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Ask HN: How to Take Good Notes?
294 points by romes on March 3, 2020 | hide | past | favorite | 134 comments
I want to improve my note-taking skill. I've started writing a text file with notes from class, however, I don't have a systematic way of writing. This means at this point I just wrote down, arbitrarily, things the professor said, things the professor wrote, how I understood the information, and everything else, mostly all over the place.

I'm wondering if anyone developed a system like this I could adapt to myself, and how did they do it.

80% of the value of notes is the act of writing them down by hand. (I don't have a citation for it, but I tend to believe it). That is notes are primarily a tool to help you not fall asleep, start daydreaming, or whatever distraction keeps you from listening.

The fact that you cannot write everything down forces you to think about what you are hearing and find the important part to write down. Now that you have found the important part the writing helps you remember it.

When you are done with the above throw your notes in the recycling... Note that the above system works for me because I can't read my own writing anyway. (Probably a case of dysgraphia but I've never been formally diagnosed)

https://pdfs.semanticscholar.org/488e/c93cf68806bd8ac63fc7d0... ... interesting research that suggests that trying to type-out a transcript with a keyboard might be more effective.

The disadvantage here being notification pop-ups and email being a tab away.

Also whenever someone's on a laptop on a meeting I just assume they're not listening and looking at their emails, doesn't matter what they say before or during. Happens too often. Double if it's a googler lol.

It's 100% possible to take notes during a meeting without opening up another program.

Takes a whole lot of discipline. Definitely much easier if you care about the subject being discussed.

Do not disturb buttons are great for this.

Most of my meetings are throug video, so having half-screen the video-feed and other half some sort of note-pad is fairly useful :)

Bizarre suggestion for a device that's kinda hard to find nowadays but which I've heard is awesome: the AlphaSmart Dana.


WOW. I totally forgot this thing existed... I had the “3000” one in high school.

I remember it having a fantastic feel to it for being plastic. Other than that though, things like this were about having a system that you could write on without having to worry about battery life. Laptops were more expensive back then (oh man, I finally feel 31).

Currently to take notes in class, I use a 2008 MacBook Pro running Manjaro w/ i3wm. I try to copy the instructors talking points with shorthand.

There is a modern version: https://getfreewrite.com/. It's way too expensive though.

Yeow, US$550-700, that is incredibly expensive. Thanks for the TIL though

...for those with working memory deficits, yes.

If you need to be able to engage in the meeting, trying to transcribe it isn't much of an option, while taking paper notes remains so, and still provides as much or more benefit.

Even more interesting is, that the research I shared claims 'just type-out a transcript and don't try to summarize/structure your notes' is better than 'by hand, and summarize' ... but both agree writing by hand forces you to have more structure and summaries in your notes :-)

Interesting paper, thanks. Confirms what I have noticed in my work over the years.

I agree, but not just because of distractions. I have a hard time retaining what I've read for whatever reason, and always have. However, if I take notes while I'm reading, I tend to remember almost everything. So not only did I take notes in class to stave off distractions, but I also take notes on everything I read. When I'm done writing them, I can throw them away, because they're pretty much committed to memory at that point. Just another anecdote to contribute.

Anecdotal maybe but so common at the same time (we have stats on schools and universities, massive and now old data, and it's pretty clear writing notes helps). I think both the Bayesian and the frequentist agree, here.

And this is possibly a fantastic insight into how brain-memory actually works.

Disagree with the conclusion that notes are to prevent distraction. For instance, if I am driving and have a particular response or thought to an audio lecture, my interest in notation is not to maintain attention but rather an intense short lived desire to pause that attention and make a reference for future consideration.

Or when reading through materials, jotting down specific insights or relevant particular passages & page notations. Research is about getting through an initial swath of material to elements of interest & use.

Subjected to an involuntary lecture on a subject not of immediate interest that will test recall or retention later, I can see their being benefit in recording what is being expressed - after all, that is literally the purpose of lecture - but the concept of notation is further reaching and of greater depth than a boredom remedy.

> For instance, if I am driving and have a particular response or thought to an audio lecture, my interest in notation is not to maintain attention but rather an intense short lived desire to pause that attention and make a reference for future consideration.

How do you do that while driving? I am looking for a solution.

I use a dedicated olympus voice recorder. I have an activity that means I have a recurring need to make voice notes on my drive back from it. The voice recorder is great because it's easy to operate by touch as opposed to a touch screen. You hear a beep when it starts so you know it's recording. Recently I have been playing with this script someone wrote to transcribe them into org mode markup files using google speech to text services.


