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A Learning Secret: Don't Take Notes with a Laptop (2014) (scientificamerican.com)
589 points by endisukaj on June 25, 2019 | hide | past | favorite | 238 comments

I tended to be in the top of the classes I was in and as far as I've seen my method was somewhat different.

I also only take notes on paper, but more importantly, I throw all my notes out as soon as I finish writing them.

For me studying is the act of writing the notes. The purpose of notes was never to read them later. That's why writing on paper is important to me. It's not about the qualities and convenience of the storage medium. It's about the experience of writing itself that makes me dislike digital notes.

When it's time for exams I go back to the primary source, whether it's a text book, lectures, or handouts, and I write a new set of notes. I throw those out when I'm done also.

You might think it's inefficient, which it is only in terms of ink and paper. In terms of time and effort, at least for me personally, the act of putting pen on sheet is 10x as effective as reading in building comprehension and retention. From anecdotal observation, I get done in a few hours of taking new notes what my classmates do in days of binge reading.

I do something similar. My method is always to try and fit everything I need for an exam on a single A5 sheet of paper, as if I could take it into the exam with me. The first 5 or so drafts I'd never be able to fit enough on, so with each iteration I make the writing smaller, or work out a pictorial code, or condense my explanation of a method to squeeze on as much as I could. By the time I've finally managed to fit it all on one side of paper, I've thought about how to compact the information in so many different ways that I could recite everything on the paper without it. Repeat that process over the course of 3 or 4 days with plenty of sleep, and it's stuck.

I've got all of the final renditions of each sheet I've ever done filed away. It's always quite entertaining showing people my notes, because they're a completely indecipherable mess of words, numbers, cryptograms, symbols, scribbles and colours. Imagine a sort of Chthonian cult literature. It makes me look insane - but I can still go back to ones from years ago and know what it all means.

I relate to your comment the most in any discussion about notes. Although I don't follow your method always, since I know I will throw out my notes and never see them again, sometimes when I was bored I would do my notes intentionally cyphered and illegible. I wrote over every sheet fully two or three times, in the nooks and crannies and in the spaces between words. Somehow the learning outcome was better because my boredom was lifted.

This was my study mode throughout HS & (somewhat) through college. It really does work, even though I had no idea why I started that way. And my final editions were just as indecipherable to the outside world.

I started when one of my teachers allowed us to take said A5 sheet of paper into my A-Level mock exams. All the class did well, as we had this lifeline. Next exam we were given the same instruction but this time, unbeknownst to us until we walked in, our paper was taken away from us at the door. We were absolutely furious; until the teacher later showed us that not only were our marks all but identical to that of the exam where we had the paper, they were significantly higher than the exams we had before the whole cheat sheet debacle. Basically he tricked us into revising effectively. It's a technique that's stayed with me to this day.

Devious and effective. I approve of this. :-)

I used that same method throughout college. I think I might have read about it somewhere.

I did something a bit different- at the end of the term, I would rewrite my notes. A v2.0 of them. In the process I was going over all of my previous notes, but by that point I had a much greater understanding of how all the things fit together, which details were important, etc... and my new set of notes, which were also not written under duress of trying to keep up with the teacher, were much better written.

The second set was always much cleaner, much better organized, and much more deeply ingrained in my brain.

As an aside, when I went to college, my first semester Computer Science teacher was vehemently anti-notetaking in class. He would chastise people who were taking notes either on their laptops, or in notebooks, saying "The slides will be online!" I really struggled that first semester, and found it hard to pay attention, hard to retain the information, hard to even understand what he was talking about, and it took me awhile to realize just how powerful the act of taking notes was.

Oh, this is a brilliant idea that seems so obvious as I’m here reading it, but had never occurred to me before. Yes! I’ve always felt that my biggest problem in learning is that I never do anything to really verify I have a truly solid grasp of the material. I read, take notes, convince myself I have some level of understanding, and pat myself on the back for achieving that much. But I’ve got a feeling that if I’d overcome my laziness enough to read, take notes, reflect on my notes, then write a more polished version 2.0 of them as you mentioned, I would definitely take my conceptual understanding to a much deeper level. Thank you for this!

+1 on the v2.0 note creation - I did the same thing consistently throughout my CS program and it worked very well for me.

I used the new notes as a kind of optimized cheat sheet during test preparation - rapidly reviewing theory in my head and cross checking. I would do this for some strategically chosen homework assignments as well - and explore slight modifications to these assignments to see how answers might change.

Many years later - I sometimes refer to the notes to refresh my mind on theory I feel I'm rusty on.

Instead of throwing out my notes, I tend to "refactor" them multiple times, condensing them down to the bare minimum. By the time I get them to that point, I no longer need them. I also tend to utilize multiple mediums: first note taking is writte; then I condense them to a digital format; I print that off and highlight, work in the margins, etc.;I will sometimes rewrite them a final time, depending on difficulty of the material.

See for me it was always sort of the opposite.

My recall of things I got wrong on the tests is almost visceral, like it was traumatic that I was wrong. I figured this out pretty young and my studying habit was very similar to the methods employed for learning foreign language vocabulary or typing; progressively focus on the things the person still gets wrong.

So I'd read my notes and highlight or copy out only the facts that I found myself being surprised or flummoxed by. I'd go over those a few times, do one more scan of my entire notes, and sit before the test just going over the hard ones again until the instructor started handing out the test.

I had a workflow similar to this. I took all notes by hand (pretty sure laptop wasn't a viable option in 1993, anyway) and then typed them out later. During the course of studying, I'd condense things to a single sheet whenever possible. It worked very, very well.

I throw all my notes out as soon as I finish writing them.

This is essentially what I always did, but instead of "as soon as I finish" replace "at some long-overdue future time". But the notion of write-only notes was largely identical, with very rare exceptions.

Hilariously, I only kept my notes so long out of poorly surfaced guilt that I was "doing it wrong", compared to some students who seemed to come out of lecture with fancy notes practically ready for prepress...

It was fun for my wife and I to go through all our college notes and laugh at everything we had to go through! Some good classes and some bad classes.

In high school we had a nice big bonfire and burned our notes at the end of the year. Making smores was probably the best use of old notes!

I can subscribe to this. Whenever I needed to learn or revise something, I would just write it down again, usually paraphrasing the original material.

While I wouldn't use that material directly ever again, I noticed that I would often paraphrase a paraphrase, so to speak, because I would remember some of the material.

Tangentially, this thread shows that people prefer different ways of taking (or not taking notes) usually due to a habit itselfc as opposed to superiority of one method over the other. It reminds me of Dvorak vs qwerty, while technically superior for typing in English, the cost of switching is not worth it for most people out there.

Although I must admit that most classmates find it horrific ("you're throwing away all the notes?!") so there must he some personal differences, I can honestly say I have never seen anyone learn from laid back magazine reading so many students do, that glazed over look while they try to mechanically reach the last page. Same goes for listening or watching or any other passive reception of material.

Learning is a function of production or reproduction of knowledge, not consumption. I stand by this regardless of "learning style".

Discussing with classmates, solving problems, reciting out loud, and taking notes are how you learn.

I'm inclined to agree about reproducing knowledge, however I've spent the last few years learning languages and learning languages is the exact opposite, where the majority of learning is done through simply inputting language.

For example see Krashen's ideas on language acquisition https://www.sk.com.br/sk-krash.html

Now this makes me feel like I hold a contradiction because the way I think about learning a language and learning math are opposite in this way.

Do you or others have any thoughts on this matter? Is it because we evolved some tailored machinery for acquiring language naturally as children, or because they are learnt the same "way", it's just that language is generally just a tremendous amount of associating stuff that it requires 100x more consumption. I guess one could naturally acquire the times tables over time if all combinations of a*b up to 10 come up in conversation enough times, but a general procedure for doing multiplication wouldn't be acquired magically.

Do you mean just being immersed in the language here rather than practicing/using it?

In some sense though, I imagine that when you hear something in a foreign language, you are actively making links to sounds or words that you think it may relate to (so in some sense, taking a mental note).

Growing up, I found that listening attentively in class and asking questions had me retain the most. Overly focusing on note-taking actually distracted me and those would usually be my worse day. I still took notes, however, most of the learning happened in the classroom and my notebook was the "textbook" that acted as my reference later.

Do you feel that had you taken notes on an eReader / iPad with a pen input you would have similar effectiveness? I used to take notes for work in a small pad and found I didn't reference them often. I've recently tried moving to digital notes and there seems to be little friction to the switch with the exception of additional distraction (ie all those other apps).

I prefer the digital pen for sketching and doodling. I exclusively sketch on my Surface now. I also prefer digital reading because I don't have to carry a book around and I can ctrl-f. It's been years since I've bought a physical book.

However for taking notes I still prefer paper. It's really small aesthetic things like the texture of the paper and the no-latency ink. For some reason although taking notes with the digital pen results in better notes the experience of taking the notes is less pleasing to me.

Like I said I optimize for the best note-taking rather than taking the best notes. Once or twice when I was bored, I intentionally created illegible notes by writing in scribbles, or writing over a full sheet as if it was a new sheet.

Even creating illegible notes produced a learning outcome, and in some cases I felt the information stuck more because those notes were different and stimulating.

Not OP, but I ditched taking notes on paper for the most part. I write stuff down on the iPad Pro (Notes and/or Notability) instead nowadays. It is easier to find and extract things and I can just archive them to the cloud when they are not needed anymore.

