Rhythms of Learning: How to take notes on YouTube videos
A long time ago, I found myself in a vicious learning cycle, where I’d sacrifice time to work through a YouTube tutorial, turn back to my life’s responsibilities for a few weeks, and then realize with horror that I’d forgotten nearly everything.
Today, I’ll share with you some general strategies that helped me to climb out of this hole.
I started taking notes, in very specific ways, which I’ll cover in this blog post. These techniques won’t necessarily be right for your situation, but they will provide some building blocks you can use to build your own personalized learning system.
Step 1: the art of finding a tutorial by an author that resonates with you
Selection is a meta-skill to learning; by improving your selection of learning content, you automatically increase the effectiveness of the content itself, without having to do anything.
Here is a process and criteria that I use to select consistently high-quality tutorials:
- do a search for the programming topic you want to study
- open the first 8 results in separate browser tabs, closing any tabs by the same author
- click to about 1min 30seconds (seems to be a good time when most creators are past the intro)
- watch the video 30 seconds
- after you’ve watched a small piece of all the videos, select the author you like the best
Things to look for:
- good audio, legible text
- the level of explanation matches where you’re at in your learning journey
- beginner: look for authors that explain everything typed on the screen
- advanced: look for authors that only explain the new code their typing in
- the areas of focus
- relations are explored as part of the tutorial
- only the specific topic at hand is covered in the tutorial
Things to avoid:
- “AnNowImGonnaDoThis” and “AnNowImGonnaTypeThat” without any explanation as to what this code actually represents
- “And now I’m gonna do this
- Instead: find an author that speaks from a proactive tone instead
- “OK, and now we’re going to set up X. In order to do this, we will type Y into the terminal"
Browse all the videos from that author, and select 25 minutes of content.
Step 2: Brain soak unfamiliar content
The basic idea is that learning is related to memory, which poses a problem for brand-new abstract content: you have no existing memories to attach the new content to.
To mitigate this, we do a brain soak of the 25-minute content, which means watching the videos at 1.5x speed--that's it.
Just listen to the words they are saying, and in particular vocabulary terms that are repeated over and over again—these are the major components of the topic.
This step will create a weak scaffold of words that you can associate the actual learning content to. Although it's not as good as having actual mastery and deep experience of the content, it's better than nothing.
Spend 25 minutes doing the brain soak, until you're confident that you could at least speak intelligently about it for a 30-second interaction--I imagine myself speaking to a project manager, client, or another developer about the topic.
Step 3: use a computer to quickly capture content in real-time
Video content (also called "animated content" in academia) poses two challenges for learners:
- You can’t skim the video content easily
- Mixture of audio and visual content makes transcription incomplete
- You can only refer back to timestamps, instead of page/line numbers
We can overcome these challenges by setting up systems to quickly capture spoken and visual content.
How to prepare for content capture:
- set up a hotkey to capture a region of the screen
- for example, on macOS it’s CMD+SHIFT+4
- Open a note-taking program, such as Evernote, and create a note for the video
- If the video has a table of contents in the description, type each entry as a bold heading inside your note, so that you have a place to quickly capture content for each topic
Programming tutorials are typically project-based, starting with a snippet of code that is iterated on, as the tutorial progresses. Ideally, we'd want to follow along with the project, gaining that deep understanding--but we don't have time for that.
Therefore, we flip into a "capture" mindset, plowing through the video, and taking quick notes and actual screenshots of the code the instructor is typing:
- As soon as the author mentions something important, pause the video
- type a single sentence into your notes, under the bold headline for that section
- take a screen capture of the video content underneath your summary
- type in the exact time stamp in case you need to go back to this video later to resolve a question
After that section is complete, delete the screenshots and summaries that aren’t really important, expand your quick notes into actual sentences, and maybe look up one important concept on StackOverflow or Google.
The important thing is not to get bogged down here, and maintain forward velocity through the tutorial.
There is no step 4
One of the great things about memory is that it's automatic--we learn by doing. At this point, you should have enough knowledge to muddle through your work, and if you get stuck, you know which vocabulary terms and concepts to Google.
As you complete your work, those areas of knowledge which are useful will automatically form memories and associations around them, and you don't have to do anything else.
Extra Credit: Cement long-term memories with physical notes
Physical notes are a great tool, to help you “re-hydrate” content that you haven’t seen in long periods of time, such as 6-24 months.
Although physical notes are their own topic, that deserve their own article, here are a few scattershot tips to help you improve their impact
Physical notes are a reflective process.
You’ve already done summaries and content capture in your electronic notes—don’t bother repeating that content here:
- write down connections you made to other topics while watching the video
- the process of physical writing is itself a memory that you will form connections to new content in the future
- the physical process of writing activates multi-modal memory triggers--memories anchored in place by sight, sound, touch, and the physical space of the room you're in, rather than just visual images on a screen
Step 5: sustain memories with spaced repetition
Sometimes you don't have a practical project to work on right away, and you need an industrial-strength method to cement that content, so that you can still recall it in 6 to 24 months.
For example, one time I went through a machine learning course, even though I didn't plan on working in the field for at least a year--I still wanted to retain all that content.
An effective tool to use in this situation is spaced practice, which basically means "Write your own flashcards, and tell a computer show them to you at decreasing intervals over time".
Spaced practice has several benefits:
- mitigating the effects of distractions
- reducing the time it takes to recall memories
- sustaining memories in the absence of a practical project
- sustaining memories in the absence of emotional associations to the content
This is beyond the scope of this blog post, but I challenge you to check out a program called Anki https://apps.ankiweb.net/ and write just one spaced practice card for every tutorial you watch.
The important thing is to make your own flashcards, make as few flashcards as possible, and to keep your spaced practice light and fun. If anything within this practice becomes heavy and burdensome, wield that ban hammer and suspend all cards that aren't absolutely important to maintain.
Remember that you can start very small and simple, and gradually build up a spaced repetition practice over months or years.
You can do this right now.
Step 6: Accept that mastering a skill requires time and effort
In my personal experience, doing all of the note-taking and spaced practice has doubled the time it takes to consume a YouTube video.
For example, a 45-minute video will actually take around an hour and a half to capture, plus the 25-minute brain soak added on at the beginning.
The tradeoff is that I’ve completely mastered the content from the videos I do decide to watch, and I can recall specific details from tutorials that I’ve watched five years ago.
I’ve thrived in my career, in very difficult situations, by using this exact process, so I hope that it also unlocks something of value to you in your journey!
Resources for learning
The Learning Scientists: Elaborative Interrogation: https://www.learningscientists.org/learning-scientists-podcast/2017/11/1/episode-6-elaborative-interrogation
Scientific American: laptop vs hand-written notes: https://www.scientificamerican.com/article/a-learning-secret-don-t-take-notes-with-a-laptop/
The Global Scholars: Handwriting vs Typing: https://theglobalscholars.com/2018/10/19/handwriting-vs-typing-which-is-better/
Luca Lampariello general ways to improve listening comprehension: https://www.lucalampariello.com/improve-your-listening-comprehension/