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I am completing a year of postgraduate study in CS next semester. I am finishing a law degree this year, and I will use this to briefly explain what I mean when I refer to the 'structure' of University notes.

My preferred structure for authoring law notes:

  • Word
  • Two columns
  • 0.5cm margins (top, right, bottom, middle, left)
  • Body text (10pt, regular), 3 levels of headings (14/12/10pt, bold), 3 levels of bulleted lists
  • Color A background for cases
  • Color B background for legislation

I find that it's crucial to have a good structure from the outset. My key advice to a law student would be to ensure styles allows cases and legislation to be easily identified from supporting text, and not to include too much detail regarding the facts of cases. More than 3 levels of headings is too deep. More than 3 levels of a bulleted list is too deep.

In terms of CS, I am interested in similar advice; for example, any strategies that have been successfully employed regarding structure, and general advice regarding note taking. Has latex proved better than Word? Code would presumably need to be stylistically differentiated, and use a monospaced font - perhaps code could be written in TextMate so that it could be copied to retain syntax highlighting? (Are notes even that useful in a CS degree? I am tempted to simply use a textbook. They are crucial in law.)

I understand that different people may employ varying techniques and that people will have personal preferences, however I am interested in what these different techniques are.


Thank you for the responses so far. To clarify, I am not suggesting that the approach should be comparable to that I employ for law. I could have been clearer.

The consensus so far seems to be - just learn it. Structure of notes/notes themselves are not generally relevant. This is what I was alluding to when I said I was just tempted to use a textbook. Re the comment that said textbooks are generally useless - I strongly disagree. Sure, perhaps the recommended textbook is useless. But if I'm going to learn a programming language, I will (1) identify what I believe to be the best textbook, and (2) read it. I was unsure if the combination of theory with code meant that lecture notes may be a more efficient way to study for an exam. I imagine that would depend on the subject. A subject specifically on a programming language, reading a textbook and coding would be my preferred approach. But I was unsure if, given a subject containing substantive theory that may not be covered in a single textbook, people may have preferences regarding note taking and structure.

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closed as not constructive by gnat, Jim G., Martijn Pieters, Oleksi, MichaelT Mar 24 '13 at 14:55

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The only time I took notes was in my theory courses. Examples used in class would be only helpful if the profession likes to use those same examples on a test, otherwise notes in a pure programming class and writting down simply corner examples are pretty much useless. I would also argue that a textbook unless its a book on a particular CS Theory is also useless as a student. You can gain more knowlege in 5 hours of searching the internet and going to SO then 20 hours reading a textbook a professor picked out. There are a few exceptions of course most of those are 10+ years old. –  Ramhound Jun 21 '11 at 15:04
Take your time to structure your code, not your notes. –  Marcelo Jun 21 '11 at 15:06
@Ramhoud: Your comment is answer-worthy. I would've upvoted it. –  Jim G. Jun 21 '11 at 15:17
you will find yourself to be a better lawyer than a computer scientist if you approach computer science in the same way you approached law. –  Stargazer712 Jun 21 '11 at 15:32
What is the purpose of these notes? Revision for exams in 6 months, or refreshing your memory in 6 years? –  Peter Taylor Jun 21 '11 at 20:59
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5 Answers

Your biggest problem is that you're approaching computer science courses like you approach your law courses.

As @Ramhound and @Marcelo Hernández Rishmawy have already told you, your computer science notes are of limited utility.

Endeavor to understand the concepts, even at the expense of comprehensive notes in your notebook.

Warning: Students who approach computer science courses like they approach liberal arts courses typically fare the worst.

Math is probably computer science's closest cousin. I recommend that you approach your computer sciences courses like you approach your math courses (i.e. jot down useful examples if you wish, but not much more than that.)

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When I was in university, I did all my notes by hand. I color-coded everything through.

This is how I structured my CS notes:

  • Main notes were done in black
  • Code samples were done in blue, indented on both sides, with a box around them so I could find them quickly
  • Equations & theories were done in green
  • My side notes and questions were done in red
  • Important notes and anything the prof highlighted in the lecture were highlighted in yellow

I only ever wrote on one side of the page to prevent bleeding, and I always wrote big and left lots of white space so that I could add my own notes later, and to make things more readable when it was time to study.

Hope that helps you in some way. :)

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I only ever wrote in black, but I did use boxes and underlining to highlight code and text. I did make the mistake of writing on both sides though, which caused problems with damp summer storage, but my biggest mistake was trying to cram too much onto each page, leaving little space for subsequent notes, corrections and summaries. –  Mark Booth Jun 21 '11 at 16:46
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I just finished my first year of college and I'm a CS major.

In CS classes, your goal should not be simply retention but comprehension. You can write down pseudocode and color coded notes and all that, but it's MUCH more helpful to be able to sit back, close your eyes, and visualize what your professor just said. There's a difference between understanding what a pointer is and being able to make them "dance" in your mind.

Most of your class notes can be found online or clarified to SO/PSE. Most people know what binary search is, but far fewer know three different ways to code it. Average programmers know the runtime of common algorithms but good programmers understand how to compute that runtime - they understand why. You will do yourself a huge favor by just sitting, listening, and trying to understand as opposed to writing down whatever you hear/read and struggling to put it together later.

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In terms of note taking in class, I don't think that computer science is any different to other fields of study. No-one should be aiming to transcribe the lecture, a voice recorder can do that much better. Your aim in any lecture is to understand what is being explained, with notes there to keep track of things which are contrary to your assumptions, point for further study or research, and aids to recalling the details of the class later.

As for note taking itself, I know many people swear by the Cornell note-taking system which sounds quite similar to your law notes, and I can see the benefit of leaving space to record questions and allow easy review later. I certainly wish I'd known about this system when I was a student, I think it would have helped me study CS more efficiently.

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I keep theoretical notes separate, and separate files for programming languages like any programming examples or snippets for a particular language i have a separate file for it. With math i am a little bit disorganized :P but that's ok i guess.

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