Scott H Young

Learn More, Study Less – Flow-Based Notetaking


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This is a free chapter from my new e-book, Learn More, Study Less. You can download a free preview of the e-book, or buy your copy. This chapter is on Flow-Based Notetaking, and is also available in the .pdf preview version. This is one of eleven chapters from Part II of the book, which focuses on techniques to improve how you learn.

I’m not a fan of taking detailed and intricate notes. I’m a believer in the “learn it once” principle, which means you should be listening and processing the information as your professor or instructor is saying it–not just transcribing it on a piece of paper to learn later.

One technique I use during classes where there is a lot of information is flow-based notetaking. The goal with flow-based notetaking is that it should provide a surface for connecting and linking ideas as they are reaching you. The linear, bullet-point style of notes that most people use is out for a more fluid (although messier) format.

With flow-based note-taking you start by only writing out the major ideas. This means using a few words at most instead of entire sentences. This can reduce readability later, but it enhances learning during the lecture. Facts, dates, details and descriptions are reduced to just a few words, not lengthy paragraphs.

Once you get an idea written down, your next step is drawing a few arrows to connect it to other ideas. Instead of an ordered hierarchy of ideas, you want to represent the ideas as being interrelated components. This process more closely mirrors the actual holistic learning strategy, where ideas are linked into a web.

I tend to use flow-based notetaking as a method for using other techniques as well. Metaphor, diagraming and information compression are methods that can be used in conjunction with flow-based notetaking to enhance your understanding. This way you can write out major ideas and connect them to small pictures, diagrams or references to other subjects.

Remember that notes are only an intermediate step towards understanding. Having a beautiful set of perfectly written notes is useless if you don’t understand the subject you are trying to learn. Flow-based notetaking, is a messier approach to taking notes, but one I believe is more effective at helping to understand the material.

Hybrid Flow-Based Notetaking

Flow-based notetaking involves a trade-off between recording and exploration. With regular, linear notetaking, you can create an almost perfect record of what was said in a class. This method is useful if you need to review that information multiple times in order to learn it properly.

With flow-based notetaking you are sacrificing some later readability, for current understanding. By reducing the content of your notes and adding links or diagrams, the material can be learned more holistically. However, if the class has a high information density or you plan to review notes thoroughly later, there are hybrid strategies you can pursue.

Flow-Based Afternotes

The first hybrid strategy for flow-based notetaking is to take regular notes first and then recopy them into a flow-based format. If you are having trouble keeping up with the pace in a class, this strategy can give you more time to properly digest the information. Although it takes longer than a purely flow-based or linear notetaking style, it gives both readability and understanding.

I suggest starting with flow-based afternotes for the first month of trying this new notetaking style. This will ensure that you have a copy of your clearly organized notes in case you need to study them later.

Flow-Based Commenting

Some classes have an extremely high information density. When the amount of facts can’t be compressed and you are writing frantically just to get everything on paper, flow-based notetaking is almost impossible. Flow-based notetaking assumes that you can record all the critical information in a class in less time than it takes to teach. Most good teachers will give plenty explanation room and examples. During that time you can create the connections, metaphors and diagrams you need to learn holistically.

However, in cases when information density goes faster than you can record, flow-based commenting is an alternative strategy. Basically it involves writing down the key information and inserting links into your notes when there is a break. If a professor puts up a few dozen formulas you need to record, you could write all these down first. Following that, you could add more connections when the professor starts giving examples of how the formulas are used.

Recognizing Critical Information

The key ability with flow-based notetaking is to know what is important. What is the core information taught here? If you write down everything said in a lecture with equal emphasis, then you’ll spend your entire class transcribing instead of thinking. Instinctively writing down every word written on an overhead transparency or Powerpoint slide is useless if you don’t actually think about what you are writing.

With flow-based notetaking I cut down the amount of information I transcribe and emphasize on connecting and sorting that information in a way I understand.

