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How to Take Effective Notes

By Belle Cooper · July 9, 2015
better-note-taking primary img

I used to be a prolific note-taker. I would carry a notebook with me everywhere, and record anything I thought was interesting or important. In the last couple of years I've stopped doing this, and I forget things all the time; it seems like those events might be related.

I've held vague aspirations of improving my note-taking habits for a while now, but I finally stumbled across enough research to convince me that it's time to take action.

Whether you want to take better meeting notes, remember more of what you read, or just write notes to your future self, this research will help you build strong note-taking habits.

Why Note Taking is Important


Taking notes is no joke. It might take less effort than writing an original essay from scratch, but note taking still takes more effort than simply reading. So why should we bother?

While the note-taking seems like something that improves our recall abilities, one study found that reviewing notes after taking them was actually the key driver in improving test scores.

Another study looked at different combinations of taking notes during a lecture and reviewing the material afterwards. This study found that a combination of taking notes and reviewing them correlated to the best recall of lecture material later.

Taking notes has even been shown to improve problem solving ability. Research has shown that note taking "encourages students to build connections between what is presented and what they already know," according to Richard J. Peper's study.

Do you prefer to make liberal use of a highlighter, and reread important passages over and over again? Unfortunately, unlike good note taking, highlighting and underlining have been shown to have no more benefit than simply reading.

In fact, highlighting can even hinder learning, because it draws attention to specific facts and takes them out of context. Rereading is not quite as useless as highlighting, but it comes close.

If you really want to take in what you learn and apply it, you need to take real notes and review them.

How to Take Better Notes

The better your notes, the more you'll remember later, according to one study. But what do "good notes" look like? Based on my research, it seems there are few go-to approaches for taking the best notes you can.

Take Notes by Hand

card boxes

Ryan Holiday takes extensive notes, using a full index card system to keep his notes organized. Ryan recommends writing notes by hand to improve retention of the material:

Writing them down by hand forces me to take my time and to go over everything again (taking notes on a Kindle is too easy and that's the problem). Also being able to physically arrange stuff is crucial for getting the structure of your book or project right. I can move cards from one category to another. As I shuffle through the cards, I bump into stuff had forgotten about, etc.

This isn't just personal preference, either. Research shows writing notes by hand will improve your retention of the material. Although using a computer might seem more convenient (if you touch type like me, handwriting seems painfully slow by comparison), typing your notes can actually hinder understanding and retention of what you're learning.

One study found that taking notes on a computer leads us to transcribe lectures or talks verbatim, which doesn't help us understand the material as well. This happened even when study participants were asked to avoid verbatim note taking—€”they couldn't help it. Even worse, the participants who took verbatim notes on their computers worsened their test scores by studying their notes later.

When we write notes by hand, however, we're forced to use our own words to summarize ideas because we can't write fast enough to transcribe directly. Hand-writing notes also forces us to suss out the most important ideas, which helps us retain the information that's most useful to us.

It may seem outdated, but writing notes by hand works. So take out a pen and paper the next time you need to stash an idea away for later.

Use Orienting Tasks While You Learn

Ever find your mind drifting away while you're writing notes? You need an orientating task—something that forces you to think about your notes specifically—to go along with your note taking. An orienting task helps you to focus on what you're reading or learning in a particular way. Here's an example from Scott H. Young:

Participants were divided into two groups. Each group was asked to read a list of words which they later were quizzed on. The two groups were instructed to use different orienting tasks to process the words:

- The first group was told to pay attention to whether each word contained the letter "e"€™ or not.

- The second group was told to pay attention to whether each word was pleasant or not.

After the quiz was completed, the second group scored twice as high as the first group.

Both of these instructions were orienting tasks: they framed the task of reading the list of words in a particular way. And regardless of whether the groups were told they would be quizzed or not, the second group still scored better on the quiz.

Focusing on how pleasant a word sounds makes you think about the word as a whole, and its meaning, which helps you remember it later. Focusing on its spelling works like highlighting passages in a book: it draws your attention to a specific element by taking it out of context. Thus, you don't remember it as well, because your memory doesn't have any context to help you connect it to things you already know.

A useful orienting task to use for your own notes is to look for a connection in every idea or quote you take note of. Find something you already know that relates to the notes you're making, and you'll build a stronger memory of the new note.

In Ryan Holiday's index card system, he writes a category at the top of each note card. The cards are filed away in categorized boxes, so each new card is oriented in Ryan's memory by its category—€”this is how Ryan relates each new idea or quote to the hundreds of cards he's already written.

You might want to add categories to your notes; or perhaps focusing on the spelling or sound of the words would work better for you. Either way, you'll keep yourself focused on your note taking, and will be more likely to retain the info.

Stay Organized

Speaking of categories, Ryan's system is a useful example for keeping your notes organized. The more clear your system is, the easier you'll be able to find your notes again later. After all, what good is taking notes if you never use them again?

Here are some of the categories Ryan uses:

  • Life

  • Me

  • Stoicism

  • Strategy

  • Blog post ideas

  • Writing

  • Education


If you want to keep your notes organized digitally, you could use folders or tags to separate your notes by area of interest.

Ryan also sets up a separate box for his index cards when he starts a new project, like writing a book. This helps him keep all the book-related cards organized, and makes it easy to compare, combine, and move the cards around as he plans the project.

Categorizing and filing notes isn't absolutely necessary, but it's a good idea if you want to be able to review your notes quickly. And since reviewing your notes is as important as writing them down, it's worth taking a few seconds to keep everything tidy.

Note taking is so easy to put off. But the longer I put it off, the more I've read, learned, and thought about that I've also forgotten. If you want to get better at making connections, retaining what you're learning, and impressing your friends by working quotes into everyday conversations, now's the time to get started.

It only takes a pen and paper to start you off. Don't stress about finding the perfect system yet—just get into the habit of making notes about anything that's useful to you. As you build the habit of note taking, keep these approaches in mind to ensure you're getting the most out of your notes.

Image credits: Ryan's cards and boxes courtesy Ryan Holiday; Notebook and phone photo by Ed Gregory via Stokpic; Notebook with pen photo by Neil Conway via Flickr.

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