Note-taking has played an important role in human history. Ancient Greeks used the word hypomnema (ὑπόμνημα) to describe what could be translated as a note, a reminder, or an anecdotal record. Before the development of digital devices, people used marginalia and commonplace books to take notes. Of course, note-taking has been central to education. Students are often encouraged to take notes during lectures so they can record the knowledge being shared by their teacher.
As a result, many different note-taking systems have been devised over the years. These include:
- Outlining. One of the most commonly used methods, which consists in quickly capturing the key points and structure of a piece of content in the form of indented bullet points.
- Guided notes. Sometimes, the educator will provide templates for students to take notes, with an empty skeleton to be filled during the lecture.
- Cornell notes. A popular method where a page is divided in three main sections: one for notes, one for cues, and one to write a short summary.
The issue? Most of these do not result in better recall. For instance, research suggests that there is no difference in student performance between the Cornell method and using free-flow notes. There are also no clear benefits to outlining or using guided notes provided by the teacher. Is there a better way to capture, understand, and remember what we study?
The difference between note-taking and note-making
In his 1962 book about study methods, Edgar Wright makes the distinction between “note-taking” from “note-making.” Note-taking often happens while listening; the goal is to quickly capture content so we can refer back to it later. Note-making is more common while reading; it consists in deliberately crafting our own version so we can learn and create better.
Note-taking is fast, uses the original author’s language, and generally feels easier. The issue is the content is often poorly assimilated and easily forgotten. In contrast, note-making is slower, more involved, and uses our own language. As a result, the content is easier to understand and remember.
The generation effect is the underlying process which supports note-making. It’s the phenomenon where information is better remembered if it is actively created from your own mind rather than simply read in a passive way. By taking the time and making the effort to rephrase the content you are consuming, you are more likely to commit the information to your long-term memory.
The key principles of making notes
At its core, note-making is about shifting one’s mindset from passive collection to active creation. Instead of just recording content, the goal is to assimilate the information for long-term access.
There are three key principles to making good notes:
- Rephrase the original idea. Don’t use the author’s or teacher’s original language. Instead, distill the ideas into your own words. Beyond understanding and remembering the content better, it had the additional advantage of avoiding unintentional plagiarism.
- Connect ideas together. We rarely can form memories in isolation. To help with understanding and recall, make sure to create links between the ideas you are studying. For better networked thinking, link your notes together and draw mental maps of the problem space.
- Build upon the ideas. Your notes should be living documents. Come back to them to review and revise them. As you learn more about a topic, add more examples, more questions, and more related ideas.
At all stages of making notes, the keyword is: active engagement. Don’t just ingurgitate whatever you are studying. Proactively use your own language and create your own systems. If you are making notes in the context of studying for an exam, make sure to include your own mnemonics and triggers—again, don’t simply use the ones provided by the teacher.
Examples of note-making methods
Because the principles of note-making encourage students to generate their own content and to design their own note-taking system, there is no one-size-fits-all note-making method. However, some popular methods check all the boxes of a solid note-making method.
- Mind mapping. The use of diagrams that visually map information using branching traces back centuries. Popularised by Tony Buzan, an English author and psychology consultant, mind mapping consists in visually connecting information around a central concept. It has been associated with better memory and recall, better creativity, and better connections between concepts. To take things further, you can try more advanced methods for thinking in maps.
- Digital gardening. A long-term endeavour to cultivate your curiosity (planting seeds), expand your knowledge (growing trees), and produce new thoughts (harvesting fruits), digital gardening consists in crafting and connecting evergreen notes in a non-hierarchical repository, similar to a personal wiki.
- Zettelkasten method. A simple process used by German sociologist Dr Niklas Luhmann to publish more than 70 books and nearly 400 scholarly articles in his lifetime, the Zettelkasten method uses index cards and unique identifiers to interlink notes together. The book How to Take Smart Notes does a fantastic job at explaining the method.
What about tools? As with methods, there is no one-size-fits-all app for note-making. However, note-taking apps for gardeners such as Roam and Obsidian tend to offer some useful features, such as bi-directional linking and a visual knowledge graph. The tool you decide to use doesn’t matter as much as applying the principles of note-making: rephrase the original idea, connect ideas together, and build upon the ideas. Your system will be already much more efficient compared to traditional note-taking.