The only time I use paper is when I don't have the iPad on me and for personal journaling (for which I have a dedicated notebook anyway).

Same here. I've found the new iPad Pro + paper like screen protector to be a very near real experience with very little noticeable input lag for notes. Now, it is a very pricey alternative but agreed on all points.

I did consider the Boyue Likebook Muses [0], but figured for longevity the iPad may be the better buy. I did try the reMarkable and was very disappointed in it's price to performance/usability, at least for me. Little things like no backlight at that price point was hard to get over.

[0] https://goodereader.com/blog/product/boyue-likebook-muses-st...

Absolutely - at the end of the day, it's "whatever works for you" in the context of personal learning/accreditation.

> I throw all my notes out as soon as I finish writing them.

I do the exact same thing, and haven't met anyone else that did it. I thought I was a weirdo all this time! My learning process is (as theorized by me):

1. Hear/see instructor say something

2. Mentally digest and understand it

3. Write down the product of understanding it

I think #2 is the most important step, and the big purpose of step #3 is validating that I actually performed step #2.

You are surely not alone: there are dozens of us!

I've done the exact same thing for the last 25 years, it took me 10 years of frustration before I found out that I learn & memorize best while writing things down.

Somehow the slowness of writing works 10x better for memorizing then typing.

Indeed, I tend to skip #3 during lectures so as to have more time on #2. I will generally work through problem sets (and/or essays/readings depending on the discipline) to consolidate this learning.

My method of learning and recall has changed over the decades so I hesitate to offer any advice as universal.

Children often have a 'photographic memory' until around puberty but in my case it lasted well into my late teens. I recall on a number of tests knowing that I had written the answer down, and even where on the page of notes the answer was. Several times I managed to wrestle the answer out of my brain by finishing the rest of the test and then running the clock down trying to picture the page of notes.

But today I am pretty close to functionally aphantasic. My dominant mental model is that I 'think in shapes'. I don't see the shapes, its more like I feel them. And that suffices for many things like getting replacement parts at the hardware store, or reassembling something I've taken apart. It's only with some difficulty that I can 'picture' an item. It's like I have a mind castle but wear a blindfold.

Anyway, in college I discovered that my recall of things I wrote down was starting to fail. If I wrote down something and lost the notes I was screwed. Todo lists were the first thing I cut out. My odds of remembering to do something by willing myself to remember were far better than having notes getting covered by a book.

Now I have electronic notes and some reminders, but if I lost my phone and my backups, my life would unravel.

wow, I'm not the only one!!

incidentally, it drove me nuts using so much paper that only gets used once. I recently got a rocketbook and its prolly saved a couple of trees by now. Its the paper experience and I can wipe it clean with a damp cloth.

rocketbook is an amazing tool.

I had a high school teacher who described what he called a failsafe study method: (1) Take copious notes during lectures, save them in a binder. (2) Every weekday (5 days/week) during the term, read through all class notes from beginning to end. (3) Assuming you've done the above, you won't have to study for a test. But this would only work for memorization-heavy material where all the content is presented during lectures and you're able to write down the contents.

On the other hand, I once had a physics professor in college who spent each lecture rigorously proving the theorems and formulas we'd be using in the homework/tests. Only about 5 minutes (at the beginning) were dedicated to solving problems like what we'd be tested on, and then only in response to specific questions from students. We were pretty much on our own, since most were commuter students (this was Cal Poly Pomona) and couldn't easily come to office hours.

>I had a high school teacher who described what he called a failsafe study method:...

At this point you should just use spaced repetition. It's what I did, it has the same effects for a lot less work.

you used SR in high school?

I had converged on a similar workflow. Mostly due to the fact that my handwriting is terrible and I couldn't even read my own writing sometimes. So I used to rewrite them quite often to make them more clear. The fact of rewriting served as a spaced repetition and re-summarization which helped me remember concepts better.

When I was in college laptops were becoming popular and after trying to takes notes on them I found I didn't remember things as well, was getting distracted by chat and emails, and simply couldn't draw quick diagrams (and I usually do a lot of diagrams).

This is nuts. How would you be able to refer to anything meaningful in the future? That's one of the benefits of notes. I was relatively at the top of my classes and I never did this.

Throwing notes away, that's a nice luxury. I had professors who would lift questions word-for-word from their lecture, throwing away my notes would've been throwing away points.

I've been burned a few times by tidbits of information that were mentioned in the lecture once and no where else.

I still think digging through the notes is a waste of time. Mastery of the source material trumps all and has gotten me great grades.

Is it more common for the lecturer to mention something critical that's not in the textbook, or just pass over something more important in the textbook? I think the latter is more common.

I may have well thrown away my notes! I often times had inaccuracies as I fell behind instructors (seriously how fast can they write on blackboards!?) and lost important context which made sense at the time but not later.

But you are correct, writing things down helps commit things to memory, plus there were always some funny doodles to look back on. Too bad I can't doodle anymore in work meetings, it isn't too professional :(

Looking back, the purpose of the lectures was to give a general overview of the themes and boundaries of the course. You note that down. Then go read the textbooks and do exercises to actually learn the material. As you say, in a fast paced technical class you cannot rely on learning the material in lectures.

I purposely don't take notes in classes because I find it more productive to spend my energy listening (and thinking). And I find it hard to concentrate when I'm writing. I also then go back to primary source material when revising.

I think this is actually a pretty similar strategy to yours, and definitely one that I've found to be effective.

I'm the same way and definitely always did paper notes.

My completely unresearched theory as to why it's better: since your hands map to so much of your brain and it's function. I think the texture of the paper and the dexterity required to write stimulates your brain more allowing for deeper memories.

Sounds familiar. Never really worked for in school, work is different so. There I usually fill one college block every two months or so. Not that I ever read the notes again. But it kind of seems to get harder with age. Especially the "once written not forgotten" part...

It’s not inefficient. You are exactly describing the grammar phase of learning, i.e. brute memorization which is absolutely critical before the dialectic phase. (The trivium is complete when you understand the topic well enough to teach and engage using rhetoric).

Ditto. Liberal arts grad (Political Science) and work in InfoSec now. This is how I went through uni and taught myself classes I didn't attend. It has also workd in infosec and getting some entry level certs.

Exactly what I did. I tried to write notes in a way that was different than just copying as well, I tried to make them make sense to me.

I take great satisfaction in filling a notebook from cover to cover though. I do look back at old notes, although it is quite rare.

I use the same exact method.

I did that but not deliberately. I just almost never looked at the notes.

definitely this

I'm 53 and work in IT for a 'funky' learning/media company, ranking among the seniors in both age and position.

I have a customised Cornell Notes* Word doc template, and I run off batches of 5-10 sheets to take to meetings and training sessions. My colleagues typically turn up with their tablets, surfaces, laptops, phones and 'multitask', however a few have started to adopt my method - it's been particularly useful for client meetings where I have been able to later confirm sub-points or asides mentioned by customers - sometimes months later. It's also very easy to drill down through Quarterly reviews and link chains of historic comments 'on the fly' - for example, being able to confirm that so-and-so first mentioned something about a similar technical issue on a different system 12 months ago.

My 'Cornell' style has developed an element of mindmapping on the pages, which makes it easy to track conversations or sections of meetings that break off into side discussions/brainstorming.

The biggest benefit is that the structure of all notes is consistent, so not only can I find things very quickly, but others can interpret them too - this is a particularly powerful way to allow teams to share, compare and understand someone else's notes, even months after the meeting or training took place.

Edit: I also believe it looks very professional in customer meetings when everyone from the same business is taking notes in a similar way, using identical stationery.

I've been working this way since the mid 1990s and find it beats all forms of tech.



I'm also in my 50s, and have been carrying A4 hardback notebooks around since 80s or 90s, that I use similarly. I add a margin, leave 5 pages at the front for indexing, and I've adopted a few highlighting habits to cross reference and link for easy reference later.

It's my definitive memory, and has been worth it to answer the months later questions of why we did or didn't include some feature, or designed something as we did. It's also where I think by pencil, so there's lots of plans, hierarchies, thoughts too. Those rough scribbles go at the back.

The few times I've tried to improve on this either by tech or organisers like filofax etc, it's quickly proved much worse or slower. The old Psion 5 got closest! Simply happy to stay old world now. It works, it's quick, and never needs charging.

Yep, I think it's good to note that like me you have tried tech options, but not found them to bring anything useful to the party.

It's too easy to look at us old farts and draw the conclusion that we're just too stuck in our ways and unable to cope with this new-fangled stuff, but I've spent periods (maybe perhaps a few months at a time) taking notes in other ways to see if I can 'evolve' - off the top of my head I've tried: Mind mapping meetings (on paper and electronically), netbooks (I still have a Samsung NC10 running Mint which is great as a portable terminal when a physical keyboard is a 'must' and the company HP laptop or home T420 is just too bulky for the situation), tablets and phones with styluses. (I used to have a Note 1 phone and still use a Galaxy Note 10.1 daily for research at home).

Some things 'just work'.

Yeah, it hasn't been for lack of trying. Laptop I thought too intrusive, though the earliest versions (before the weather widgets and web additions) of Google Desktop search showed lots of promise for retrieval, the note taking itself just took me too much out of the discussion, and too much into faffing about with a laptop. iPad is brilliant for home surfing but useless as meeting tablet. Maybe smart paper and AI indexing one day...