Here is a quick scan of some of my notes taken from a class:

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The full version includes more visual examples of flow-based notetaking, along with featuring other techniques such as metaphor, visceralization, model debugging, information compression, pegging, linking and speed reading. Get your copy along with 6 bonus documents for 39.95.

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23 Responses to “Learn More, Study Less – Flow-Based Notetaking”

  1. Su says:

    great stuff man, but hey, with all these techniques does it really shove the time off doing tons of practise problems for math based courses like physics?

  2. Scott Young says:

    Su,

    Depends. I go over the difference in different information types in my book. Sometimes you’ll want to do a lot of practice to pick up the flow and nuance of specific questions. Other times you’ll want to downplay the practice and focus on concepts because you aren’t likely to face any particular subset of questions.

    -Scott

  3. I remember wondering what the difference between learning and studying was when I was still in primary school. And I also remember what it felt like to finally understand the difference. I think what makes students less interested in school is because they cannot or haven’t even thought to distinguish learning and studying. Just a thought inspired by this post.

  4. Ilham Hafizovic says:

    Su,

    I believe when it comes to technical courses such as Physics, taking down examples in detail is much more important that taking down the concepts. When it comes to concepts, you can always do a little research or read it up in a book later on, but when it comes to techniques that can help save time in solving problems, it is much more important.

    But it all depends what you plan on doing with physics, if it is just a one time course for your degree, ten just try to get the basic concepts of how to do the problems and answer them correctly. If you plan on studying or majoring in a physics degree, my advice would be to try and do a lot more problems so that you can practice with many different forms of questions that can help prepare you for later on.

    Just my thoughts really.

    ~Ilham

  5. Scott Young says:

    Illham,

    I completely agree. It really depends on the information structure of the course. Some courses rely heavily on understanding key concepts and others are more skill than tacit knowledge. Flow-based notetaking emphasizes more conceptual understanding.

    -Scott

  6. Ann M. says:

    Scott, did you read about these techniques in a particular book or website or did you develop them yourself? I’m out of school now, but I’ve used similar techniques many times.

    I also think the idea of doing flow notes after class is great.

  7. Scott Young says:

    Ann,

    I’m not going to claim these ideas are entirely original. But, I personally haven’t read a source that advocates this style of notetaking.

    -Scott

  8. Jen says:

    Hey Scott with these techniques and learning holistically, do you learn the material during lectures while it’s thought? or in advance?
    So basically do you use these techniques and holistic learning to teach/learn the material your self? perhaps doing this by reading the text in advance.

  9. Scott Young says:

    Jen,

    Depends. After a 1-2 weeks in each class I can usually get a good feel for where the ratio of learning sits. Some classes I rely almost entirely on the textbook and others I don’t even bother buying it.

    If I’m in a class I tend to use flow-based notetaking (although there are exceptions).

    -Scott

  10. Snigel says:

    I do notwant to wine, but $40 dollars is pretty much for an e-book, it is roughly what I would expect to pay for a hardcover edition of a book containing that many pages. Is there any way you could make it available from print-on-demand services like Lulu? I would not be as hesitant to pay if I got printed book in my hands. It would not cost much extra and involves no risks whatsoever.

  11. Scott Young says:

    Snigel,

    Criticism noted. I’m not changing the price in the near future, but I may offer different packages of the book that make it more accessible in the future. Much of what I do from a product-creation standpoint is an experiment, so I’ll keep these things in mind for the future.

    Best,
    -Scott

  12. Ro says:

    Scott–
    I am trying to find a particular article of yours on making notations in books as you read. I didn’t bookmark the entry. What I remember about the technique you were describing was that for main ideas you marked the book with a “/” and supporting ideas you marked with a “.”. Could you send me the link? Many thanks for your good work.

  13. Scott Young says:

    Ro,

    Sorry, I’ve never written that. But when you find the link, you should send it to me too!

