There's no question that taking high-quality notes is an essential component of effective learning and thinking.
Note-taking dramatically affects your success, whether studying, working, or developing a personal interest.
But, with so many note-taking strategies to choose from, it’s tough to know which one is best.
In this article, we'll explore:
The benefits of making notes.
Nine of the best ways to take them.
Whether handwritten notes are better than digital ones.
Why it’s important to review your notes later.
5 benefits of note-taking
The Forgetting Curve:
In the 1880’s German psychologist Hermann Ebbinghaus demonstrated that without any extra effort, 50% of what we learn is forgotten within 24 hours, and 90% within a month.
So, if you want to remember more of what you read, listen to, and watch, develop the habit of making good notes!
Here are a few of the key benefits:
1.Note-taking extends cognition
Note-takers strive to avoid forgetting. Making notes creates a direct relationship between you and what you’re learning.
Your notes become a kind of external memory, supporting your brain in storing and retrieving knowledge.
2.Note-taking amplifies learning opportunities
Note-taking develops your natural learning skills—supporting comprehension, retention, and active listening.
Taking notes allows you to express and share your expertise, which is enormously helpful when learning new information.
3.Note-taking builds connections
Your notes are the result of YOUR reading, writing, and thinking.
Writing down your thoughts provides a powerful way to build connections.
By connecting new ideas to older ones, you expand your thinking and increase the opportunities for new insights.
4.Note-taking is preparation for writing.
Studies have shown note-taking not only aids learning but writing.
Taking quality notes will help rid you of the tyranny of the blank page. Instead of relying on memory, you’ll have well-prepared and well-organized source material to draw from.
5.Note-taking accelerates creativity
The practice of note-taking requires you to encounter diverse ideas and rephrase and reorganize them.
Doing this teaches you to structure your thinking and to place your ideas in a creative context.
So, we've seen how developing a note-taking habit benefits your intellectual and personal development.
Now, let's look at the difference between handwritten and digital note-taking.
Pros & Cons | Paper, Typed, & Digitally
When deciding whether to use paper, computer, or tablet for note-taking, no single answer will work in all situations.
In this section, we'll analyze the benefits and weaknesses of each and make some suggestions on what we think the best choices might be.
From the papyrus sheets of ancient Egypt to the papermaking arts of the Eastern Han Dynasty, writing on paper connects us with our collective past.
It's not surprising then that paper and ink still have some obvious advantages for note-taking.
Studies show that writing notes on paper leads to a higher retention rate, meaning you remember more of what you learn.
Paper note-taking is also incredibly cheap and customizable.
The feel of paper and ink provides a rich sensory experience.
Paper notebooks are flexible, portable, and personal.
You won’t be distracted by an incoming notification!
Paper notebooks are easy to lose or damage.
Mistakes on paper are difficult to rectify. Handwritten notes can end up looking messy and illegible.
It can be difficult to back up or share a paper notebook.
From the first command line interfaces to the world of AI-assisted writing and backlinking, computers are incredible tools, offering unprecedented flexibility and connectivity for writing.
Naturally, this creates some unique benefits for note-takers:
Typing on a computer keyboard is fast, allowing verbatim transcription at high speeds.
Digital documents are highly collaborative, shareable, and searchable in ways handwritten text is not.
Backups are easy to create, and digital files possess no physical footprint.
Technologies like AI and text backlinking are creating new approaches to note-taking.
Keyboard-based note-taking leads to the least amount of information being retained. You'll need to revisit the information later.
Computing is expensive. Even with cheaper alternatives, you're still looking at over $100 to get started.
Computers require power, which can be a genuine inconvenience if you run out of battery during a note-taking session.
Digital handwriting is a relatively new technology but is already sophisticated enough to bridge the gap between computers and paper.
Stylus and pen devices offer incredibly low latency and responsiveness.
You can sync your notes across devices, making them accessible from anywhere.
Handwriting apps allow you to convert handwritten notes to digital text, making them shareable and searchable.
Digital handwriting can be slower than typing or writing.
The initial investment is pricey.
It’s less precise than typing, making it challenging to edit and format the notes later.
As you can see, there isn’t a single best case for how you capture your notes. All three approaches have strengths and weaknesses.
You may find yourself adopting a preferred method or mixing and matching to suit your needs. The important thing is taking high-quality notes.
Let’s look at some simple tips that can help you improve your ability to do just that.
10 Tips for top note-taking
Images generated from prompts using Jasper AI.
1.Use abbreviations and symbols:
Sometimes, you need to write quickly without having to spell everything out. Using abbreviations and symbols can help.
For example, you could use "&" instead of "and" or "2" for "to."
There are many abbreviations available. You can even make up your own! Incorporating even a few can dramatically impact your writing speed.
We’ve provided a helpful link to more.