I don’t have a great answer but I’ve been using Just Press Record on my iPhone and Apple Watch to record stuff while driving. The app transcribes your voice fairly well and I feed it into Bear Notes from there.

From my experience, I completely agree with your statement. Sometimes I recall information by remembering the way I wrote something. Like there is a relation with the mental memory and the physical memory of writing notes.

> The fact that you cannot write everything down forces you to think about what you are hearing and find the important part to write down. Now that you have found the important part the writing helps you remember it.

Definitely! You are processing and analyzing the information "on the fly", possibly writing a shorter blurb that captures the essence of the information.

Verbatim copying is shown to improve recall a lot too.

I had one college professor who lived by this. Except he applied this theory by making tests basically "Write everything I said on this topic with correct dates, names, topics, etc. You have an hour to reproduce the content I lectured on for 6 hours." I was graded 99/100 on one test because I said like the March 1922 instead of including the day.

That style can help or hurt. When the class is straight info then sure, I can see the advantage but would never take another class from the professor. When the class is designed for analysis and critical thinking about the topic it kills interest and if they had offered another slot or I wasn't set on graduating quickly and could delay I would have.

I end up summarizing things that don't connect immediately and allowing the connections to stand against reviewing the notes the next day. I can then triage if I took too many notes (remembered more connections and can scale back) or need to review certain topics or sections (dropped connections). I also preferred class structures where we could participate vs being told the info and tested on our ability to regurgitate it. It's good for 101 classes but does not build an educated mind, just knowledge.

Unfortunately it's not entirely true, in the sense that i managed to write notes and re read them and i couldn't even remember writing them... I guess it's a skill gained in high school

The other point is that if notes are valuable for future reference, i end up missing stuff during a discussion. Which is a problem

This has been sooooooooo true for me in unversity.

This definitely helps me pay attention to other people's updates during daily standup

For what it's worth, when I was an undergrad the best improvement I saw as to take (almost) no notes in class. Instead I would:

1 Pre-read the material and perhaps attempt a few problems (if relevant) to see that I understood them. Make preliminary notes and call out places I didn't understand.

2 Prepare a list of questions I had, areas I didn't fully understand - take this to class

3 In class, mostly listen. Annotate my questions to make sure they had been covered (might be a check mark or yes/no might be a short annotation). Ask any I wasn't sure about after they described.

4 The only other things that got written down during lecture were a) logistics (e.g. quiz on X next tuesday, next lecture covers X & Y) or b) new questions or uncertainties to follow up on

5 after the lecture (same day if at all possible) revise the preliminary notes on that lecture into "proper notes" that resolve everything possible

6 If anything isn't resolved, work through it until it is, or hit up office hours, etc.

When lecturing later, I suggested this approach to my classes; many people reported it working well for them.

I would say that by using this approach, particularly by reading ahead a little bit, I cut my over all "study time" nearly in half, mostly because I rarely had to do anything else (that the above) except practice questions for exams - and those went quickly because I had good notes. This got me through a joint honors program with a fair bit of time pressure.

Re your first and fifth points, how do the preliminary and final notes look like? Do you aim for 100% information coverage (or 95%), or do you only write down your aha! moments and have the textbook as the primary source of information?

Good question. I think this varies a bit depending on how well organized you find the text(s) and how closely the course follows them. Definitely aha moments , but my final notes have a TOC also and are often easier to find things in, so fairly complete.

I guess I would say not complete enough for someone else new to learn from, but enough that having done the course you rarely need to go back to the text during it .

For me it's a two-step process to write the actual notes. The first step happens in class, copying down what I think I need to understand the concept being taught. Take cues from the teacher, if they write something on the board or it appears in their slides it's probably worth noting.

The second step is much more important. As soon as possible after class, hopefully armed with a better understanding of all the material, I write my actual notes. I write down everything I think I'll need to study to remember what I need to remember. Then I make an Anki deck from the notes some time in the next day or two and by that point I'll have the material pretty much committed to memory. I review the Anki deck a couple times over the next week to really lock it all in.

That's the process that's getting me through helicopter fight training now, currently working on my CFI.

This was my professor's routine. His final notes almost look fit to publish as-is. They were immaculate. He would go over his notes from the day and rewrite them immaculately.

This sounds like the Cornell note taking method

What is CFI ?

Certified Flight Instructor

I can really recommend "How to Take Smart Notes" [1] by Sönke Ahrens. It's made a real difference for me. Ignore the self help-sounding title and give it a chance.

[1] https://www.goodreads.com/book/show/34507927

I second that recommendation. It's a good book, and very, very useful.


