Towards the end of senior year of high school, I found myself frustrated with my own notebooks—frustrated with the lack of lesson titles and dates whenever I had to go back a few months to find that one physics equation I may have forgotten. Going into my freshman year of college, I decided I needed to have a more stringent process for note-taking and homework-writing. Was spending a day figuring out the best format for your notes a bit obsessive-compulsive? Probably. But at this point in the year, I can safely say that flipping back to previous lecture notes has never been easier for me.
Obviously, everyone is going to have a different style when it comes to notes. I would say there are two very distinct camps when it comes to in-lecture note-taking: some people can’t focus on the lecture if they’re focused on note-taking, and others can’t remember it at all unless they write it down. As someone who’s a member of the latter group, a word of caution to the former group: many studies have shown that writing things down is much better for memory than just reading other lecture notes or typing them yourself.
I’m not going to advise anyone to copy my format for lecture notes, but it’s definitely a good idea to figure out what works for you at the start of the year and be consistent with it.
This mainly applies to physics and mathematics work, but I would say it’s been the single biggest help to completing my homework in those two subject areas: do all work on a whiteboard first. We’ve all drawn a picture incorrectly made an algebra error somewhere in a physics problem, but fixing the mistakes when you have to cross out half a page of work is harder than it has to be. On a whiteboard, it’s much easier to correct mistakes and organize your thoughts.
As an example, below is a DiffEq problem from a recent problem set (yes, it did take up all three of my laptop-sized whiteboards). And next to it is the final product on the sheet of homework I actually submitted. It looks much cleaner, which I’m sure gets me some goodwill from the TA, whose job of deciphering the mess that we all submit from time to time is quite unenviable.
As the year has gone by, I’ve also noticed myself using whiteboards more often for Latin translations—ideally, you probably want to have a rough translation before truly working out the meaning. Originally, I was trying to fit this all into the 2 or 3 lines they give you on worksheets, but whiteboards make it so much easier.
If there’s one tip you take to heart from all my blogs, it’s this one. Bring a couple whiteboards for your dorm, especially if you’re a STEM major. They’ll definitely help when you’re struggling on that seemingly-impossible mechanics problem in physics 1.