2.Focus on listening:
The quality of your notes improves when you listen attentively. One way to do this is to take notes while the person is speaking—this helps you remember more of what’s being said and puts your mind in a receptive state.
3.Voice recording and transcription:
Another way to level up your note-taking is to record the audio. The challenge is that you’ll need to listen back later to pick out anything you missed and take further notes.
You can avoid this by using a real-time transcription app like Notta.ai. Doing so will provide you with both a recording of the meeting AND an instant, accurately time-stamped transcription.
Additional features like live transcribing Zoom, Google Meet, and Microsoft Team calls will save a ton of time.
When you’re done, you’ll have a complete recording and a transcript with the ability to edit the text afterward and add it to your notes.
4.Decide what’s essential:
Not everything needs to be written down! Otherwise, your notes will be full of useless details and difficult to review later. So, take a few seconds to think about what’s most important before you write it down.
Another great way to organize your notes is to use colors. Highlighting the essential terms, topics, and ideas will make your notes easier to read and help jog your memory later.
6.Revise your notes as soon as possible:
Once you've taken your notes, revise them as soon as possible. This will help you remember the information and identify areas you need to review more.
Consistency is key, so if you're using a specific system or method, stick with it until you find something better.
Doing so will make reviewing your notes easier and help you improve your note-taking skills over time.
8.Improve your handwriting:
If you want to read your notes later, it's important to have legible handwriting. If your handwriting is messy, try to practice writing more neatly. Some great apps and programs can help you with this.
Creating a summary in the bottom section of the page is a powerful technique for reinforcing memory and clarifying your understanding. Pull out any key ideas and highlight important words or phrases.
Like anything, the more you practice taking notes, the better you'll become. Take notes regularly, store them properly, and rewrite and revise them often.
It might seem like a lot of extra work, but developing a high-level note-taking ability is a skill that will pay off for years to come.
So, you’ve decided on the medium you’re going to take your notes in, and arm yourself with a few valuable tips for approaching it.
Next, let’s look at the heart of how to take good notes, which lies in the note-taking system you use.
The 9 Best Note-taking Systems
1.Split Page Method
Split-page is a matrix grid style of note-taking similar to the Cornell method. It involves splitting the paper into two columns.
The left column is used to write the main ideas and questions, and the right is used for supporting details.
How to use it:
Draw a line mid-way through the page to ‘split’ the page into two sections.
Place topics or questions on the left side and answers, definitions, and supplementary information on the right.
It’s helpful to prepare the paper beforehand, so look through any headings or outlines for the topics and references you need and note these down in the left column. Doing this will make it easier for you to write the notes.
The split-page method encourages clarity and makes your notes easy to read later.
It’s easy to revise by simply folding the paper over.
It generates a clear outline and separates big ideas from supplementary ones.
Limited space on a standard notebook page.
It’s challenging to set up the summary effectively.
This method involves creating a structure or framework before writing the main ideas.
You’ll list the headings, sub-headings, and supporting points first.
How to use it:
Before starting, look through the material and identify the key ideas. Write these down as topics.
For each topic, identify the sub-topics and supporting points. Write these down also.
Once you have a general framework, start filling in the details.
You can use a simple alphabetized structure or numerals to separate the main points and sub-points
Because this method relies upon well-structured headings, it’s helpful to outline the headings beforehand.
Outlines are clean, well organized, and easy to implement.
It’s simple to see the relationship between concepts and topics.
It’s sometimes confusing to know which headings to use.
It can be challenging to stick to the structure if your material is dense.
3. Cornell Method
Similar to the Outline Method, the Cornell Method divides the page into three sections and adds a summary section at the bottom of the page.
How to use it:
Create a column on the left for critical ideas, topics, and concepts.
Use the column on the right for your notes, explanations, and details.
Draw a column at the bottom and use this for summary statements and review.
Because this method relies on separating the page into sections, preparing the paper beforehand is beneficial. It’s beneficial to prepare the paper beforehand.
The Cornell Method helps organize notes clearly and allows for easy review and reinforcement.
The three-column format encourages active listening and engagement with the material being learned.
It can be time-consuming to set up and may not be suitable for all types of note-taking situations.
Sometimes it’s difficult to find a balance between taking too many notes and not enough.
4. Mapping Method
Mapping is a note-taking method that uses visual cues to help you remember information. Using this method, you'll create a mindmap to diagram the relationships between key ideas.
How to use it:
Start by identifying the chief topic and write this at the top of the page.
For each major topic, identify sub-topics and supporting ones.
Write these down and connect them to the main topic with lines and arrows.
Visual learners will find this method helpful.
It's easy to see the relationships between ideas with this method.
It can be challenging to create a mind map if you're not used to thinking visually.
This method can be simplistic for some types of notes and is not suitable for every environment.