I'm just starting to consolidate my notes, plans, and other documentation into an Emacs org-roam instance. I've got the workflow pretty well defined, now I'm just adding more and more "knowledge" to the instance.

Org-roam is a recent Emacs-based implementation of https://roamresearch.com/ where you link notes to other notes, and the system automatically creates backlinks for you. Thus creating the context for the "in what context do I want to view this note?" question.




I am thinking of starting a groupchat/forum for users of org-roam. Since Emacs consumers are also contributors very often, it would be a good to exchange ideas on how to make this awesome tool even better. Emacs and the org-mode ecosystem offers some already existing great features (e.g. avy-jump, magit, org-capture, org-agenda etc. ) that can make this tool far better than RoamResearch.

Please let me know below if anyone is interested in it.

Hi, author of org-roam here. Maybe I'll set up a Gitter for Org-roam. Org-roam is a reflection of my current workflow, but I'd also like feedback on what to work on next and what people like to see. Maybe creating a GitHub issue is too much of a barrier to entry.

This book is worth its weight in gold for people on the note-taking journey.

The quality of content is high and the content per page is absurd--it makes you wonder it is because of the author or because of the note-taking system he uses...

If you want to take great notes, I've got good news and bad news. The good news is that you don't need to worry about doing it right, your aptitude and personal preference will come without any conscious thought. The bad news is that there's no shortcut except for practice, practice, practice.

Having said that, here are some of the specifics that work for me.

- This notebook: Cambridge Jotter A5 Card Cover Wirebound Notebook Ruled 200 Page. A5 means it's easy to carry everywhere. Wirebound means the pages don't flap back on their own and only one sheet needs be open at a time. 200 page is a good balance between how long each notebook lasts.

- Put a DD/MM/YYYY and a title at the top of each page, don't be too fanatical, but contextualising the notes is essential, and it helps search. Abbreviated titles and dates are fine for when the notes of single events stretch over multiple pages.

- Always write notes at everything that could be a meeting or a talk.

Everything else came with experience and I can't really put it into words, though I've always appreciated when I've taken notes under the assumption that my future self will remember nothing of the event, it's been an accurate assumption more times than I care to mention.

Don't worry about chronological order being an imperfect method of organising data, it's a strong practical heuristic.

Seconding a5. Also scope jetpens, they have a huge variety of a5 paper that's pretty cheap and the variety can be fun.

I also got a multi color pen that makes note taking far more organized and effective for my ADHD brain, ESPECIALLY when I go back to review.

A5, needs to have a squared grid, and preferably "atoma" so you can throw pages out or reorder them. I have been doing this for about 20 years now, filling 3-4 of them each year.

This is a hard one to answer, and what works for someone might not for another.

The most useful advice for me has been to find a method, and stick with it. This is most important for organisation.

I prefer handwritten notes, and I only take notes on things I don't understand. I'm not writing a textbook - I don't need my notes to be a complete reference manual on the subject. Moreover, notest that explain how you went from 'eh?' to 'oh, yeah...' are so much more useful, and if you already understand something you don't have that moment to talk about. It's also a waste of time.

I use hardback notebooks. If I'm studying 3 things simultaneously, I have 3 notebooks running. When I finish one subject, I start the next a few pages later. I write the subjects on the spine (normally need a sticky label). The growth of my 'notebook library' has been quite satisfying!

My method of note-taking has varied a bit, I generally use the so-called 'Feynman technique'. I write the subject, leave a few blank lines, then go through the steps needed to understand the subject. I then write the 'summary' that I now understand in the blank space.

I might write a few exercises underneath, or reference a textbook, or something. Basically anything that will help me when I inevitably forget.

Often my notes are rewritten - my lecture notes are borderline unintelligable. After a while (at university) I gave up taking comprehensive notes, preferring to remain active in the class and then deliberately rewrite my notes using other sources later. This fuelled a powerful cycle - my other sources put me about half a lecture ahead, which helped me stay engaged in the lectures themselves, so I got more out of the lectures, and needed less study after. Lectures are like Shakespeare - knowing the plot enhances the experience.

If you're taking notes for a class/lecture. Only take notes for things that are:

1. Interesting/non-intuitive

2. Things you'd like to dive into further later

Don't waste time taking notes on things that you already know, are common sense or otherwise derivable. Do not try to be comprehensive or worry about being too organized, it is just excess overhead.

Handwrite whenever possible. The investment in doing so increases the chances of following up afterwards.

If you're taking notes for a meeting, be sure to catalog the chain of thought and relevant ideas. Let people follow up with links etc.

