Best Note-Taking Techniques

We never stop taking notes after we graduate; many of us do the same to one degree or another throughout our adult lives. It may not even be what you really think about – you just do it. But you could probably do it better , and this is where we come in. It might be time to get back to basics and reload your notes. Here are some of the best practices.

Take clear notes by keeping them simple

Organization is key in your notes, and the more organized you are, the more likely you are to actually remember this information. The main idea behind the notes is to keep them short, but still have enough triggers in the keywords to make your memory spike when you look at them again:

  • Stick to keywords and very short sentences.
  • Take notes in your own words (not verbatim from a teacher or colleague). The only exception to this is when you hear a good phrase that helps you remember the note, or when you write a direct quote.
  • Customize your note-taking style to suit your needs and speakers.

In fact, you only want to write down what’s important . Notes are tricky because you want to keep things simple and write down only the amount of information you need to help you remember it later. If you’re not already using it, the Text Expander can also dramatically speed up your note-taking process, allowing you to instantly enter our forms, bibliography information, and more.

You can also create a symbol system to quickly organize information. This includes using something like an asterisk to indicate an important task, or a question mark to indicate an item that you want to study later. The idea is to make it easier to scroll through your notes to find the parts that need more attention.

After you actually take your notes, you need a system to find what you are looking for. Tim Ferris recommends developing an indexing system so you can quickly find what you are looking for. This could mean manually paginating and writing a subject index at the beginning of the notebook to quickly find your notes.

He talks about how to do it with paper, but digital note-taking services like Evernote are great for this as well when you use tags. For the sake of simplicity, we also like Simplenote as a plain text method that also supports tags. Just make sure you always tag your notes with relevant information, such as a course, meeting, project, or chapter.

Find the note-taking system that works for you

You have many options for different methods of doing notes, but none of them are not suitable for everyone. Depending on the circumstances and your type of person, you will have better luck with certain methods. So, it’s best to try a few.

One of the research summaries from the WAC Journal indicates that structuring notes in a hierarchy (much like an outline) is most useful for students. Since the notes in the hierarchy are essentially just a diagram, you can use just about any writing program to keep things organized. This style allows you to organize things, but it is not always useful in the real world when teachers and colleagues are jumping around the topics they are learning.

This is where non-linear notes come in handy , including techniques such as mind mapping , Cornell’s system, or smart wisdom . Each of these types of notes is useful for certain people. Cornell’s grid-based system is very popular and easy to use for lectures, and while it’s usually associated with brainstorming, mind mapping is great for taking notes during meetings . It takes a long time, but it is worth experimenting with different methods to see which works best for you.

Many of these non-linear note-taking techniques work great both on paper and digitally. You can print a set of guidelines for something like Cornell’s system, or get a template to use on your computer. For mind mapping, you have tons of digital note options . There are also tons of new note taking apps that you might want to try.

Don’t waste time on outdated methods

It has long been recommended that you re-read, highlight, underline, or even summarize your notes to help you retain information. The problem, as shown in the Psychological Science Association’s report , is that most of these methods aren’t worth the time. In fact, as Time reports , they are mostly ineffective:

Highlighting and underlining led the authors to a list of ineffective learning strategies. While this is common practice, research shows that they provide no benefit beyond simple reading of the text. Some studies even show that highlighting can interfere with learning; as it draws attention to particular facts, it can make it difficult to establish connections and conclusions. Almost as bad is rereading practice, a common exercise that is far less effective than some of the best techniques you can use. Finally, summarizing or writing down the main points of the text can be helpful for those who understand it, but, again, there are much better ways to spend your time studying. Highlighting, underlining, rereading and generalizing were rated by the authors as “ineffective”.

Best practices include taking breaks and assigning classes (known as distributed practice ) and taking practice tests (which don’t really apply outside of school). If you’re not a student, you can probably skip reading aloud and highlighting the tricks you learned as a teenager. Just keep your notes organized so you can quickly find them when you need to reference them.

This story was originally published in 2013 and has been updated on 11/18/19 to provide more complete and up-to-date information.


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