5. Flow Method
Flow note-taking is similar to mapping and is designed to provide a relaxed note-taking method that converts a subject into small, compact boxes, text snippets, diagrams, and images.
Flow notes are intended to be simple, visual, and connected.
How to use it:
Write the core ideas at the top of the page,
Write the ideas and concepts as you hear them
Connect them visually with lines, circles, and arrows.
Use keywords, not long sentences.
The focus is on active listening, allowing time for revision and deeper study later.
Flow notes create an overview of a topic.
Your notes may lack depth and detail.
Not considered a compelling method for memorization.
6. Charting Method
The charting method is a technique that uses a series of charts and boxes to help you remember information.
You'll create a series of tables and simple graphics to show the relationships between ideas.
How to use it:
Identify the main topic and write this at the top of your page. Divide the page into a series of useful boxes.
List each major topic, and identify sub-topics and supporting points. Then, enter them in a table form into the document.
You can use different colors or symbols to differentiate between concepts if you wish.
This method is helpful for visual learners.
It's easy to see the relationships between ideas.
It can be challenging to create a chart if you're not used to thinking visually.
This method is time-consuming and requires more pre-prep. As a result, it may not be suitable for every environment.
7. Sentence Method
The sentence method is a simple and easy-to-use system that’s best employed when you don’t have time to set up a more structured approach.
How to use:
Separate each thought into a separate line.
To create separation between lines, you can number them.
Its simplicity enables use with no setup.
It’s incredibly easy to learn.
Reviewing your notes can be problematic.
The main concepts are difficult to distinguish due to the lack of an organized structure.
Long-form sentence writing means you’ll need fast handwriting.
Other methods are generally considered superior.
The Zettlekasten method is a technique that uses a system of linked notes or ideas collected on paper cards or in individual digital files.
The method creates a network of notes (called Zettles) connected by links to many others. Each Zettle functions as a single atomic idea or ‘tree branch’ on the evolving body of the whole tree.
Each note contains:
A unique identifier. (Often the date).
The main note. (One idea).
Reference & citatation information.
Despite being developed for a paper card-based filing system, Zettlekasten may be better suited for a software program where ideas can be readily searched and cross-referenced. Programs like Roam, Obsidian, and others have emerged to fill this niche.
This form of note-taking creates a digital garden of hyperlinked ideas and can function as a PKM (Personal Knowledge Management) system.
How to use it:
Create the ID and title information at the top of your page.
Decide on the relevant tags.
Write the note, which you should generally limit to a single complete idea.
Link the note to other notes together using an indexing system or hyperlinks.
Review and refine your notes and edit each down to offer a refined statement rather than a rough scribble.
Zettlekastens evolve to become a highly personal and flexible system of linked notes.
Zettlekastens are powerful research tools.
Idea curation and generation are fantastic features of this method.
A whole range of software programs and a growing community is emerging around this methodology.
Zettlekastens can be initially complex to create and require considerable time and effort to maintain.
While you CAN produce a card-based Zettlekasten, you’ll likely need to use a computer and software to do this successfully.
This method is not best suited to the capture stage of note-taking.
9. Writing on Slides
This method is often used in classrooms or business settings. It involves (as its name suggests) writing on slides or a whiteboard as the presenter talks.
For this to work, you need to be able to download the presentation beforehand. Many lecturers do make their slides available in this way.
How to use it:
Download and print out the slides.
One method is to take notes in an outline form alongside each slide. As the presenter talks, add more details and information to your notes.
It’s also possible to do this electronically using the Comment section in Powerpoint, Keyword, or Google Sheets.
You can easily see the main ideas and how they relate.
Easy and fast. Allows you to pay attention to the nuance of the presentation and discussion.
This method isn't suitable for every environment.
Lecture slides may not be readily available.
Relies on a computer.
The importance of reviewing your notes
Reviewing your notes is crucial. It helps to solidify what you’ve learned and identifies any areas that need clarification.
Try to develop the attitude that your notes are a resource for learning and a tool for thinking. Add value each time you touch them.
Distill the best parts into actionable summaries for easy review.
Refine your headings and highlights. Link to other notes.
Experiment with mind maps and different note-taking strategies.
Test yourself on the material by creating questions, reciting them aloud, writing them down from memory, or using mnemonics.
Remember, your brain isn’t a rigid structure, nor should your notes be.
Don’t fall into the trap of throwing your hard-earned knowledge into notebooks or files and forgetting about it.
Recognize that your notes are not just a random assembly of words on a page or a computer. They are a living assemblage of your thoughts and a record of what’s important in your life.
Capture your experience and record your knowledge so you can learn from it.
Return to it and refine it so that you remember and develop it.
Finally, express it and share it with others, so you can contribute to improving the knowledge that we all share.
Note-taking is an art that takes time and patience to learn. But, it’s well worth the investment, and the benefits and rewards last a lifetime.