Then there's the software. Evernote was something a previous boss swore by - until some change he really couldn't get on with forced him to migrate, with much muttering, everything to something else. Evernote, wikis and most of the rest are best if you do proper categorisation of notes and indexing. Indexing always feels must be a second pass after, as categories and choices from before never quite do it. So it's always ended up slower than simply writing in an index at the front at the end of the day or week.

Six months later I often don't know quite what I'm searching, haven't a clue of keywords needed, but it's more archaeological, going back through layers of time, then re-following choices and paths. Grab a handful of pages that is about six months... Skim, find the follow-up. Oh, yeah this, that, who and why. Job done.

> It's also very easy to drill down through Quarterly reviews and link chains of historic comments 'on the fly'

I have never heard about Cornell Notes, it seems like the missing piece I was looking for to convince myself to move back to pen and paper since I too feel that handwriting makes you remember and understand better.

But there are two things I am missing over OneNote

- Search capabilities, how do you drill down and find the one small items you don't exactly remember which category it belongs to ?

- Non language items like URLs, code snippets or command line parameters- in one note I simply copy paste them, how do you write them ?

The left column is the notes/subject/item/named person index. If a 3 hr meeting has 12 pages (double sided), I can probably pick up the notes and check all columns in about 10 seconds.

If a URL is mentioned, it's likely either because someone knows it (make a note to ask them for it), it's in their notes (ask for them), or it's been put on a whiteboard (take a photo if needed). Ditto for code, if it's that kind of meeting (and, yes, I do have those kinds of meetings).

For search capability you could try the method shown here: http://www.highfivehq.com. Basically you mark the edge of a page in the spot that corresponds to an index. You can then find items form a certain category by looking at the edge of the notebook. It's an interesting concept if you don't need a ton of granularity in your ability to search.

> - Non language items like URLs, code snippets or command line parameters- in one note I simply copy paste them, how do you write them ?

Typically I don't write this kind of information down ; I reference them from the original document.

Started a new school again after 12 years and recently learned about this. Just picked it up along with some bullet journalling techniques and so far it's been great.

Man, I had a teacher in high school who forced us to take Cornell style notes for everything, it was so irritating at the time. Looks pretty neat now though!

Can you explain how you expanded Cornell? I started using Cornell this past year. Curious about the improvements you've made.

Nothing too major:

The top of the page has headings for: meeting subject, date, room/location (can help jog memory), attendees, 'page x of y' and a 'confidential' tick box so I can keep corporate strategy or personnel discussions separate and secure.

The bottom section is marked 'Notes / Actions' where I highlight things that need follow-up (by me or others) - this is far better that having, say, 12 pages of notes from a 3 hr meeting with a few bits of underlined, ringed or asterisked text somewhere therein. Later I can visually scan the bottom of each page and quickly see all meeting actions - and I will have drawn a manual tick box by all mine so I can mark them off when completed.

Love the Cornell notes. Would you share your template ?

I’d like to see this too if you’re willing/happy to share

There are plenty of templates online, for example http://paper-prints.com/sheet/cornell_notes_A4 and (customizable) https://incompetech.com/graphpaper/cornelllined/

Searching also led to a few suppliers of pre-printed notebooks or paper with a similar grid.

Yes, but in the UK they are stupidly expensive - I thought about buying Cornell notebooks for the team (or having company ones made up), but soon changed my mind.

Did you have a look at the big online printers in the EU area?

I would throw Flyeralarm in the ring (not connected to them), looks like you can get a Wire-O notebook with 50 pages, and cover artwork as you like, for around 3 Euro (at 50 pieces) with prices dropping from there on.

Or what price do you think of?

Thanks - that's interesting.

I checked Amazon (yeah, OK) and a few commercial printers that specifically mentioned Cornell notebooks.

I may have to revisit this matter.

I would be even more impressed if you then circulated proper meeting minutes, with all the Action points properly recorded, document named and version controlled etc

I think a lot of people whose roles are client facing would benefit from this even though 90% of them would have no idea of what properly run meetings look like.

Capturing into a shared Onenote book using a phone camera would be a simple task and could be a good repository for notes of this type. The notes would be automatically dated and with OCR, searchable.

Who said that doesn't happen :-).

I'm not always hosting/minuting the meeting so it'll be done by whoever is.

Pen and Paper's killer feature is that, aside from doodling, is distraction free.

Sounds like the actual learning secret is "don't take verbatim notes", and the only relevance of the laptop is that it makes it much easier to take verbatim notes. I've pretty much only ever taken notes with a laptop, but I always take notes in the "digest and summarize" style, never recording the speaker's words verbatim, and it's worked great for me. (It wasn't a conscious decision; it's just how I take notes.)

It's not just the verbatim aspect, part of the issue actually is the distinction between laptop and paper. When you hand write notes, another piece of information you store in your mind is where on the page you wrote it, and what it looks like. Then, when you need to recall, you can often remember where it was on the page and generally what it looked like there, and that can help remember the actual content.

Why would those factors be any different when taking notes on a laptop? It is still on the screen/document somewhere, and it still looks like something.

The problem is that word processors and word wrap make it too easy to move text, destroying the absolute and sometimes even relative position.

Much of human memory evolved to remember locations, and almost all of the top memory competitors use locality association ("Memory Palace"/loci) as their primary method.

If that were true, then typing would be vastly superior to handwriting for everyone who simply chose not to copy-paste.

> Sounds like the actual learning secret is "don't take verbatim notes", and the only relevance of the laptop is that it makes it much easier to take verbatim notes.

Yes, that's pretty much what it explains. The title "don't take notes with a laptop" is rather misleading. It's a well known fact that summarizing requires the learner's brain to actively process the information, as opposed to passively receiving information and copying. It wouldn't surprise me if summarizing on a laptop leads to better outcomes than using handwriting, as more cognitive resources would be available to process the information (rather than frantically writing).

Your notion of cognitive resources is most likely very different from your brain's.

As I recall, all the evidence shows that handwriting rather than typing - even when using similar strategies - has better recall. When writing, you can more easily draw diagrams, do very quick sketches, add arrows and links back to other parts of the text, etc. In short, you have more ways of contexualizing the notes and representing them in a spatial way, giving your brain another 'hook' to help remember them.

> Your notion of cognitive resources is most likely very different from your brain's.

In this context, I disagree. If the act of writing is using most of my attention, I will miss large amounts of what is being said.

> As I recall, all the evidence shows that handwriting rather than typing - even when using similar strategies - has better recall.

I believe this is a highly nuanced issue and it's hard to make blanket statements. For example, I can't see how it would apply to people with various degrees of dyslexia - which could be up to 20% of the population. Having said that, I'd be interested to see evidence that proves otherwise.


Learning is very much a multi-sensory process. The act of writing is part of the learning - the two-dimensional shapes your fingers trace actually help cement the memory in your brain. (And no, simply clacking away on the keyboard is not the same.) As these authors [1] say: "the additional context provided by the complex task of writing results in better memory."

[1] https://journals.sagepub.com/doi/pdf/10.1177/154193120905302...

The study you've referenced is invalid for this particular discussion (but it's an interesting read and thank you for posting it). The study is focused on memorizing words, with this limitation being clearly stated in the study: "Future research is necessary to investigate the effect typing has on remember more complex stimuli, for example, phrases rather than just words."

It's also notable that the participants are 72% percent female (females as a population are better at writing than males [1]), and that 72% of participants admit that they prefer pen and paper.

Having said that, I agree with the study in that the kinesthetic aspect of writing will generally lead to better retention of words - I believe this is well established.

[1] https://www.sciencedaily.com/releases/2018/09/180920102135.h...

I think “frantically writing” is the wrong way of looking at it. It implies the mental systems that control the complex process of handwriting could easily be reapplied to ‘listening and comprehending’ if only they could be freed from their task. This seems unlikely to me, having read a few studies demonstrating that doodling can improve focus, especially in people diagnosed with ADHD – it seems like our dexterity control systems can actually be a source of frustration and distraction if they’re not given something to do. In my own anecdata, engaging my hands in writing the actual information I’m trying to learn works even better than doodling. I see it as rallying the different parts of my brain to work together to maximise focus and cognition on one target, while doodling is more like giving a kid a toy to shut them up. I might be reaching though.

You make some valid points, and physically writing may indeed be helpful to particular cohorts. But for people like myself, who are slow writers and poor multitaskers, the act of physically writing takes attention away from the act of listening, meaning that I miss a lot of information. The core issue is that we all have different strengths and weaknesses, which is why there is no such thing as "one size fits all" when it comes to learning.

> It wouldn't surprise me if summarizing on a laptop leads to better outcomes than using handwriting, as more cognitive resources would be available to process the information (rather than frantically writing)

Q: Why should "frantically writing" be worse than - say - frantically typing?

It's not, but most people (or at least, most people who grew up with computers) can type faster than they can write, so the operative comparison is between frantically writing and typing at a comfortable pace.

I've never taken notes on a laptop. For those who do, are you typing every single word that the speaker says?

I've taken notes on paper during many, many talks. I don't write down every word that's spoken.

Isn't the cognitive load likely due to to deciding what content to record, not due to controlling the brain-hand-pencil-paper interface / brain-hands-keyboard interface (as it were)?

