• EdThreads
  • Posts
  • True or False: 'Never write down something you don't understand'?

True or False: 'Never write down something you don't understand'?

Thinking about ways to take better notes to learn faster

How to effectively learn, take note, and study, is not something that’s taught as much as it should be in schools. Luckily, Daniel Willingham has written a phenomenal book on this topic for students, and teachers, called Outsmart Your Brain. It’s all about how to effectively study.

With my own students and their learning skills in mind, I absolutely devoured this book. My notes on it were copious (3000 words!) and loved speaking with Dan about it on episode 79 of the Education Research Reading Room Podcast.

I found myself nodding along for the vast majority of the book, and our discussion.

However, there was one main line in this excellent text that prompted me to query a bit deeper… here it is:

never write anything that you don’t understand. You may think to yourself, “Not totally sure what she means by ‘Technology innovations are usually like a pie shell with half the filling gone,’ but I’ll figure it out later or ask someone.” It’s not going to make any more sense later than it does now. And if you ask someone, “What did she mean with that pie thing?” the odds are good they’ll say, “I don’t remember that.” Ask the speaker for clarification immediately if you can (see tip 5) or make a note to ask later (see tip 11).’ [emphasis in original]

Daniel Willingham

This is an incredibly important question for us to consider deeply, because the advice that we give to students about what to do when they’re confused is some of the most valuable advice we’ll ever give them.

I’m not fully convinced by the assertion that we shouldn’t write down what we don’t understand. This is because I personally managed to get through my Physics degree by writing a hell of a lot of stuff down that I didn’t understand!

Here’s an example of a handout that was provided to us in 3rd year physics, and the notes that I made on it (all of the writing top left is my notes, starting with the content in the red box).

Now, I can pretty much guarantee that my level of understanding of what they meant when I was making these notes was pretty low, and they mean literally nothing to me now, a decade later and without revision.

This is also the case for the vast, vast majority of notes I made in this atomic and nuclear physics course . However, still managed to achieve a very high score in this subject and I really feel that this note taking approached helped me to do so!

To paint a bit more of a picture of my learning process, shortly after taking these notes, and after the lecture itself, I would sit down and try to decipher them whilst going back through the lecture, compare my notes to the other resources I had, work on them with friends, and frequently visit my lecturers during office hours on at least a monthly basis.

These notes also enabled me to ask high quality and specific questions of my lecturers during their office time. For example, based upon these notes, I could ask a question like:

‘In the lecture on June 3rd you said, ‘the parity change of an electric multipole goes as (-1)^L, but (-1)^(1+L) for a magnetic multipole.’ [the third line in my notes above]. I was trying to understand why this is and thought it might be because the emitted radiation is in phase for some reason, regardless of the original radiation source being electric or magnetic? Is this correct and if so, do you know why this is the case?’

Highly specific questions like the one above*, on content that was initially completely overwhelming, are enabled by taking highly specific notes of content not yet understood. In other words, I think that writing down things you don’t understand is often a crucial step, because it helps us to clearly define what we don’t understand yet, and provides a scaffold for us to dive deeper into those areas of confusions.

Therefore, I would suggest that we amend the advice, ‘never write anything that you don’t understand’ to. ‘If you don’t understand something that seems important’:

  1. Write it down verbatim (actual quotes) from the lecturer, which ensures that you’re not recording information that you have misinterpreted in your confusion

  2. Follow up and do the work required to understand this key but confusing idea, which includes searching other sources on the topic, working with classmates on it, and asking informed questions to your teacher or lecturer during office hours

If you can’t write accurately enough or aren’t paying enough attention to do 1, or if you know you won’t be bothered to do 2, then I would say it’s probably not worth writing it down. But, given that you’re reading this now, I’m guessing you’re the kind of person who is willing to do the work required to accurately record those things which you don’t understand, and then to go back and diligently decipher them at a later date!**

*I have no idea if this question actually makes sense! If it doesn’t, please let me know! If you know the answer, please share if you do happen to be up with your theoretical nuclear physics! I’m actually kind of interested in it again after looking at these notes!

**If not, perhaps the best course of action is prescribed by the advice that Dan gave, in jest, on this topic: 'Never write down something you don't understand. Instead, leave the room and probably drop the class.' (ep 79. 51:34)"

Announcements and Opportunities

The UKs leading thinker, writer, and speaker on Instructional Coaching, Josh Goodrich, is coming back to Australia in October to run a series of Steplab Instructional Coaching Intensives in Perth, Melbourne, and Sydney. And it isn’t just Josh who is coming, we’ll also be joined by Sam Sims and Harry Fletcher-Wood for a couple of them too! Here’s the info…

Steplab Instructional Coaching Intensive - Perth (Wed October 11th) with Josh Goodrich and Ollie Lovell. (This week we’ve had Steph Le Lievre confirm that she’ll be coming along, as well as a delegation of the Serpentine crew, very exciting!)

Steplab Instructional Coaching Intensive - Melbourne (Fri October 13th) with Josh Goodrich, Ollie Lovell, and Sam Sims. (Sarah Richardson from Australian Education Research Organisation confirmed this week that she’ll be coming along : )

Steplab Instructional Coaching Intensive - Sydney (Wed October 18th) with Josh Goodrich, Ollie Lovell, Sam Sims, and Harry Fletcher-Wood

Here’s what instructional and coaching expert, Toni Hatten-Roberts, had to say about the last intensive run by Josh and Ollie in March 2023

The StepLab (coaching) professional learning day was truly inspiring! The presenters were engaging and on point. The day provided a great mix of understanding the evidence that underpins Instructional Coaching, as well as practical sessions throughout. Each step was modelled by the presenters and as attendees we were involved in ‘deliberate practice’ of the key routines that make up the stages of being a highly effective coach.

Toni Hatten-Roberts, Pedagogy Coach, COGlearn

I hope to see you at one of the events. They’re filling up quickly!

Other threads to pull on…

Quote of the week

“A fool takes no pleasure in understanding, but only in expressing his opinion.”

Proverbs 18:2