Or, How I Learned to Stop Taking Notes and Love Calculus
This document is evolving from original drafts by Philip Sink

 
Meet Jan. Jan in an incoming Freshman at Cornell. Jan is a premed and excited to get started along that career path, but distribution requirements… Calculus 1110 doesn’t frighten Jan though – Jan was good at math in high school. Thorough notes, and diligence on the homework will pull Jan through, or so Jan thinks.
Jan could be in for a rude awakening. Calculus 1110 is a different beast than high school mathematics – including AP Calculus. Note taking may have been a sufficient strategy in high school – memorize the information, solve the kinds of problems in question, and regurgitate the solution when asked. Calculus 1110 is structured, intentionally, to make such a strategy impossible. There is growing evidence that note taking can actually reduce retention of information for many people. In short, taking notes in class may inhibit how well you understand the material.
In the Math Support Center, we often see students with exceptionally detailed and organized notes. Yet they still have great difficulty understanding what is being asked of them on homework assignments and exams. Our observation is that for many students,taking notes, is an unproductive act of procrastination. Students do not retain information from their time class — it’s in their notes. This can lead to frustration with the professor for poor presentation, perhaps reduced attendance in class and continued deterioration of success in the class. Read on for a another strategy which may work for you.
You’ve got a textbook! It’s been proofread — an editorial process neither your notes nor the details of material presented in class have been subject to (but see below about what can happen in class). Maybe NOT taking notes is a better choice!
Maybe not. You can confidently study from the textbook – there is unlikely to be any secret information the professor presents that is not found in the textbook. Calculus is pretty standard. But, you ask, “How do I learn anything if I don’t take notes?!” The answer lies in considering what you are to learn.
If you copy down how a professor solves a problem, you do indeed have a record, which remember has not been proofread, of how to solve that problem. You could probably replicate a solution for that specific problem on a test. This does NOT, however, build skills and strategies. Think about breaking down learning into the following three categories:
To learn Calculus, groom the Things You Know, minimize the Things You’ve Memorized and outfit your toolbox with Tools for Figuring Things Out. Calculus is not best learned through memorization – there are more than a zillion things to memorize. That’s too many. Strive for a deeper understanding.
Think not:
“I know how to solve this problem because I’ve seen similar ones before and solved those”
Think instead:
“I know how to solve this problem because I understand what is being asked and what we’ve learned in the past”.
Q: If I take notes, won’t I memorize this “understanding”?
A: Maybe, but there’s a lot of information, and Calculus problems can be done more easily and effectively with little or no memorization at all. Understanding, not memorization is the goal in Calculus.
Thanks for sticking with us so far. We’ve got concrete suggestions for you. Read on…
Calculus is a subject that builds on itself – each piece of the course builds on what came before. In the end, while there are zillions of different questions that can be asked on an exam, the total picture of calculus is ultimately simple, concise , and yes — beautiful!. Instead of taking notes, Pay Attention! Perch yourself on the edge of your seat with the attitude “I will pay attention and follow what is presented as closely as I can.”
Q: How do I do that? What does “Pay Attention!” even mean?
A:
Too often, notes can serve as a crutch – you think to yourself “I’ll figure this out later when I study” rather than ask the question in class. The whole class will benefit if you address something that is unclear to you – chances are, someone else is unclear on that point as well. The textbook is essential as well – all the information is there. If you forget what something is later, when working on homework, you can look it up there. And, because you assessed the information with the above strategies, it will be far less inscrutable to read. For whatever remains difficult, we at the MSC are here to help you figure it out. Best of luck!
There was a young premed in Calc Whose notes copied the board full of chalk They didn’t understand Thought the professor was bland And complained when their grade took a dock.