Supercharge Your Note-Taking With These Effective Techniques

Even if you’ve left Chemistry 101 behind, note-taking is still a skill that can help you through life.

Studying for a certification, taking notes at a lecture, or even just remembering the results of that hour-long meeting you just sat through will all be easier if your notes are effective.

Studies done on learning retention have found that the rate at which we forget information is minimized by repetitive interaction with the material – particularly in the form of notes, which can be revisited and reviewed.

Your notes will help you find that information later, but simply jotting down what a speaker says verbatim is surprisingly unhelpful when it comes to cementing that information in our brains.

The pen is mightier than the laptop

A study that came out last year found that that people remember lectures better when they’ve taken handwritten notes, rather than typing them out on their laptops.

One reason is that when people take notes on laptops, they tend to simply transcribe what they’re hearing, rather than using their own words. These verbatim notes don’t engage the brain, whereas if you’re forced to summarize and reflect on the material, your brain has a better time remembering.

The other interesting thing the study learned was that those who’d taken verbatim notes on their laptops were actually hindered by the notes when they were studying later. Without the shorthand, summaries, and visual guideposts that pen-and-paper note-takers scattered throughout their notebooks, the laptop note-takers had a more difficult time parsing their notes.

Cornell Note-Taking System

The Cornell Note-Taking System, developed in the ’50s, is one of the most well-known ways to up the effectiveness of pen-and-paper notes. It teaches users to develop a system of note-taking that has them revisit the material four times.

  • When taking notes, students first divide each page into two sections, of about 1/3 on the left and 2/3 on the right. Each page gets an essential question on the top, to help focus the note-taking and organize the notes for later. Lecture notes are taken on the right hand side – leaving lots of room for additions later.
  • When making notes, students write questions in the left-hand side, revise their notes, and use colors and symbols to connect key pieces of information.
  • In note interacting and note reflecting, students write summaries of their notes, build a time table for reviewing the notes, and seek out written feedback on their comprehension from a peer or teacher.

All this reflection and revision of the notes does an impressive job of helping students remember the material later.

The most effective tips for taking notes

Pen and paper may be the best way to retain your notes, but it can also be hard to organize for when you need to find a piece of information later.

That’s one of the benefits of keeping your notes in super-searchable programs like Evernote (which I use religiously), where typing a subject into the search bar brings the info you need in seconds.

Whether or not you decide to ditch the laptop, at least take this away:

  • Use keywords and short sentences. Don’t try to write everything a speaker says verbatim, or your brain won’t be processing it well enough to remember it.
  • Summarize the most important points afterward. Cement what you’ve learned (and help yourself find the information more quickly later) by writing a brief summary at the top of each page of notes.
  • Use different colors and symbols. This helps trigger the visual learning portion of your brain, and gets you even more engaged in what you’re hearing.
  • Develop a shorthand. Create a system of shorthand for words you use a lot, action items you need to complete, etc.
  • Draw connections between ideas. During a lecture or meeting – or afterwards when you’re revisiting your notes – draw lines, arrows, and circles to connect ideas together. This will help you focus on understanding the deeper ideas, rather than just the facts.
  • Keep your notes organized. Whether it’s a physical filing system or a system of tags in Evernote or OneNote, develop a way to find your notes again easily.

How do you prefer to keep notes? Leave your favorite methods in the comments!

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Olivia Jefferson

Excellent, informative post Jessie! Some of my college professors have actually banned note-taking on computers in the classroom (barring special circumstances) because of the study you cited above. In my own experience, I’ve found it’s easier for me to retain info I’ve written down than info that I’ve typed. I’ll have to try some of the other information retention techniques you talked about here!

Joe Vega

Great article, although in my line of business (Vocational Rehabilitation Counselor) I will stay away from One Note and similar programs to ensure protection of the privacy of the client. I am 100% in agreement of using shorthand, symbols and colors when taking notes. Another useful technique is the recording of those notes and playing them back. Thank you for sharing this information.