Lastly, its worth assessing why you even want to take good notes? If you're unable to pay attention during lecture but still want to get the information, perhaps its worth doing a lesson pre-view and re-view instead of focusing too much on the actual lecture.

First and critical: if you are hearing the information for the first time during your professor's lecture, you don't need to learn how to take better notes, you need to learn how to take a college level class.

1) Before the lecture on a topic, read the text on the topic and highlight the key points;

2) Before the lecture on the topic, transcribe your text book highlights into hand written notes in a notebook you will take to class. Leave space for comments and more notes to be added during class.

3) During class, you already have been exposed to the topic twice, so participate in the lecture! Your notes serve to refresh your memory, where you are asking for clarifications and adding emphasis on the points your professor stresses.

4) The day before the exam, transcribe your hand written notes with in-lecture additions to index cards with a question on one side and the answer on the back. Share these with other classmates and quiz them.

5) Get a 4.0 GPA and live on the Dean's List like I did.

I write shorthand notes in a text file using a text editor saved in a folder mounted from Drive. The first line is the subject and meeting date. Sometimes the second line is names of attendees & their initials if it's not a regular thing.

Every other line is prefixed by * , X, -, or ?.

  * Someone else agreed to do something   
  X I agreed to do something    
  - Thing to remember   
  ? Question to answer
Generally these files end up being 12-15 lines long. I don't write notes in every meeting, only external ones really.

I do everything you said with one additional combination from a Project Manager focus point:

When someone voices a question/objection/important comment during a meeting, I will usually paraphrase what they said along with their initials.

  e.g. CAB: Questioned rollout process, too aggressive?
That helps me immediately know that "CAB" is someone I should probably talk to offline to either gather their additional thoughts about why they think rollout process is too aggressive or perhaps they are a key stakeholder who needs to be convinced before they're going to be fully on-board.

I think you ought to consider whether you should take notes at all. Notetaking is great for remembering actions that you have comitted to doing, or if you need to spread information to people who didn't participate in a meeting. Managers need to do a lot of notetaking.

However, taking notes seriously hinder your ability to engage with the material and build true understanding as you are listening, which would have helped you remember the material right away. If you are in school or are an individual contributor in a company I think you ought to stop taking notes all together.

If you need notes for future practice I would advice you to write them after the meeting/lecture. Actively recalling things from memory is the best form practice.

> In 2009, psychologist Jackie Andrade asked 40 people to monitor a 2-½ minute dull and rambling voice mail message. Half of the group doodled while they did this (they shaded in a shape), and the other half did not. They were not aware that their memories would be tested after the call. Surprisingly, when both groups were asked to recall details from the call, those that doodled were better at paying attention to the message and recalling the details. They recalled 29% more information! https://www.health.harvard.edu/blog/the-thinking-benefits-of...

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Doodle#Effects_on_memory references the same study.

Related articles on GScholar: https://scholar.google.com/scholar?q=related:YVG_-PKhNH4J:sc...

> dull and rambling voice mail message

This is in no way a realistic study. A dull and rambling voice speaking about some random thing not related to you or your work will make people disengage. Doodling presumably keeps people from totally spacing out.

Many lectures and meetings may be experienced as similarly dross and irrelevant and a waste of time (though you can't expect people to just read the necessary information ahead of time, as flipped classrooms expect of committed learners).

What would be a better experimental design for measuring effect on memory retention of passively-absorbed lectures?

I completely disagree. If I think of something I want to add during someone else's time to speak, I have about ten seconds before that point or question will totally evaporate. Having pen and paper let me actually ask questions and contribute during a meeting.

You didn't actually disagreed:

>Notetaking is great for remembering actions that you have comitted to doing

I would say that you use case fits there

When I was in university, my girlfriend at the time taught me about good note-taking.

- Use paper. I could annotate printed PPT slides with the whitespace on 4 per page, but sometimes would overflow onto the (blank) reverse side. Computers have too many distracting notifications.

- Write down questions with a big (?) and ask them at an appropriate time. Professors care much more about that than you think, in Western education systems (don't get me started about my ill-fated Ph.D. attempt in Korea).

- Use coloured pens. If you think this looks too feminine or gay, get over yourself. It's SO much easier to quickly speed-read and study once you're doing this. I would use red for formulae, green/pink for definitions, black for examples, pencil for diagrams, blue for everything else.

Example: https://www.flickr.com/photos/150180606@N08/49613268401/in/d...