The article is saying that typing the speaker's words verbatim is exactly what most people do when taking notes on a laptop, even when they are explicitly warned that it's a bad idea, whereas it's generally not possible to do so when writing notes, without some kind of shorthand.

In any case, that's not the point: regardless of what text you decide to record in your notes, it's faster to do so by typing it than writing it for most people. That means that if you switch from writing to typing your notes but continue taking notes in the same style, you should in theory have more time to figure out what to write without falling behind the speaker or needing to rush your typing.

I take notes on a laptop for school and what I have learned is it is very valuable to reorganize notes after readings or lectures. My goal is always to make a document that I can review later that is structured. Restructuring online without rewriting entire pages is pretty efficient. Also, with some discipline you can tag sections and grep them later.

A disadvantage over writing is not having multiple columns if you are using plain text. Tools like onenote solve this, but I find it too distracting to use in general.

It is also something else: if you take a paper note you have to actively archive it in some way at which point you might come into contact with it again. Searching for a old note on paper is like browsing backwards through the history of notes.

All of that would be entirely possible with a computer, but it would result in an inconvenient interface, where you can’t just search for a word or tag.

I have tried many ways to take notes but I’ve found myself always to come back to simple text/markdown files and paper based notebooks.

I manually type the relevant paper notes into the computer to make them searchable and link back to the notebook (e.g. like 2019/01 P.92) if I like to revisit the full note with drawings and all.

This means your notebook should get a name and a date and you should use notebooks with pagination..

I suppose in this day and age, with OCR being as good as it is, you could take a picture with your phone, and be able to search on text in the picture.

Now I think about it, I seem to recall Evernote doing something like that a while back. Mind you, I don't know how easy it is to get the meta-data back out.

In lectures, note-taking at all should be avoided, most of the time.

Most lectures cover material that is presented very clearly in accompanying materials, books or the internet. The idea I could do a better job than those authors while listening to the stuff for the first time is ludicrous. And at least for me it doesn't help recollection or focus to write notes while listening, and many students report they can take notes without the information passing through their brains. Other people swear they have to take notes to focus.

There are exceptions of course, for example if the information is new and any other available material is worthless.

As another data point, I take notes almost almost solely for increased recollection, I've never really studied them. The physical act of writing down a phrase or idea emphasizes it in my memory to such a noticeable degree that if I lack writing utensils I will mime the action; the physical notes themselves are rarely useful once made. I find this also works in settings that are not live, I am able to work through textbooks significantly faster if I take notes while reading in a similar fashion to a lecture.

I get regular remarks from people who don't know me asking why I'm throwing away the page of notes I wrote down in a meeting - it's because I'll never look at them again. But now the important parts of that meeting will be crystal clear in my head for the next couple months instead of the next couple days.

Maybe you would do even better just imagining writing it down on paper or actively building mental representations.

But if it works well enough, why not? The act of writing notes may involve mental processing or not. If it's just a matter of concentration and focus, there might be better remedies.

Imagining writing it down would keep me from actively building mental representations in most situations :)

The writing is semi-automatic and does not merely involve verbatim quotes from others. If today I were to attend a lecture or talk and something the speaker said prompted some visual insight I would immediately draw it as part of my note-taking process. The whole reason I began taking such copious notes, in fact, was the realization that if I didn't write these things down I often needed to have an insight two to three times for it to become a permanent part of my mental model of a problem space, rather than the once.

No matter how good your mental discipline, it won't be as consistently good as writing down the notes. This is just another variation of point-and-call [0].

[0] https://en.m.wikipedia.org/wiki/Pointing_and_calling

>In lectures, note-taking at all should be avoided, most of the time.

That's a very strong statement that I guess is based on your own personal experience?

If I can provide my own subjective opinion and educated guess, I do agree that taking notes verbatim feels close to pointless. You need to take in what you're hearing and grok it before you jot down your summary. Then you can go revisit your notes later to practice, or even better try to recall without looking at them first, and then check to corroborate.

>The idea I could do a better job than those authors while listening to the stuff for the first time is ludicrous.

I don't think anyone has suggested this to be the case. Even though it doesn't work that way for you, the point of note-taking even when the information is available from other materials is to facilitate retention and understanding, not to produce superior source material. I do believe it is effective for this purpose, for most people.

All through my education, I never really bothered to listen to teachers and lecturers and basically never took notes. I just read course literature and tried to grok the main concepts, and it worked wonders for getting me through tests and exams. Longer term retention of what I learned was atrocious though. Now as an adult I take notes and study in a much more disciplined way, and it's so much more effective long term that it leaves me with a sense of regret that I didn't know or realize all this as a kid.

Just my two cents.

My strong statement is first of all based on the specific act of note taking in the specific situation of lectures for the specific goal of learning.

You seem to conflate taking no notes with not listening. If the only point of the note-taking is to ensure the listening and mental engagement, then I doubt that's the most effective way.

The idea is that engaging with the material (i.e. breaking it down, summarizing it and putting it on paper) helps with retention compared to just taking it in and trying to understand it in your head. I can tell you don't believe in that, but that's what the argument is.

>You seem to conflate taking no notes with not listening. If the only point of the note-taking is to ensure the listening and mental engagement, then I doubt that's the most effective way.

I honestly can't see how you get this from my comment.

I wish lectures weren't really a thing in their current format. Why just reiterate what is already available in text and video? Have students consume the theoretical material beforehand and schedule Q&A's or practical application sessions or anything else where the interaction between lecturer and student may become something more dynamic.

Making students sit for hours in lectures still seems the most practical and efficient way to ensure they spend enough of their time learning something.

Expecting them to prepare the theory beforehand has not proven to be that practical. Lecturers who try this quickly learn to adjust their expectations downward, in my experience. And even then a lot of the "class" will be quite underprepared.

> Making students sit for hours in lectures still seems the most practical and efficient way to ensure they spend enough of their time learning something.

I don't believe the onus is on the educational institute to ensure that students learn anything when it comes to higher education.

The student is paying tuition or taking a student loan to be there, I think it should be reasonable to expect them to exercise their own responsibility and learn the source-material.

The fact that they do not might be indicative that they should be studying something else, and catering to them only exascerbates the issue rather than leading to a Darwinian solution.

That’s a great point. I could see professors iteratively updating source material based on QA. Wasting less and less time students time each semester. Compiling, refining and polishing whatever it is they had to say.

Yes, this is what I came to the comments to say. For me, paying attention was much more important than trying to take notes. It's a shame this study didn't have a third group that didn't take notes at all.

This, so much! Whenever I could I avoided taking notes and instead copied them from classmates or studied from books.

Same here. I wonder if it's the courses we took. I did Mathematics and Computer Science. The only time I took notes it was a disaster. My notes were perfect, my recollection awful. I had to reread them to get any value.

The rest of the time I just sat in class and paid close attention, rarely noting down to look up some lemma or the other. Way better results. Instant recollection. I can still remember the Nullstellensatz vaguely and the room in which I first encountered it and where I was in it and that's almost a decade ago.

I actually fall into a third bucket, at least when it came to math courses: I'd attempt to work ahead of the instructor during the lecture, instead of just writing notes or just listening.

Because of the way well-done math courses are structured, with topics building on each other, I was able to do this about half the time. Most importantly, any mistakes I made would be almost immediately corrected, so I never learned the material wrong, like if I'd waited until the homework.

Right. That’s Mathematics/CS in general, right? The lecture is usually driven by the students progressing the proof. That’s bucket one, I think. I know most of us used scratch work but it wasn’t notes. It’s more like swap space than general disk. I rarely looked at scratch space again, though I preemptively held all those books with me.

It's easy to copy formulas from a blackboard without mentally processing them.

The exact opposite works for me.

Note taking massively helps me on both remembering and the level of attention I pay to the lecture itself. Without notes, my attention drifts and I might as well just be passively watching TV.

Like Hermitian909, I don't particularly care about the notes afterwards. They're sometimes handy for skimming over when prepping for an exam or reworking through an example of a half-understood concept, but for the most part I don't use them.

> The idea I could do a better job than those authors while listening to the stuff for the first time is ludicrous.

Agree. I remember that I had one course that the prof couldn't really explain nicely and it seemed really hard. Then while preparing for the exam I actually read the book, and everything made sense and was quite easy.

This is why as an undergraduate, I rarely went to a course's lectures, I just read the readings and then came in for the exam. In many fields, lecturers at the undergraduate level are capable of giving you no more information than you could find in the standard textbooks and handbooks.

I tend to agree in general. I found that actively listening and paying attention to a lecturer and maybe taking a few sparse notes on some key points or things emphasized by the speaker worked fine. I advised my kids as they went off to college that showing up and paying attention were the most important things they could do.

I think it really depends on the teacher. My abstract algebra teacher, for example, expected us to copy the blackboard every class and our notes to be our primary text.

Some people are very good at organizing and reading & working on the material before the lecture. This seems ideal, though I'd never been able to do that.

A teacher can only test on the topics they covered. I take notes of everything. I can tell the teacher what they have covered.

An ounce of analysis is worth a pound of law.

My current (digital) handwritten note setup:

- iPad Pro with (Gen 1 :sadface:) Apple Pencil.

- Screen protector that gives a significant amount of friction to the screen so that it feels closer to paper. [1]

- Goodnotes 5 or Notability (I use both--depends on the circumstances). [2]

- A rule: iPad is solely a reading/studying/note-taking device. No keyboard, no social media apps.

