain to you why I find it efficient to go through multiple versions of notes and why my first version of notes is literally only questions.
To cite two eminent writers/researchers on learning and skill acquisition, Anders Ericsson argues that deliberate practice is what leads to expert performance and Cal Newport says that our most significant work is produced in a state of Deep Work.
To tie these two together, I believe deliberate practice is both what puts you into a state of deep work and is also what you are doing when you are in deep work. Sounds confusing, but let me explain what I mean by that. The only way to focus deeply is to be fully engaged with what you are doing but into order to be engaged you have to do something that gets you engaged. Once you are doing that you maintain the same level of engagement throughout that session. Methods of becoming engaged are referred to as orienting tasks and questions are my favorite type of orienting task.
This leads to my note taking method. I believe that note taking itself is Deep Work and thus should be approached in a deliberate practice manner. I see it as more of a way to organize and absorb information than as a way to keep track of what the professor or book said about a topic. The best way to activate this state while note taking is to write down any question that pops into your mind. As you go through, anytime you feel stuck or confused, that’s a question. Even if the question doesn’t immediately pop into your head it is still a question. If it’s not obvious what the question is, put in deliberate effort to figure out what it is. Formulate what you don’t know into a question and move on. If you remember anything from today, it should be that questions are the biggest source of focus while taking notes.
The Cornell style of taking notes is awesome but I prefer something more dynamic. Through a lot of trial and error I’ve learned that the more complicated the subject is the more questions are going help your first version of notes. Thus for the first version of a complex subject, don’t worry if you just write a ton of questions. My first version of notes is mostly questions which is a little hard to believe, but it helps me target what I don’t know and think deeply about it.
Now, comes your second version of notes. This time there will most likely be much fewer questions because you’ve already written most of them down. The goal of these notes is to use the space on the paper to tackle the questions in the previous set of notes. For this you have a toolset of learning techniques including breaking the equation into smaller parts, looking up other resources and even asking questions. In future posts I’m going to explain in greater detail some specific learning techniques for figuring out answers to the questions you’ve posed.
Writing down questions keeps you engaged throughout your initial session of absorbing the knowledge as well as helping you keep track of what you don’t know so that you can specifically tackle those concepts after your initial scan of the material. I also see questions as a sort of guide for what you don’t know so that you are never sitting still wondering what you don’t know or what you should study next. Just look at what questions you have and you’ll know what you need to figure out.