Is it worth buying another student’s notes?

If you’re considering purchasing someone’s notes, please read this.

You’re wasting your money.

“But what if the notes are a total bargain or they are free?”

I still wouldn’t do it.

If it gives you a boost in confidence, sure. Go for it. But don’t delude yourself. And don’t allow those notes to make you mentally lazy.

The trap of using other people’s notes

When I was in law school, my friend’s brother gave me a huge stack of his typed notes for a couple of legal units. I felt like I had hit the jackpot.

I had something that other students didn’t have. I thought “These notes will save me a lot of time”.

Let’s be real. In hindsight, I was fooling myself.

Those notes did not save me time. What they gave me was a false sense of confidence.

Those notes were useless. Not because they were terrible notes (they weren’t). But they weren’t my notes. In order to understand the topic, I had to make my own notes.

So I threw those notes in the bin and I created my own notes (i.e. a set of mind maps). As it turns out, this is a more effective and rewarding way to learn.

Why create your own notes?

When you create your own notes, you have solid evidence that you’ve wrestled with that topic. Copying and pasting paragraphs from your textbook won’t cut it. That’s not an effective way to learn.

Here’s the thing about learning . . .

We expect learning to be fast and easy. But most of the time, it isn’t easy.

Learning is usually a struggle. My law degree was a struggle. So was my psychology degree. And my PhD was the biggest struggle of all (I nearly called it quits several times). But it felt good to struggle through it and come out the other side with a stronger, smarter brain. I’m not saying this to brag. It’s just what’s so.

My point is there are no short cuts when it comes to deep learning. It’s normal to feel confused when you’re learning something new. But you need to work your way out of the confusion. Creating your own notes in your own words and pictures will help you to do this. You don’t get that same deep understanding by looking at someone else’s notes.

When it comes to deep learning, you need to focus on the process (not the end result). As novelist Tara Moss says:

“Give yourself the mental freedom to enjoy the process. Because the process is a long one.”

The notetaking process helps you to memorise information (especially when you draw pictures). The great thing is you can customise your notes for your brain.

For instance, when I create notes I draw out examples to help me understand abstract concepts. Another person’s notes won’t include examples that connect back to my own life experience.

An example of my notes from law school

If you buy someone’s notes, you need to realise that those notes may contain errors, be incomplete, and/or irrelevant. The information in those notes may not be 100% accurate.

When I was writing my PhD thesis, I was reasonably confident that I knew what I was talking about. But one of my examiners (an international expert) picked up on several things I misinterpreted from one of his research studies. He said, “Actually, that’s not what I found in my research . . .”

I had to go back and edit this part of my thesis. What I’m trying to say is no one is perfect. We all make mistakes.

It’s much safer to refer to a textbook, which has been fact checked and carefully edited than another student’s notes.

What I would buy from a past student

There are a few things I would consider purchasing from past students:

• Study guides created by experts
• Past exam papers with the answers
• Practice tests with the answers

study guides

Since the curriculum can change, it’s always best to double check with your teachers to make sure the resources you have purchased are relevant and useful.

It’s also important to keep in mind that the student’s teacher may have created some of these resources you are about to purchase (or have purchased). If that’s the case, you need to realise that you’re purchasing the teacher’s work (not the students). When you do this, there are ethical and moral issues you need to consider.

The first issue is teachers spend a lot of time and energy creating tests and exams. Many teachers don’t want to have to reinvent the wheel every year. They may want to use those tests again. When a student sells these tests to future students, it creates an unfair playing field by giving some students an advantage.

Last week I was talking to a teacher about this issue. He told me he felt annoyed some of his ex-students were flogging his work to others and making a profit. I get it. I would feel annoyed, too.

Use other people’s notes to inspire you

The only reason I would get someone’s notes is for inspiration: to inspire me to create my own notes in my own unique style.

If you haven’t developed a habit of taking notes yet, I would recommend looking at other people’s notes to see how they do it.

But keep in mind, most students create text heavy, typed notes without any pictures. Even though these notes are the norm, they aren’t particularly effective in terms of helping you to retain information.

I would recommend looking at examples of notes that are handwritten and contain lots of pictures, symbols and colour. There are plenty of great examples of visual notes online. You can see some examples of my university notes here. For other examples, google Sketch notes, mind maps, Cornell method, and visual notes.

What if your teacher gives you their notes or a set of PowerPoint slides?

I still think you should take your own notes. Even if it’s just to keep your mind a little more engaged in class, it’s well worth doing.

To sum up

Resist the temptation to purchase other people’s notes. Save your money by making your own notes. Experiment with different notetaking methods. Find a way that works for you. And practice. This is a skill that takes time to develop and master.

Remember, there are no shortcuts when it comes to deep learning. You need to sit down, focus your mind and wrestle with the ideas on paper.