- Bonus: Twelve South BookBook case.

[1] ClearView Paper-Like Screen Protecter for Apple iPad Pro 12.9-inch (2015/2017) [Made in Japan]

[2] I generally prefer GoodNotes over Notability, however, Notability has side-by-side notes and recording. These features are supposedly in the pipeline for GoodNotes, but have yet to materialize. GoodNotes handles large PDFs better (Notability crashes). They both have passable desktop clients for quick cmd+F searching of handwritten notes.

Mine is a similar setup, except with Windows architecture.

- Surface Go using stylus.

- OneNote for note taking

- ColdTurkey app (completely locks you out of blacklisted apps for a set amount of time [I've tried to crack it - I couldn't])

A feature I missed in OneNote: Handwriting recognition. Both GoodNotes and Notability are able to search your writing, provided it’s somewhat legible.

I'm definitely open for suggestions on the note taking software front. OneNote is sometimes pain to use, but Microsoft have designed it to work relatively seamlessly with the Surface line so it's what I defaulted to. I'll give those a try.

Personally, I'm far too undisciplined to enforce such rules on a tablet, so I got a Remarkable instead. Essentially an e-ink reader with handwriting capabilities.

I've wanted something like the Remarkable for years, but the cost is still way too high. The rocketbook has been a decent interim solution, but there is always the issue that I can't re-load and modify old notes.

This is an interesting device, but watching the video the lag seems very unsatisfying - is that an issue in general use?

How does it perform in practice?

My setup is very similar. Except that my note taking is for meetings.

Agree with your sadface apple 1 pencil.

The #2 pencil is so much better, I almost wished they would have skipped v.1...

Thank goodness I learned this freshmen year in college, also the first time I was allowed a laptop in class. I starting taking notes with pen and paper as soon as I could write fast enough. I was successful in school, and I really think a large part of it was recording so many notes. I noticed that many classmates that stayed on laptops often were bad students. And the times I did take my laptop to class I was worse for it.

This article aligns with most of why I thought note taking was good. It definitely has a mechanical nature that typing just doesn't match. Also you don't want notes that are just transcription, you want your own thoughts recorded on the page. Something I think they missed though was diagrams. Typing may result in a perfect transcription, but most lectures contain a visual component. Being able to quickly copy a graph or diagram is extremely useful. When taking notes via typing, there is no good way to do that without a touch screen and some skill. I'm much more likely to remember a diagram I drew than one I looked at.

I love how they gloss over the internet connectivity portion, but I also find that to be a huge component in reality. Sometimes I need to "space off" for a few seconds to digest an idea. When taking paper notes, I end up doodling boxes or lines. When typing, I inevitably get distracted by some shiny thing designed to steal my attention.

I do note in the workplace who brings paper and who brings a laptop to a meeting. Sometimes you need a laptop to present or look up information. But if you are solely there to listen, people who bring paper pay the most attention.

Why can’t you just take a picture of the diagram?

I actually never learned or benefited from note taking, so I’m pretty clueless. I still got through university and grad school with good grades, but I wonder if I was missing something. Professionally I draw a blank whenever someone at a meeting asks me to take notes, kind of embarrassing.

> Why can’t you just take a picture of the diagram?

Because the learning effect is zero. (Also, not every professor allows it, and you don't always sit in a location from which you can take a decent picture. But that's beside the point.)

The best teacher I ever had in school never got tired of reminding us that we learn in four different ways: hearing, writing, speaking, drawing. Taken individually, hearing is the worst, drawing the best. The more you combine, the better your rate of recall will be.

Drawing is fantastic because it engages your kinesthetic learning, your spatial learning, and your analytical learning (because you really have to look at a picture in detail before you can copy it).

I dislike the reductive reasoning here.

I personally learn the best from listening intently to what the lecturer is saying. That is why in college I would always sit at the front with an audio recorder, and then listen to that until I memorized most of the content.

Taking a picture has always seemed like the laziest way to say that you're participating in class. I've found that people that take pictures of every lecture slide and say they'll look at them later are usually freeters who show up to lectures once in a blue moon.

To me, written note-taking was useful because it forced me to internalize the information in some way, even if it's only verbatim copying. My hand has to move to the shape of the letters, and I'd usually mouth out what I was writing; this forced me to experience the information in more ways than just listening to it. I can make my own annotations to a hand-drawn graph. Taking a photo doesn't challenge my senses in the same ways.

[1] showed that taking a photo improves visual recall at the expense of auditory recall, but I'd argue that lecture information more often emphasizes the latter.

[1] https://journals.sagepub.com/doi/full/10.1177/09567976176948...

I was going to say this, I used to take notes the first couple of years of university and eventually stopped when I noticed that I learned better when not taking notes. It was preventing me from concentrating on the content... (plus I don't write well enough that my notes were nice to reread)

I've never been fond of note taking in general, I found that I retain the most knowledge when actually trying to make an effort to listen, and actively trying to conceptualize everything mentally while the teacher is talking, instead of occupying myself with writing notes.

Same here. It was really stressful trying to write everything down, to the point where I couldn't really focus on making sense of what was said.

Most good profs had a script with the important knowledge in it. Or at least printed out a miniature view of the powerpoint, to take notes next to each slide.

I hope your professors post their lectures online.

I'm the same way and when I was in college, I just took the notes off of one of my classmates and just uses a copy machine. I never did find them particularly useful though and have found seeking the same information from different sources, i.e. manuals, books or online, to be of a far greater impact.

I _never_ understood this argument that "note taking helps you remember" since I never felt this was the case for me. I may just be lazy, or it might be the fact that I have a horrendously hideous handwriting.

I’m the same, this was before professors posting lectures were a thing. I still graduated at the top of my class in CS, there are many people out there who get by well without note taking, or even attending lectures very much (just go by the syllabus and self study).

Also, as a lefty, note taking is a bit more challenging (even when I could snag the proper desk) and I probably just compensated in other ways.

My issue with this has always been that my longhand is terrible, and writing under pressure makes it worse.

Longhand notes (which I do frequently for the RPGs I run, so practice isnt the issue) are nigh unreadable. I literally have dozens of notebooks (not full, but at least 30 - 50 pages each is pretty common ) of notes I struggle to read and organize.

Being able to write with speed and br able to read them is why an elementary school teacher recommended that I try using a computer to write on back before laptops were a thing, and it remains a big reason I rely on them for work notes now.

I got frustrated that I enjoyed writing on nice paper with nice pens, and yet I could type much faster than I could write. So about 4 years ago I started learning shorthand. I use shorthand plus icons as needed to pull out important concepts. It's really helpful. Most of the time very little transcription is needed.

How did you learn. Where should someone start? I think now is the perfect time to learn shorthand since we have abandon hand writing completely due to overusing computer, mobile etc

Don't know if this is just me, but just short hand the entire lecture - it keeps your brain in check that you are understanding each word. Even if it doesn't read back you'll retain a lot more than just passive listening.

I wonder if adults can improve their handwriting.

Most skills are things that you can get better at.

I bought a nice fountain pen (well, a $14 pilot) and overhauled my cursive writing. It took about 6 weeks and I write pretty legibly in cursive. I'm more legible in various print scripts (that I have also worked on as an adult), but cursive is faster.

Admittedly, that is just an anecdote. But if you're curious, try and get better... you'll likely improve if you actively practice.

I'm also a fountain pen user.

I never liked pure cursive and do a mix, it's more of a print-sive where some letters are always print (F, J, G, Q, a couple others) and others are cursive depending on flow, speed, etc.

I have a bit more practice because I also sketchnote.

> but cursive is faster

Have you tested? I recall - maybe a decade ago - seeing a study suggesting that in fact printing individual letters could be faster; I still write in cursive when I need to handwrite though (basically never).

Edit: http://nautil.us/issue/40/learning/cursive-handwriting-and-o... is a good summary; first 2 paras of last section are the TL;DR.

No, I haven't actually tested it. Maybe it just feels that way. But it does feel that way.

I suspect it more typically degrades. I always had poor handwriting scores but, over time, I wrote more and more for my personal consumption and speed became more important than style. Arguably shorthand would be more useful for people in general than impeccable Palmer script.

Not to mention archiving it. As a VC I’m taking notes on companies I meet with an need to get them into our CRM for future review

Yes, it at least partly depends on the reason you are taking notes. If it's purely to use for studying that's one thing. But if it's for writing a story, a trip report, or for otherwise sharing, there are a lot of reasons to have more of a verbatim record.

Ideally, I suppose I'd have an accurate transcript and I could just take time-stamped notes that could key to that transcript but that's not the reality. (I know I can record audio but, in practice, going back to audio after the fact is just too much work for most purposes.)

Take scribble notes, but then dictate them in with further comment immediately after. Speaking is ~150 wpm

I was physics/CS undergrad and did very well academically. I didn't really take notes much though. The strategy that worked for me was to read the book ahead of time, then the lectures were more to help digest material I was already familiar with. And for those giant auditorium-sized lecture classes, I just skipped class completely and only read the book. In fact I found taking notes to be distracting - how can I pay attention when I'm trying to copy everything down?

I was pure Physics and did the same.

I'd summarise the relevant sections for the exams in LaTeX documents as well. The pain of having to put it into LaTeX made me absorb it better I think...

