One important, but often neglected aspect of preparing to study for an MBA, is deciding how to take notes. Initially I started to write notes summarising all the key points from the textbooks and online lectures, often duplicating complete lists and paragraphs from the text. However, I quickly realised that this was producing copious amounts of notes that I probably wouldn’t refer to in the future, and when I did need to use them I wouldn’t be able to access them in an efficient manner. So I decided to spend some time looking into how to effectively write notes, starting with the question ‘Why am I taking notes?‘.
Although this seems obvious, it is a question that I didn’t consider prior to starting the course, and have since identified the following three possible reasons (please add in the comments if you can think of more!):
Exam revision – I expect this is one of the most common reasons for taking notes, which requires notes to be succinct, providing reminders to key concepts, and definitions of key terms.
Essay support – I’ve never written notes to support the writing of an essay, but I think the main addition over exam revision notes will be quotes or useful explanations of topics, along with their location in the textbooks/lectures so they can be easily referenced.
Work-related future reference – For this use case it might be appropriate to take more notes, which include not only key concepts, but explanations, supporting lists and detail. I would personally question the value of this approach when studying for an MBA, as trying to write a reference at the same time as studying is likely to take a significant amount of time that might not contribute to the learning process. Plus, in my experience, textbooks written by professional authors are of more use than my own notes when referring to them in the future.
For the first semester on the Warwick Distance Learning MBA, two of the modules are assessed via an essay and one is assessed via an open-book exam, so the notes for each of these will need to differ slightly in format. I found the exam revision notes straightforward as I have produced these for various exams over the past few years. However, the essay notes have proved more difficult to produce, as I have not written an essay in over ten years. Although I think I am using an effective format, I hope to validate this when completing my Tutor Marked Assignments (TMAs) – these are essays that are marked by tutors, but do not count towards the final grade. When writing these I will need to refer to my notes, so hopefully they will identify how effective these are before I get too far into the course, and also highlight gaps in the notes that can be filled for future lessons.
A second question to consider when preparing for note-taking is ‘How should I record the notes?‘. There are three ways of taking notes that I have tried (although as before, please share any others you use in the comments below):
- 1. Highlighting and writing comments on the text itself – this is probably the most convenient of note-taking methods; however, it has the disadvantage that every time you need to refer to your notes, it is necessary to review a full lesson / chapter in order to find the relevant comments. These types of notes are also more difficult (although not impossible) to search.
- 2. Writing text / lists that summarise the key points, along with any particularly pertinent information about those points – this has been the traditional way that I have made notes in the past, and is very easy to search. The disadvantage of this approach is the time it takes to write the notes, and reviewing these can be difficult unless a lot of time is invested in structuring the notes into a readable format.
- 3. Mindmaps that summarise the key points, along with any particularly pertinent information about those points – mindmaps are a concept that I have used in the past, but not for note-taking purposes. Although they share the disadvantage of the time it takes to write the notes, they are often easier to refer to in the future, and provide a more flexible environment in which to take notes.
My original intention was to use a combination of approaches 1 and 2 for note-taking. However, I found that highlighting did not give me the control I wanted to structure the notes, as I was forced to record them in the order they were presented in the text, and the second approach was taking a significant amount of time even before I started to apply a structure to the notes. I then tried using mindmaps, and so far am very pleased with this approach. I plan to continue using them until the first TMA, at which point I can decide how helpful they were, and whether to use the same or an alternative method in the future.
Although this is my current view on writing notes, I am sure that at the end of the first semester I will have a different perspective, especially after completing the open-book exam, so I will probably post back then with an updated opinion. In the meantime, it would be great to get your thoughts on writing notes – what works, what doesn’t, and any other tips to help fellow MBA students.