How I take smart digital notes—Part 3: Videos and podcasts

Ramses Oudt • Reading time: 7 minutes

Click here to read part 2 of this series

Video is eating the world and your learning experience.

Increasingly, online courses consist of video. Sometimes you may get a few slides or a booklet, but few course creators try to help you understand their ideas in different ways. I suspect that’s also why such a small percentage of people finish online courses.

I’m letting you in on a secret: the online course creator you paid hundreds of dollars isn’t giving you video because it’s best for you. Your expensive course is mostly video content because it’s easier for the creator to produce.

Online education is broken—just a much as physical education. If your course leader is not helping you learn and is instead dumping his or her knowledge on you, they’re a content marketer, not a teacher.

Regardless of how screwed up online courses are, there are still ways to benefit from the content. The presentation may not be ideal for most learners, but if you know how to handle video and audio, you can learn from many sources.

In this post, I tell you how I approach videos and podcasts. I’ve included podcasts as many of the same principles apply, even though I hardly use them to learn new information—only to prime myself or to revisit ideas.

My method is simple and by no means the absolute best way. But, after consuming hundreds of hours of video courses, I can say this method produces high quality notes that I will understand years down the line.

How to learn from videos

The funny thing about online course creators is that they like to slam college education, but they’re basically offering a light-weight version of the real thing. Courses with live cohorts are selling you lectures where they talk through a few slides and allow you to ask questions. Hardly revolutionary, right?

Don’t treat live sessions as a regular lecture, though. Online courses do have an upside; they can record everything and offer it for playback. Use this to your advantage.

Don’t take too many notes during live calls. Instead, participate in the discussion, ask questions, and only jot down the essentials. Use the recordings to revisit core ideas and take notes.

I keep these principles in mind when learning from videos:

Summarize, don’t copy

The number one mistake many college students make is copying the speaker word-for-word. Instead of thinking about the ideas and summarizing them, they write precisely what their teacher tells them.

Many adult learners never unlearn this habit and waste their time taking notes. They write too much, not in their own words, and as a consequence, never revisit them because there’s simply too much to process.

To help yourself, summarize ideas and make your notes scannable. You could even consider progressively summarizing them.

Go digital and use the outline method

There are a bunch of note-taking systems that help you standardize the way you write. There’s the Cornell method, mind mapping method, and flow method, among others. They’re all created with paper in mind, but also work digitally.

I prefer the outline method, which is writing one short idea per bullet point. I nest related concepts under the main nodes.

Outliner apps like Dynalist and Roam have brought the outline method to our digital environments and fed it steroids. Using an outliner app also makes it easy to link your notes to related ideas.

If you don’t like writing outlines, consider the mind mapping method; they’re basically the same, but mind maps are more visual. Use a tool like XMind so you can easily export what you’ve written to an outline.

Use a large screen

If you use a small screen and have to switch back-and-forth between apps, you are hurting your learning process. Make learning from videos as frictionless as possible, and prevent having to change windows.

Use a large screen or multiple screens so you can keep your learning materials and notes side-by-side.

Use timestamps

I like to be as thorough as possible in my written notes. When I explain a concept to myself, I retain more and can quickly retrieve it from my note-taking system. Still, some explanations are so nuanced that it’s impossible to capture them well in an atomic note.

That’s why I add timestamps to my video notes. Timestamps allow me to revisit ideas in short bursts without skipping through the video to find what I’m looking for.

When you’re learning from a YouTube video, you can directly link to a specific part:

YouTube share pop-up
Example from my public Roam database—Tim Ferriss: How I Take Notes and Journal | Brainstorming + Focusing + Reducing Anxiety

To get the timestamped URL from YouTube, simply hit the SHARE button and check the box at the bottom that says Start at:

YouTube share pop-up

How to learn from podcasts

To me, podcasts are videos without the visual component. This makes it more challenging to learn from them, as you’re missing a lot of context while content still moves linearly.

I don’t often use podcasts to learn. I might listen to a bunch of episodes when I’m breaking into a subject, but that’s because I can listen to them while doing chores and don’t need to understand ideas fully yet.