"Copying everything down" is not what I would consider taking notes. I write down those little "aha" moments, or interesting tricks, new ways of framing the problem, etc. Reading the book ahead of time is awesome, but sometimes a presenter explains something in a slightly different way that makes it click. That's what (my) notes are for.

The article mentioned that one of the problems is too verbatim taking of notes on laptops. A friend who works as a translator mentioned that when she translated a conversation, she could not remember any details of what she translated afterwards. Yet after translating an article or technical documents, she learned a lot on the subject. The difference for her is that translating a conversation is mechanical verbatim process, translating an article requires conscious efforts.

I frequently still use notepads for notes, I find it actually helps me retain information.

Additionally, when reviewing shortly after a meeting, I find that I can better suss out the truly important action items. Especially if things need to be delegated.

This isn’t to say I never take notes on my computer. (Notepad++ is wonderful for this), but I find the physical note taking to be incredibly beneficial for organization of information.

Additionally, there may still be a certain social impact where people feel that you’re “paying attention” when taking notes on a physical pad, vs they feel they’ve “lost your attention” the second you start to type away on a device.

> Additionally, there may still be a certain social impact where people feel that you’re “paying attention” when taking notes on a physical pad, vs they feel they’ve “lost your attention” the second you start to type away on a device.

Never mind what people feel - I care more about the fact that I do actually start to lose attention when I'm working on a laptop! (And I don't even need Internet for that, there's enough other things to distract me.)

Mind sharing how you use Notepad++ to take notes? Why is it wonderful?

I use Sublime Text for not taking when not doing it longhand, and I really like it. I think it's because it's an environment we're intimately familiar with, so there is nothing to get in the way of just capturing the information you want to capture.

I like notepad++ because it’s light, there’s no formatting or similar that happens if I hit 1. Space or 2. Space Or I use a.

Additionally, I like that I can hit new and have quick new tabs of notes (instead of new windows ) and that when I close it it gracefully saves them as “new” rather then promoting me to have to save them. (Of course I have the option to save them, but it doesn’t have a prompt like word and defaults to making sure they’re saved somewhere ).

Here is what I discovered in my experience if this helps someone, completely anecdotal.

Paper vs Computer

1. Paper:

   - Ability to spread things out, to take stock of a big project, simultaneous refer back, draw between two pages etc.
   - Faster draw diagrams etc, partially fixed, see article about thing student who used latex/inkscape to draw. 
   - Faster to connect up different ideas.
2. Computer:

   - Search: When I need to go back to find that idea ('keyword'), when you have hundreds of sheets is super easy.
   - Faster to type.
   - Easier to organize, I just copy paste and create folders etc. I use Latex and org-mode.
Few Tips

1. Cornell'esque techniques definitely help when revising and organizing.

2. Taking some notes actually helps you to focus better. Reduces random day dreaming, skipping crucial info (which leads to rest of lecture/meeting being harder to understand) etc.

3. Take condensed notes gives me time to listen and makes short notes.

4. But especially in Math related areas, there is no way to assimilate information in one sitting. I often used to hear a random English sentence, only to later realize that some word there had a specific mathematical meaning and it had much deeper meaning than I initially understood. Over-simplified example, xyz is a group. Group here being group theoretic group.

5. Video Recordings of classes and reviewing them and then scribing watching the videos helps a lot, esp for the likes of Advanced CS/EE courses.

6. Writing is learning, verification and long term information storage at the same time. One of my advisors once told me, when I asked him how do you store so much information about various papers etc, "Thats why I wrote that book".

This whole thread and only one mention of org-mode, what is the world coming to.

I used a Wacom Bamboo Spark[1] during my Post-grad and am really impressed by it. You write on regular paper using a special pen (ball pen) and the notes get synced to their app called Inkspace. Your own hand-writing , regular paper. No dependency on Livescribe refills or special papers. FWIW, I explored iPad + Pencil but it was too costly for my needs in 2017.


I never took notes. It mildly disturbed my high school teachers, and greatly disturbed my college professors. Until the first tests/grades, when I did fine. Then they realized that I was actually listening, and getting the concepts. As the article said, the cognitive processing is what matter more than the actual notes you take.

Now I fully admit that if I had taken notes, I may have been an A student instead of a B student. But I just found the note-taking process to be a distraction from listening.

I have the same issue with notes. When I have to analyze what I'm hearing, I can't do anything other than listen. It's like my brain shifts between modes.

My intuition is that I would have been an A student if I took time to write notes after the class while the memories were still fresh.

This is actually something that I've been saying about myself for years - which I discovered through my own observations when I was in high school.

Long story short, I was in a "dual-enrollment" program which allowed me to take classes at a local college at night while going to high school during the day. I was able to graduate high school with over 30 college credits. One of the courses I took was psychology 101. I didn't particularly like this course (just wasn't interested compared to other subjects) and I ended up goofing off most of the time taking some notes on my laptop/iPad.

Needless to say, this affected my grades and I was at risk of failing the course. In order to study for the final, I ended up going through the book and taking notes of key terms and concepts - writing them down. I was able to get a real understanding of the content and ended up getting 100% on the exam and passing the course.

My lesson; my personal comprehension goes way up when I physically write things down. Now I keep a notebook that I use every day (a bullet journal). In many cases, I duplicate what I'm doing in my project management systems, but I am able to visualize what I need to do much more efficiently.

This is actually not true for me. I recently entered medical school after 20 years being a programmer. I find that typing notes while listening to the lecture is best for me. Then after I return home, I re-read the notes and retype it again without referencing it to see how much i remember.

I tried writing my notes by hand but I found it too distracting. I write decently fast but I find myself missing the points of the lecture because I am trying to remember them in order to write them.

For me typing my notes is more convenient and not distracting at all since I'm a fast typist and the act of typing is instinctive for me. I find typing allows me to concentrate on the lecture by listening and yet being able to put the lecture points in writing fast enough.

I tested both methods prior to one of my midterm exams, I get a much higher grade on the subjects where I listen to the lectures while typing my notes than on the ones I listen to while writing by hand. Most of my exams are 2-3 hr handwritten essays.

I've heard students about using 1 shared google doc where the "multiplay" with their notes, so that they all chip in and even elaborate on certain questions.

ahh that's cool. I've done similar things at Meetup organizer meetings where everyone chips in to add what the feel is important to the "minutes". like a static record of what each person felt the others should remember takeway

Or better: take classes where they e-mail you the slides afterward. Taking notes is archaic.

Just my personal experience, but taking notes was always horrible for me -- as my brain was busy trying to think "how do I write this down in a way that will make sense" as the article suggests, I was missing the next few sentences from the lecturer and getting progressively more lost.

And when the lecturer is making a point, it's not always clear until later whether it was an irrelevant tangent or a main element that will be on the test later.

Taking notes in class distracts from effort that could be better spent learning and comprehending.

On the other hand, taking slides from classes and transforming them into your personal notes and study guide at your own pace -- that's immensely valuable.

(FYI -- article is from 2014 -- I was wondering why this was being studied again, when it seemed well established, both anecdotally and in literature).

Anytime I took notes by typing, I'd forget it seconds after finishing. But writing by hand forced me to think about what I was writing. The only thing that trumped that in cementing my understanding was actually having to explain what I learned to my classmates/peers.

I wonder how recall from writing compares to typing out flashcards (e.g. Anki) and then using spaced repetition techniques to memorize concepts.

The kinds of questions I ask when writing flashcards: How can I split this info up into different facts? What facts do I care about / will I care about?

But I think I wouldn't make flashcards for something if I understood it. I've found practicing recall with flashcards highlights what I don't understand. e.g. sometimes I've been confused between similar cards, and it's not obvious when looking at the cards the similarities/differences.

I think this complements rather than replaces things like the manually writing notes or explaining concepts.

I've done classes where I've typed out flashcard questions whenever the lecturer said something that I considered "testable." The system works okay. Forces you to pay attention. Unfortunately, it quickly devolves into spending the entire class copying and pasting between the digital slides and Anki (or sometimes I would use Workflowy as an intermediary). It feels like a chore.

"actually having to explain what I learned to my classmates/peers"

isn't that what well typed/formatted notes should. unless your explanation always involve a bunch of bak-and-forth?

The only exception that I have found has been building mindmaps.

I probably think this is true for school, that using laptops is not as productive for taking notes, but I didn't find writing down notes on paper in classes particularly pleasant either.

Past my school life into employment life, the situation is much different. I take digital notes on many tasks, I search through them like in a database when I need to recall something. I don't get distracted for note taking in environments that sitting through long lectures encourage. I still take notes on paper sometimes, but write a lot less down.

I'm actually looking to switch to digital from handwritten notes. Just need to find a (phone) app that lets me write and take photos for diagrams at the same time (anybody know any good ones?) instead of having to be switching between the notes and the camera. I've done handwritten notes for years but they have several problems for me: they get lost, i end up with notes scattered across whatever pieces of paper where closest to me, my fast handwriting is awful and i can't read it after some time, they end up getting "transcribed" anyways (which takes a long time).

Usually my workflow is: take notes, if I can avoid things I know are in the book, I will, then a week or so before exams I'll read everything (book+notes_ and make flashcards in Anki. I know I can do 25 pages (of a book) a day comfortably so I'll time it appropriately. Then I proceed to cram for a day or two until I can realiably do the whole deck with ease. This usually takes me less time (1/2 usually) than the reading/making hence why I want to switch to digital notes, to avoid a step. Most of the material that's tested for usually doesn't need to be memorized, which irritates me to know end, but what can I do. So I cram so I can promptly forget.