    -Scott

  14. Ruby says:

    Do you have any articles on how to study for technical subjects?
    I am in high school and am looking for techniques to study for subjects like maths. Can this technique work for maths? I don’t really see how it can because this works really well with classes that require memorising alot of information like biology and history but maths and physics are technical. For my past maths exams I’ve just been doing lots of practise questions from the textbook weeks in advance but that has failed badly and i’ve realised that it is not the way to study. Advice on how to understand and study for maths will be much appreciated.

  15. Scott Young says:

    Ruby,

    I’m not sure the distinction you’re bringing up. If you mean to say that math and physics are more abstract than biology, or that there is more depth within pieces of information, I’d probably agree.

    You might not find a specific technique like flow-based notetaking useful for subjects like math. But I think the whole of holistic learning would work well with subjects like math. Connecting abstract topics to metaphors and images that are easier to remember makes it easier to store those ideas.

    -Scott

  16. Jayz says:

    scot, i’m not understand what ‘s The flow based taking difference Diagram

  17. Mythreya says:

    Hi Scott!

    Can you tell me in what way is your technique (flowbased note taking)superior to Mind-mapping(Tony Buzan’s)technique?
    Please elucidiate with examples.I have read your book “Study Less Learn More” while I was working in Manitoba and then used it for my MBA studies while in Rochester,NY,USA.(Acquire-Understand-Explore-Apply-Test methodology).
    I used to use Da-vincian method before and your Flow-based note-taking is similar to it.Later I stumbled upon Mind-mapping and found it too quite promising.
    Im from India and back in my country lot of emphasis is given for studies and education(akin to China) and students clearing exams in a Highly competitive environment(crazy-environment is a better word!).So your books come as a refreshing breeze.
    Maybe we both can work together to amalgamate and create a study system.This,if you are open to working with an Asian.
    Your work though on Model-constructs-Highways,etc is fantastic.
    Mythreya Sreeraam Bhallyjayappalle

  18. Scott Young says:

    Mythreya,

    I wouldn’t say superior, as Buzan’s method is very similar to flow-based notetaking.

    From my vantage point (being someone who hasn’t studied Buzan’s method in detail) mindmapping is closer to brainstorming, where lot’s of connections are made and everything is linked to a central source. Flow-based notetaking is less centralized. However, I think understanding and employing both could be useful.

    I actually am already in the process of developing a study methodology with a select group of learners:

    http://www.scotthyoung.com/blog/learning-on-steroids-pre-launch-mailing-list/

    -Scott

  19. [...] this specific note-taking style I learned about a few months ago from Scott H. Young who was an e-book on the subject and quite a few beneficial [...]

  20. Arjan says:

    It’s indeed interesting to compare mindmaps with flow-based notetaking. Mindmaps are essentially tree-structures, so the ideas/concepts are hierarchical arranged. Flow-based notes on the other hand, have a more weblike structure. Both mindmaps and flowbased notes are great tools for different purposes. When taking notes in class, I prefer the flow-based notetaking method. But I like to use mindmapping when I’m structuring content for an article I’m planning to write. And mindmaps are also great for preparing presentations and projectmanagement.

  21. Ku says:

    Hi Scott,

    I wonder if this method works for law? The content is so heavy that I doubt whether I’ll miss a lot of essential information if I use this method.

  22. […] a way to take effective notes that really help you learn the material. The technique is called Flow-Based Notetaking and it can revolutionize your classroom experience by making the time you spend in class worth […]

  23. Arjan says:

    I still do a lot of flow-based notetaking, it really works!

    As “flow-based notetaking” is a bit of a mouthful, I’ve coined a more concise name for this technique: “flownotes” (or even briefer: “flonotes”).

    I don’t believe that the word flownote/flonote is already in use for another concept.

Debate is fine, flaming is not. Pretend that this comment form is a discussion taking place in my house. That means I enjoy constructive criticism and polite suggestions. Personal attacks, insults and all-purpose nastiness will be removed especially if it is directed at other readers.

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