Why and How to Practice Note-taking as a Medical Interpreter

Why and How to Practice Note-Taking as a Medical Interpreter

Whether you’re an in-person or remote medical interpreter, or even a someone just learning how to interpret in medical settings, note-taking is one of those fundamental skills you absolutely must have down pat in order to succeed. The problem is, many interpreter training courses skim over note-taking, leaving a lot up to us medical interpreters to figure out on our own. Furthermore, even if given intensive instruction in note-taking in medical interpretation, many of us aren’t given the tools or even the encouragement to practice. But, at the end of the day, practice is key when it comes to this valuable interpreting skill.

Habit-Forming: How the Brain Learns New Things

Children are the perfect example for all things related to learning… because they have to do so much of it! From learning how to express their needs (verbally or otherwise) to learning what actions could result in getting hurt, the fact is that children most often learn new words and concepts through repetition; being exposed to the same ideas over and over again until it finally sticks. But children are not unique when it comes to learning by repetition, and this same principle can be applied to adult learning as well.

In an article about applying psychological science to classroom instruction, the American Psychological Association emphasizes that no matter the subject matter, “differences in students’ performance are affected by how much they engage in deliberate practice.” This practice is a form of repetition that requires you to use a skill or concept over and over again, which ultimately translates into the end result of being able to perform a task effectively.

Once you repeat something enough, it almost seems to become effortless and automatic. But when it comes to acquiring new habits, many people believe the key is to be rewarded for the performance of the habit they’d like to develop, whether that be going to the gym every day, reading a book every week, or in the case of many medical interpreters, practicing note-taking. The fact is, not only is repetition the best predictor of forming a new habit, the strength of that new habit is also a future predictor of not only how often, but how well you can then perform that habitual task.

To put it simply: think of acquiring habits like a sort of sandwich. You start with repetition to establish this new habit (which in this case is our metaphorical first slice of bread). Next comes the good stuff: the new habit you set out to form (the real star of the show in your proverbial sandwich). Lastly comes more repetition (or that second slice of bread to top it all off). Now that your habit is established, this sets off a self-sustaining sort of repetition in which you engage in what is now your new habit: utilizing and practicing note-taking for medical interpretation.

Pitfalls of Practice: How People Fail at Forming & Maintaining Habits

When it comes to learning new things, a lot of us rely on the same old tired study habits that we think have worked well for us in the past. The fact is, a lot of these methods are less-than-ideal, and these common misconceptions can start us off on the wrong foot if we’re trying to learn something. It’s essential to avoid these mistakes if you’re trying to get good at something like note-taking for interpretation:


Cramming, or waiting until the last minute to learn everything at once, is one of those bad habits that some people swear by. Many people who are fans of this “learning” method claim the adrenaline rush they get from an impending deadline makes them better. You’ll notice I put the word “learning” in quotes; I did this because you aren’t really learning anything, but rather temporarily storing a bunch of things to your short-term memory. They’ll never pass into your long-term memory, even if the information or skill you need (like note-taking) is being used shortly after you expose yourself to it.

Pro-tip #1: Cramming doesn’t work. Pro-tip #2: Sadly, learning does NOT occur by osmosis.

Learning Everything at Once

Much like cramming (the procrastinator’s version of this mistake), even if you dedicate a solid chunk of time to studying something once, it will only be committed to your short-term memory. Good luck engaging in this method and recalling anything with any sort of reliability at a later date or time!

Hoping for the Best Without Doing the Work

This mistake even sounds silly, but a lot of people engage in it without really realizing it. You can’t make a half-baked effort at practicing note-taking for interpretation (or none at all!), then expect miraculous results. By no means am I saying you shouldn’t be positive and have confidence that you can get better, but getting good at something does require work.

A positive attitude can be helpful, but that alone isn’t going to get you anywhere. Remember: a goal without a plan is just a wish.

Getting Bored of Not Seeing Quick Results

You should be seeing a trend here: learning doesn’t happen overnight. It requires sustained effort. This is the trap many of us fall into because we think hard work should yield solid results sooner rather than later. Just like any other skill or habit, note-taking is one of those things that takes time to get good at. If you find yourself getting bored, consider challenging yourself or even turning practicing or studying into a game. Persistence is key!

Feeling Like Studying is a Chore

This one comes down to your perspective when it comes to studying: are you just trying to “get over it” or do you see studying as an opportunity for growth? If you’re viewing studying interpretation note-taking symbols or practicing note-taking for consecutive as some sort of unpleasant task to get out of the way, you’re setting yourself up for failure. Consider a shift in mindset and reframing studying as something positive: studying is an opportunity to get better at note-taking, which will ultimately make you a better interpreter. This mindset works wonders when it comes to many things in your personal growth as an interpreter, such viewing problems and challenges as a window of opportunity to shine.