I find concepts are either understood or not understood, they do not need to be memorized. Things that are usually tested for (at least where I live / for what I'm studying) tend to be facts/procedures. At the end of the year I extract these from my notes / anki cards for future reference.

One other thing I do is the flashcards are written exactly how I will answer the question 90% of the time, sometimes in my own words, sometimes extracted right from the book. Before when I studied in English I didn't do this because I'm comfortable with the language, but because I'm studying in another language now, often the wording is the hardest part (also in part why reading takes me so long). This way I don't have to worry about that. Also this makes exams go lightning fast. I'm always first to leave.

Okay, so I started an MS (OMSCS) a couple years ago, and I had to relearn now to study. So I've gone through this process recently.

So far I've managed to get usually the top score or very close to the top on all my exams across 5 classes. In my most recent class I got the top score of 96 on an exam where the median was in the 60s.

All I do is take hand written notes (albeit digitally on an ipad) during lectures. Then before the exam, I review my notes. That's it! My recall with this approach has been great.

I admit though, having the lecture videos online is a massive help for this method. I watch at 1.5x and frequently pause it if I miss something, or re-watch a section if I didn't understand it the first time - then take my notes. I always had trouble with real-time lectures in my undergrad.

I took notes on my laptop using OneNote - far better than Microsoft Word.

I used color for headings. Added bullets and numbers even when it wasn't dictated that way. Added acronyms - mnemonics to the headings. Marked out filler content while writing or immediately after class. Summarized, rewrote important parts in my own words. Marked areas where I'd have to reproduce verbatim.

Finally, for exams, I read using my Nook eBook reader instead of the laptop because: The glossy screen is tiring. And there are many distractions on my laptop - browser, games, movies...

Finally, while reading, I actively set questions and answered them after reading. This question method's far better than re-reading multiple times.

With all these, five hours was all I needed for a semester's worth of work.

Pro-tip: if you are like me, never take note and divert all your attention to the lesson.

Getting copies of notes or reading the actual book can easily replace any note taking. Being distracted from the actual explanation because I'm using my attention to write, is a net loss.

I am curious if this applies to the workforce. I spend a lot of time in meetings taking notes using OneNote. Some colleagues use Evernote, while others use pen and paper. Then there are some that take no notes at all.

Yet, when we discuss things the next week (weekly meetings are common where I work), some people seem to not remember anything about the prior week's meeting.

I use my laptop to quickly look up last week's notes and reference those while discussing weekly progress. Others do OK with one or two subjects (from memory), but lack detail or flat out do not recall other discussion points.

I did both, wrote and typed, and wrote on my iPad pro with the stylus. The best results I got when taking notes and studying on real paper. I believe the cognition/perception bias comes from the unnaturally glowing panels and the lack of complex haptic feedback like that of a rolling pen or scratching. Any indirect input that comes combined with the visually perceived knowledge makes memorizing more effective, I guess. Glowing visuals are less comfortable for me, perhaps they overload the eyes in a way. Reading on actual paper feels less "heavy".

I still use a paper notebook at work to track my day to day action items. It feels so gratifying when you simply check a task as complete. I tried using a tablet for that matter, I just felt like I ignored my action items as it felt they were out of reach. I have to always look for them in the tablet, when in the paper the page is looking at me without me have to look for it.

In addition, I work in secure labs and electronics are a big NO, notebook on the other hand it simply works. My 2c. Pen and paper it is still relevant and it always will be.

Going against what seems to be the prevailing thought in this thread. Here's why and how I take notes primarily on a laptop.

When the lecture, presentation or meeting starts a have a macro that creates a new Evernote note prepended with the date and starts recording into QuickTime. Throughout the exchange, I am typing up quick and dirty first draft notes using a macro to screenshot the portion of the QuickTime window displaying the time elapsed. I also employ symbols/emojis to flag points in the notes that are important‼️, should be returned to and reviewed later , are confusing, raise a question ect... Whenever there is downtime (e.g. interruption or lull in the presentation) I work my way back and start improving the notes: Organizing them into a hierarchy with headings, indentation and boldation. Also, I Hyperlink useful, relevant or referenced URLs.

At the bottom of the document I have a separated section called TAKEAWAY containing a bulleted list of questions to ask, things to follow up on, and key points. I can always ⌘↓ > ↩ to add an item line to this section.

At the end of the exchange, I check my TAKEWAY section and clarify any questions. I stop recording and add the audio file to the top of the document. This leaves me with a reference document I can revisit, clean up, and reference later.

The process of making the note visually appealing and easy to read by cleaning up, formatting, and adding hyperlinks accomplishes a lot of the internalization handwriting does because it forces you to try to convey the kernel of the information being consumed in as well few formatted, organized words as possible.

Furthermore, I'm the type that really values immediately looking up unfamiliar referenced concepts/ideas so I don't misunderstand what/why something is said. As for diagrams, they can usually be incorporated by adding slides of the presentation, taking a picture of the whiteboard at the end, or just googling whatever the diagram was.

With the wonderful world of macros and automation I can change color, size, formatting, add lists; add hyperlinks, multi-media images, timestamps ect... and keep everything in an easy to read, search and share document.

Most importantly my handwriting is bogus. I really couldn't do it any other way.

Nice workflow, and goes back to this comment somewhat: https://news.ycombinator.com/item?id=20271383 However, I'm not sure about the legality of recording audio without informing everyone in the room. In my country that would be illegal as some people have protected identities.

I think I understand your concern about the [local] legality of “recording audio”... if everybody would cease bringing (or otherwise sufficiently disable) _recording devices_ to/in public spaces.

I don’t think the average person understands > cares > is negatively impacted by that concern.

Any knowledge or experiences?

I suppose it's a lot like jay walking. Some people will care enough to observe the law and others will not. In reality, the problem only arises if you record something (say a lecture) and share it publicly and it exposes an individual whose identity is otherwise protected.

My experience has been, as someone that observes the law, I've been denied the opportunity to audio-record a lecture. In this instance, the person in question did not object but the professor did - stating that there was an individual that could be affected. Granted, it doesn't really make a difference if I use it for my own personal use but since everything is hosted in the cloud these days...

Sometimes I feel like I'm forced to take verbatim notes on my computer, even though I know that's bad for my learning.

Specifically, I'm reading a very detailed textbook on databases. I feel that if I don't take notes I will forget most of the content in the textbook because the textbook is so information dense, but at the same time, whenever I take notes they end up being word-for-word copies of the text because the textbook is already so concise/word-efficient.

I did my final year of college three years after my first three years. In the first three years I took paper notes and got terrible grades. In the fourth year I used a laptop. The laptop however was not great, so it had no internet and I just used a full screen editor window to take notes, so no distractions, and no verbatim writing because I couldn't type that quickly.

Everyone learns differently. You just have to find what works for you. But no internet is key.

When I take notes I take them with a laptop precisely because of the increased speed it provides. Usually I find that note taking in general is actually counter productive because it diverts my attention away from the lecture. As a result I want the note taking process to have a low cognitive burden so I don't miss what my instructor is saying.

I usually use Emacs Org-mode for my note taking and then refactor my notes once class is over.

In person, taking notes on paper always works better for me. And when I’m on the computer (Zoom conference or Skype), notes on the computer feels more natural.

I would always take notes on paper as others have said as I think it helps with retention, at least for me.

Even then I would only take notes of equations to memorise them and things that the lecturers said that were even not explained properly or absent in the handouts/slides. At my university there were recordings of the lectures but I was too lazy/didn't want to waste my time looking up exactly what they said.

What worked best for me in school was longhand notes and then nightly typing the notes up. (Though I seldom revised the notes the same night or week.) For finals I would spend a lot of time revising my notes and comparing notes with my friends. I found that my friends who had taken notes on their laptops had more notes, but it was exceedingly rare I actually missed anything important.

Any good suggestion for a handwriting to digital transcription workflow? I'm peripherally aware of specialized notepads that do this, but don't know how well they work. I guess scanning paper notes for conversion would be another option. Having a searchable, org-mode integrated record that can include diagrams would be awesome. Is OCR for cursive writing pretty reliable?

But in the age of fast. Seems like going slow and putting more effort into hand writing notes pays off in learning. As a side note analogy if you drive via GPS you will not remember they way as easy if you drive without via analogue map.

How about if you take notes on laptop put that into spaced repetition software like Anki & Supermemo compared to hand written notes memory retention?

I guess it depends on how many places you navigate to and how important you think recalling each route (from memory) is. slow is good unless you have to prioritize what to remember I think...

I would think writing in itself is not the key, rather the effort to take the note itself in how it creates stronger connections to form clearer memories. If you had a laptop and had to create diagrams in software describing the lesson, I would have to believe this would be at least as effective if not more if it engaged more of your brain to accomplish this.

For me the best way to take notes in lectures is/was a Boogie Board Sync which is sadly not available any more.

It is the best of both worlds. You basically have a zero latency touchscreen that can save your notes to PDF.

Even the best Tablets today have latency, most are designed more as touchscreen. Writing gets tiring and distracting really quick.

I wonder why the Boogie Board Sync was discontinued.

