Everyone wants to shoot faster, wants the best new piece of gear. A faster draw, a new pack, and an upgraded drop-in trigger are all tangible, physical things that elicit positive emotions and hope for improvement. But soft skills are where you make up for any lack of natural ability and a limited bank account. And if you have talent and money? Well, there might be a missing ingredient that could help give you the edge. I’m a gear nerd and, as an eternal learner, am driven by a passion for knowledge that has turned me into a training junkie. However, what’s the use of paying the time and money to attend a class if I’m not retaining that information and putting it into practice? That’s why I take good notes. Copious amounts of notes.
Note-taking tips to maximize your training investment by improving your notetaking
Why? Because you will learn more. Smart people and science say so.
How? That varies. Before we get into the why of note-taking, we have to look at learning preferences.
Auditory learners learn best by hearing information, visual learners learn by seeing the information, and kinesthetic learners best retain the information by putting it into practice themselves. Though mind-numbing, there is a reason PowerPoint classes are so popular. It allows you, the student, to see the information and hear it from the instructor.
If the class is set up correctly and the information is relevant, you will put the skills into practice (kinesthetic learning) to reinforce what was heard and seen. You likely learn in multiple styles, not just one, so all students are exposed to multiple styles of presentation to ensure learning for the masses.
What does all that nerd instructor stuff actually mean for you though, my future notetaking converts? Most shooting and tactics classes are primarily taught on the line or in the shoot house which means you as a student are only exposed to the information auditorily and maybe a demo provides a visual. But part of the problem is that you are likely not an auditory-only learner.
Most students aren’t wired to learn through hearing only so, the chance that you are retaining what you hear come out of your instructor’s mouth while you’re on the line or taking a break to jam mags is very slim. You can overcome this by writing down what the instructor is saying, thus making it possible to process that information visually as well.
Here’s the real kicker though and why note-taking is so valuable for learning. Whether you hear it or see it, the information you are trying to learn is automatically reinforced in your brain when you go through the act of physically writing it down. Don’t take my word for it though. People much smarter than me with some fancy letters behind their last name believe that writing notes by hand forces your brain to receive the information, digest it, and then regurgitate it in your own understanding of it. This maximizes your learning, comprehension, and application of that information as compared to just hearing it.
⚠️ And for the millennials out there who are tied to your keyboards, typing the information doesn’t produce the same cognitive benefit as handwriting it. While typing, the brain doesn’t process the information and instead simply regurgitates it in an exact record.
So, put down your phone 📴 and pick up the pen and paper. ✍️
If I finally have you convinced to make your money count and take notes at your next class, here are a few ways to improve those new-found note-taking skills
1. Take notes like you’re going to have to teach it to someone else. Because you might have to.
A couple of years ago I had a lot of freedom to plan whatever training I wanted to for my platoon, and the pistol and rifle ranges we ran internally and for other units were built on a solid foundation of civilian courses I had previously taken. You may or may not ever be in the position to teach a platoon how to properly draw or conduct a magazine change, but when your friend/mom/friend’s mom asks you to teach them how to load their new pistol because you are the “resident gun expert” in their world, where do you start? We can’t all be instructors (unless you’ve got a YouTube account and a beard apparently…or skinny jeans and a fast forward button) but you could probably start with the what the instructor taught you when you took that last class. Wouldn’t it be nice if you had something to refer to? If you took notes like you should have during that handgun course, you’re going to have a much better foundation of knowledge to pull from than just what’s floating around in that non-instructor head of yours.
Note-taking is a skill set that isn’t necessarily granted to humankind automatically, though. It too must be learned, and the skill and your own system must be developed.
2. Keep the first page open for gear recommendations.
After annotating the class, instructor, location, and dates of training, I keep the remainder of the first page open for a working gear list. As I go through the class and identify issues with the gear I’m using, hear recommendations for gear from the instructors, and chat with other students about their equipment, I write down items that I want to try or learn more about. I like to keep it at the front of the class notes to allow for easy reference, otherwise, those gear notes tend to get lost in the multiple pages of notes I know you’re going to start taking now.
3. Identify a topic and follow it with short bulleted sentences.
Your topic can be a word or two or a short sentence and the following notes should ideally be bulleted or numbered for organization. This technique allows you to group those thoughts into segments, making it easier to remember, but also makes the information easier to find while reviewing notes. Don’t take notes in sentence format. Keep it short and concise.
4. Write down quotes. Write down who said the quotes.
Who doesn’t like to post a photo or an AAR after a class? You’ll sound so much cooler and self-reflective if you add a quote that makes it sound like you’re the next tactical Epictetus dropping knowledge and wisdom on how warrior monkish you and your friends have become by getting in touch with the wolves in your soul… or whatever.
But really, your instructor may have some good quips that really drove home a point for you, or maybe it was a student who had a touch of inspiration. Write it down. Everyone’s got something they can teach you, no matter who they are.
Write it down or it will forever be lost.
5. Take your notebook with you.
Bring your notebook with you to the line. Bring it into the shoot house while doing dry runs. Bring it with you to the bathroom to ponder. How many times does an instructor stop the course of fire and start dropping knowledge at the line because a student provided a spontaneous learning moment?
Don’t think that you will remember that key piece of information when you get back to your gear to write it down. You won’t. You definitely won’t remember that drill you want to practice either.
6. Buy a good notebook.
Just like your gear, you don’t want to skimp with your notebook. Size and durability do matter. You want a notebook that can fit in your cargo pocket for easy accessibility and you want one that doesn’t fall apart over time with use and inclement weather.
I recommend the Rite in the Rain All-Weather Field Book. Mine has gone with me to the field for weeks at a time; rain, dirt, sweat, swamps, and all. It’s still kicking.
7. Develop your own system.
My note-taking system has changed and evolved over the last decade, sometimes changing depending on the topic and information flow. As you take notes and learn how you want to organize them according to your own learning style and cognitive organization, your own system will develop and evolve, and you will get better at capturing that information.
Don’t be afraid to go back and rewrite your notes either. I’ve done this many times and it only helped me retain the information even more and also be able to legibly read it in a more organized fashion in the future.
So, what did we learn today, my tactical Epictetus-es?
Take a notebook (and a pen). Write stuff in it. Use that knowledge to get better.
And help others around you get better.