The Plan, the Myth, the Legend: Spaced Repetition

We’ve established that studying symbols and practicing note-taking, as with anything you’d like to learn or get better at, is something that takes time and requires repetition. Learning isn’t done all in one go, nor is it something that happens overnight. This is why spaced repetition is such an incredibly powerful tool when it comes to learning something new or honing a necessary skill. But what’s spaced repetition? This bite-sized video gives a great overview!

To put it simply: spaced repetition, or practicing or studying something (like, you guessed it, note-taking) at regular intervals results in retaining these things in your memory for a longer period of time. You can get good and you can keep it that way. The above video also mentions the importance of having a strong primary memory, which means really understanding something inside and out versus just mindlessly repeating or replicating it.

Both of these concepts: creating a strong primary memory and engaging in spaced repetition are the foundation of InterpreMed’s note-taking courses for medical interpreting. Our system isn’t just about mindlessly teaching you symbols to memorize, but instead the process by which these symbols are developed. You then have a choice: use our pre-made symbols and incorporate them into your note-taking repertoire, or come up with your own symbols using our innovative process. We also teach you how to study and practice your note-taking and symbols, as well as give you the tools to develop regular study habits based on spaced repetition.

Habitual Note-taking: Taking the Guesswork Out of It!

Developing regular study habits can be hard, especially when it comes to something seemingly as ambiguous as note-taking for medical interpretation. As previously mentioned, there really aren’t any standardized note-taking systems or tried-and-true methods for practicing note-taking and symbols. This is where InterpreMed can step in and take a lot of the guesswork out of developing good note-taking and symbols practice. Let’s take a look at some of the features of our note-taking any symbol courses:

Symbols Glossary

As of the beginning of March, we have over 200 unique symbols in our extensive symbols glossary. Each entry shows you a new symbol, its possible meanings in English and Spanish, potential alternative symbols, as well as an abstraction of that symbol (usually an image with the symbol traced over it). This helps you visualize your symbols as you learn them, as well as provide you with a quick reference for possible symbols for concepts you may have difficulty expressing in symbol form.

The entry for “car” in the InterpreMed symbols glossary.

Flash Cards

Using flash cards again and again is something that is likely very familiar to us medical interpreters, who often have to learn new medical vocabulary. In addition to the symbols glossary, InterpreMed members have access to pre-made flashcards to save you the time of having to create your own. Get straight to the nitty-gritty and start studying!

Audio Exercises

Many of our existing consecutive interpreting practice audios are suitable for practicing note-taking, but these may be more advanced for beginners. This is why we have dedicated audio exercises to practice putting your new note-taking skills and symbols to use. Audio is a fantastic way to replicate note-taking in real interpreting scenarios, and our audio exercises begin with transcribing words to symbols. You’ll move up to transcribing entire phrases into symbols in no time! You can check the answer keys at the end of each lesson to check your work.

Symbol Transcriptions

As we all know, symbols for note-taking are just part of the equation. If you’re struggling with stringing symbols together and expressing full thoughts in your note-taking, symbol transcriptions are an excellent way to see how to put symbols into practice. This is also a great way to double-check your work and make sure you’re striking a good balance between memory and note-taking.

An example symbol transcription of one of InterpreMed’s original scripts.

Recorded Meetings

Although our consecutive interpreting note-taking lessons and courses can certainly be completed on their own, we highly recommend taking advantage of our live advanced note-taking practice meetings to familiarize yourself with overarching concepts and put your skills into practice with your peers. We have meetings at regular intervals and if you happen to miss a meeting (or are joining InterpreMed now) you can view recordings of all past meetings on your own time.

Your Note-taking Journey with InterpreMed

Note-taking for medical interpreting really is a new way of thinking for many interpreters. It’s not like regular writing or note-taking and it really requires learning how to “write” and conceptualize symbols in a whole new way. This may sound like a lot, but with our systemic, standardized, and efficient approach, you too can become an expert in note-taking for consecutive medical interpretation!

Overall, repetition is the key to success, but this requires patience and a study routine that may seem difficult to tackle on your own. With InterpreMed’s help, we can get you started on a path to more effectively utilizing this seemingly unassuming tool to its fullest extent. But remember: this requires effort on your part, too! While InterpreMed can get you started off on the right foot, you should still be doing your best to apply the new symbols you learn into your note-taking and being mindful as you continue to interpret. Practice and repetition are the keys to success when it comes to learning new symbols and becoming skilled at note-taking.

If you’re not already a member of InterpreMed, join now to take advantage of all our amazing membership features, including our medical interpretation note-taking and symbols practice!

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