Yeah I have one of those too. They recently added sync (through your phone) to dropbox/evernote, which makes it even more useful. It's a great device - zero distraction digital notetaking.

According to one of their support agents, their sales numbers were low. Personally I think their marketing sucked - they seemed to be targeting kids rather than students/business users. Their styling reflected this identity crisis too.

They have a product coming later in the year which will "address some of the same needs", TBD though how thoroughly it'll be a fill-in for it. In the meantime I bought a protective folio case for mine and am babying it.

For me the best was using a Surface and One Note. It allowed me to load the slides right into One Note, and write notes right on top of them. Hand written if necessary, but preferably typed for legibility.

Now, this isn't without issues, as being on a computer allows for easier distractions. But as long as one stays focused on the class, it can work quite well.

I'm trying to get into the habit of writing messy mindmaps, then redrawing those as a process to understanding the material. One single glance at a Mindmap a week later and I reactivate the concepts and understanding. Especially important for building internal context (how the components relate to each other)

Just picked up a "livescribe" echo from eBay for $30. I don't do well with notes on a computer or tablet but I like the idea of digitizing them and recording a meeting at the same time; and pin point play back. We'll see how it goes.

From my experience, I found that the Livescribe and their ilk depend on a razor/cartridge model. The pen itself might be cheap(the razor) but the refills/special paper (the cartridges) are ridiculously expensive. Any particular reason/hack you found to circumvent the prices?

I usually take notes on paper as well.

Then I either scan them directly to PDF or take to effort to re-write them, if the information is to be better structured or shared with others.

Besides all the benefits mentioned by others, it is also a good way to rest my wrists from just typing.

Rewriting contemporary notes some time later adds another filter/interpretation to the information, and if you choose to remove or rewrite things that now don't seem relevant or accurate (rather than checking with the information giver), there's a risk that the notes become diluted or lose details that are re-graded as unimportant but later turn out to be the opposite.

Always best to write good, efficient, consistently-styled notes once, and annotate changes/corrections on them if they are needed. It saves time too!

> Rewriting contemporary notes some time later adds [...] interpretation to the information..

Isn't this a fairly crucial part of "learning"?

Sure, write up stuff that supports your referral back to the original notes, or makes corrections and additions - but don't get rid of the original notes or replace them with interpreted copies.

The original article was talking about students learning in lectures. One might presume that the learning process ends with students being tested in a situation where they have no notes of any kind?

If that's true, then there's no point holding on to "the originals", because on the day of the test/exam/whatever, you won't have access to them anyway.

In essence, transferring knowledge from the original lecture via the written notes to ones memory?

> high verbatim note content was associated with lower retention of the lecture material. I think this a key finding/point. And other connotation to this idea would be that, whatever you learn, write them down in your words.

I honestly never believed that digital devices are good to take notes, especially if you have to reflect them. Digital devices distract you on so many levels, it is hard to believe people even started doing it.

another learning secret: take courses where the teacher gives you printed notes of the content he will present, and write down the occasional comment/clarification during class.

Moreover, high verbatim note content was associated with lower retention of the lecture material. It appears that students who use laptops can take notes in a fairly mindless, rote fashion, with little analysis or synthesis by the brain. This kind of shallow transcription fails to promote a meaningful understanding or application of the information.

The study sort of assumes that taking notes at all is necessary, but I think the conceptual understanding vs. rote memorization idea suggests that taking notes should be questionable also.

Jordan Peterson has 3 minutes of advice for taking notes conceptually rather than verbatim: https://youtu.be/lMvvdz7YJ-Q

I take notes in text files every day. I do it for work, I do it for exercise, I do it for cooking and grocery shopping, I do it for planning my day, I do it for self improvement.

Writing it out is the simplest form of explanation - I'm explaining the concept to myself. I'm analyzing it to make sure I don't have any logical holes in my thinking, and then I can refer back to it. If I try to explain the concept to another person, and they point out a logical hole or they otherwise can't grasp the point, I go back to my text file and try to find the missing pieces and add them in.

I like this because I always have the concept at the ready. Maybe I don't encounter the topic for a few months or years, and I go back and read the text file on the topic and it's like the neurons organized around the topic all come to life again - but the best part is that there are all these new neurons that I've picked up that apply to it, and the text file gets a little bigger.

It also helps me compartmentalize. Once I've written something into digital stone, I can switch contexts knowing I've pushed the concept as far as my mind can take it for the moment. Later, I can come back and pick up where I left off after my subconscious has had time to chew on it.

If we assume 1) taking notes with a computer is faster (not always the case), 2) lecture time is limited (i.e. fast paced, not recorded), 3) abundant time after to review notes, then taking notes with a computer is usually better.

You are only presented the information once. There is a reason stenographers record court and lectures. I prefer to handwrite notes on my own time, sometimes twice or three times, for my final copy I study from. If you are smarter than me, you can get away with less notes (or get them from me).

In business meetings if you frantically record every detail, people think you might be a lawyer so this may not apply.

I'm not surprised. Besides, if your note formatting requires the tiniest bit more than linear ASCII, any computerized interface will be a big let-down.

I took a bunch of notes on my laptop, but never used any of them in studying for finals. I just used other people's outlines.

I wonder if this holds up for those that grow up only typing.

It might because writing makes you slow down a bit. But would be interesting to see.

Does anyone know if there is data on the effectiveness of handwriting on paper, versus a tablet, e.g. the reMarkable?

I'm not sure that this study means that one should not take notes with a laptop (as the article's title would suggest). Everyone works differently: just because there is an average tendency for people to perform better when taking notes by hand, doesn't mean that you shouldn't use a laptop if your own experience shows that it works better for you.

The only notes I take are questions I want to pose to the speaker. The rest happens in my head.

So, the actual issue is that transcription doesn't correlate with retention, and people who type tend to fall into the trap of transcription more easily.

There's nothing wrong or inferior about taking notes with a computer vs a notepad so long as you're not transcribing.

But, "Don't take notes with a laptop" is punchier.

Mmm. My two cents...

There's some extrapolation here. I've tried multiple models of taking notes with digital tools. They all come with this assumption that our brains are thinking in a single mode at any given time which is not practically true. I can be understanding what a person is saying and in my head categorising the information (table) while picturing what connections that info might have to something else (drawings?). And then I remember that Ellie from the other team/class had done something similar and I note down to set up a meeting (todo/calendar). All this while noting down questions of my own (free form text).

The point is, analog allows us to take notes and organise on the go. Digital tools, especially laptops (and typing in general), assume our thoughts are organised before we digitise them.

So unless using a pen on a tablet nothing comes even close in the digital world to recording notes the way our brain actually wants to.

Therefore don't take notes with a laptop is valid advice. It's not a tool made for taking on the fly notes and you'd have to be really really special at what you do to bend it to actually be useful in this scenario.

How I'm able to take notes in mathematics lectures using LaTeX and Vim https://news.ycombinator.com/item?id=19448678

My learning secret is don't take notes, ever.

What if I want to take notes but not contribute to deforestation and issues with the environmental impact of using paper in 2019?

Where are you buying your paper? For example European paper is made from local wood, (re)planted in a sustainable way; also recyling. If you rely on extra cheap paper made from Brazilian wood that might be an argument. The stronger argument is that paper production is fairly energy and water-intensive.

That said, I would be highly skeptical that an ipad + pencil is more eco-friendly to produce than however much paper you use during its lifetime.

>highly skeptical that an ipad + pencil [...] //

The people using paper probably also have the iPad, so it's probably whether the pencil used is more eco-friendly than the extra disposable plastic pens (which it might be)? Then you'd need to look at product lifetime, which is probably more limited by time-passed for Apple users and products than by actual hours of use??

I think these things are always more complex to analyse than it first appears.

Is the environmental cost to produce and run your electronic device over its lifetime less than the "cost" to use paper over that same amount of time? Honest question; I don't know the answer.

I use a Rocketbook for taking notes, when I fill it up and all the pages are captures digitally (straight to the cloud provider of my choice per page), I just erase it with a do cloth and it's good as new. Pages are a bit like plastic, and you have to use their pens, but it feels like writing in a notebook and serves the purpose for me.

What deforestation? At least in my country there's more forrest planted each year than cut out for all the purposes, including paper production. And given that, the rest of paper production process is pretty environment-friendly compared to producing a laptop.

Is the forest made up of indigenous trees?

Nearly everything has an environmental impact. And do you really think a Laptop compares favorably to thousands of pages of paper?

But I guess you could get a used iPad with the Apple Pencil or something similar.

Study of one, here, but I find typing notes on my touch screen phone causes me to think a bit more about what I’m writing because I can’t go as fast. So I end up having to summarize to take notes. If I manage to flesh out the notes later, it’s not bad. The problem is when I try to take shortcuts by just taking photos or recording audio. You can do either of those things, but it won’t help the message sink in. Only thought and repeated usage/reference will cause it to eventually stick. Active research can help too, if timeboxed. I only learn passively when I can repeat something at least twice, like an audiobook.

Paper is renewable. The rare earth metals in your devices are not. If you want to make this a political statement, you should instead research which paper companies are buying sustainable wood products, and buy from them.

iPad + their pen. It works unreasonably well.

Once produced, viewing a hard copy has zero environmental impact. Every time you open a pdf or or whatever your iPad saves your notes as, (let alone sync it with Dropbox) a coal plant groans a tiny bit and a penguin dies.


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