If you use podcasts as a learning tool, keep these principles in mind:

Curate episodes and listen in batches

Few podcast episodes are intended as learning material and lack a logical order. Topics are discussed as the conversation flows, and it takes a good interviewer to keep a structure.

If you want to use podcasts to learn, I suggest you curate a playlist of episodes that discuss the same ideas (or at least related ideas). Then, I recommend you listen to these episodes in batches—listen to 2-3 episodes in a row and write down your takeaways from each.

Read the show notes before listening

Not every podcast offers show notes, but if they do—use them! It’s unlikely an entire podcast is useful, so you’ll want to pick out the parts that are. Good show notes also provide timestamps so that you can skim the episode.

If the podcast producer hasn’t provided notes, you could check out sites like Podcast Notes and Listen Notes. Podcast summaries often lack timestamps, but at least they give you a map of the territory.

Skip what’s not useful

If you have access to time-stamped show notes, look at what’s exciting and listen to those parts. Podcast episodes tend to contain a lot of fluff as the conversation picks up steam, especially in the beginning.

As with books and articles, don’t feel bad for not finishing an episode. Listen to the interesting bits and skip the rest. You’re better off listening to parts of a bunch of episodes that discuss the same ideas than to listen to one in its entirety.

Instead of completely skipping chunks of episodes, you can also speed up less useful parts. More on that below.

Use timestamps

Keeping timestamps with your podcast notes is even more critical than it is for video. With video, you can at least skip around and see where you are. With podcasts, jumping around is tricky as you need to listen to know where you are in the conversation.

To quickly create time-stamped notes, I use Overcast (which also has an awesome “Smart Speed” feature). Like many web players, Overcast has timestamps, but their implementation makes it super easy to write them. No need to convert minutes into seconds, you can just use regular time annotation:

Overcast timestamp format
Example from my public Roam database—Andy Matuschak: Designing Education – North Star Podcast

The power of speeding up

The big advantage of videos and podcasts is that you can manipulate playback. Although audio does not give you the non-linear flexibility of text, you can still shave time from learning sessions. We can learn a thing or two from the blind community about speed learning.

Most players have a speed setting; you can decrease or increase the playback speed, often in steps of 25%. That means that if you play a 1-hour lesson on speed 1.5x, you’ll finish listening in 40 minutes. Use that time to take pause, think, and take notes.

When it comes to speeding up content, also know when to slow down and test out what works for you. Some teachers are fast talkers, whereas others sound like they’re about to fall asleep. Also, give your ears a moment to adjust; if you speed up a video or podcast episode, the first seconds may feel overwhelming. Luckily our ears adjust quickly, so you won’t notice the increased speed after a while.

If increasing playback speed isn’t something for you, that’s fine. But don’t knock it before you’ve tried it. I used to hate changing the pace as it often made the voices sound squeaky. Luckily, players have gotten better and adjust the pitch.

Hit the pause button

Make sure you find the pause button; you’ll use it a lot when learning from video and audio. Especially if you speed up playback, you’ll need to pause to think.

Give yourself time to process what you learn. Pause to think about what you have just heard and how it applies to your life. Then, write down your takeaways.

Don’t let the video play while you write your notes. You may have become a champion at listening and writing simultaneously in college, but you’re also likely to miss new information while writing. Do yourself a favor and pause when you write.

As a rule of thumb, I pause the video/audio whenever one concept was discussed or when there’s a natural break in the lesson. I simply pause—I don’t go back to hear the exact explanation. By drawing from memory, I practice active recall (which increases the chance I retain what I write), and I avoid copying the speaker verbatim.

How do you learn from multimedia?

As online courses mostly consist of videos, we need to adjust our learning methods. In my opinion, video and audio are not the best ways to learn new material, but I guess I’ll have to deal with it.

What I outlined here is my approach. After much trial and error, this method allows me to learn from sources that don’t make an effort to help me learn. No matter the presentation, I have my ways to extract value from educational content.

If you have another method that works, I’d love to hear from you. Send me an email or tweet at me.

Next in this series: How I take smart digital notes—Part 4: Organizing input