Using a multi colored pen has helped me mark important information and add my personal context. For example, during meetings or brainstorming I'll mark up information using different colors (red- to do, green- new idea, pencil- plain, sequential notes). I found a good one that has all the colors I need and a mechanical pencil [1]. There is overhead of thinking which color to use, but the value of having the context later is much more.

1. https://www.amazon.com/Zebra-Clip-Multi-Functional-Barrel-B4...

I also like coloured notes.

I have some pictures of some here: https://medium.com/@richard.goulter/how-i-write-my-notes-94f...

My schema: red: problems/WTF!/etc., green: questions, blue: facts/reference, black: thoughts/everything else.

Neat! interesting to see your context management system. Thanks for sharing your notes. I like to sketch ideas, so use pencil so that I can erase and refine. Curious, how do you manage information from digital content, e.g., notes from reading technical/research articles or blog posts?

> how do you manage information from digital content, e.g., notes from reading technical/research articles or blog posts?

If I could always remember the right keywords to search for the articles I had in mind, I'd just do that.

For online content, most of the time I'll wait for a later 'cache miss' before any bookmarks/notes. (I'd either come across content when procrastinating on HN/etc., or from looking for it while doing a task. For the former, it's low-effort consumption. For the latter, it's hard to know if it's going to something I have difficulty finding later. IMO, it's not worth putting easy-to-Google things in; lots of stuff is easy to Google for).

For storing stuff, I prefer bookmarks to end up in pinboard, and notes to end up somewhere in org-mode. I've found the zetteldeft package to be useful for me. https://www.eliasstorms.net/zetteldeft/ (builds upon deft. https://jblevins.org/projects/deft/ ). - If in rare cases I find I want to remember some key idea or jargon without having to look it up, then I'll go to the effort of adding it to Anki.

Thanks for sharing! I was also curious if you apply your paper-pen markup style to digital content. Btw, is there a way to send private/direct messages here on HN? thanks.

My study notes -- like virtually everything I have written for the last 30 years -- are solely in grey pencil [0].

> Use coloured pens

That didn't work for me, for two reasons:

Firstly, with coloured pens or highlighters, switching pens slows down the process of writing too much. Instead I just use pencil, and summarise, focusing on making strong logical connections with other stuff I am learning.

Secondly, I don't read my notes enough that colour makes any difference. I found I retain information best by writing, re-writing and summarising. Actively writing engages all my brain. Just reading notes isn't enough to make it stick.

[0] A 0.9mm Pentel P209 mechanical pencil, to be precise.

What's the story with the PhD in Kora? :)

Short version: The university promised a scholarship; the professor didn't pay it. Taking it up with the international student office led to the professor saying "You said bad things about me to people in the administration, get out of my lab" -> no professor, no lab, no university, no student visa, no country.

Get yourself a huge sketchbook for less than $20 and a box of uni-ball ONYX Rollerball Pens. Combine words with pictures and doodles. It's a liberating feeling not having lines or grids to conform to. Use stick figures and basic diagrams. You don't have to be an artist. You will learn more and have better recall by using more imagery.

After many years of experience and optimization I am most convinced of the outliner concept, and eventually I have even written my own tool for it (see https://github.com/rochus-keller/CrossLine/). A good outliner allows you to structure the text while you type without taking your hands off the keyboard. Compared to a linear text entry, e.g. with a text file, you can put the information directly into a context which makes it much easier to interpret it later. When I was in the management of several large defence projects, this concept helped me to always keep an overview and manage all relevant information in one place. Over time, I was able to record meetings with thirty to fifty people in real time and then distribute the minutes immediately afterwards.

I just installed crossline, looks awesome. Super fleshed out and ready to use. Looking forward to using it.

A great book on this topic, especially if you're still in university is "How to be a straight A student" by Cal Newport (https://www.amazon.com/How-Become-Straight-Student-Unconvent...)

Ignore the title for now and read through it, I believe there are excellent tips in note taking and how to process the notes to really excel in your studies.

If you're already working you have to adapt that system into something that works for you best, some use a bullet journal or audio notes and process them differently.

One really interesting approach (that I wasn't able to implement yet in full form) is to take creative notes (called sketchnotes). This works well if you're a visual person.

A great book on this would be The Sketchnote Handbook by Mike Rohde.

I'd say it's nice to have a system in place with good tools. i.e. I can open any note page in my wiki in < 1 second.

Which results in me having a wiki of over 750 files now with over 18,000 lines in it. All parsed fully for instant access too and public.


It does feel nice knowing there are resources for any topic I care to learn about with personal bookmarks and notes on any topic.

My note taking system: https://wiki.nikitavoloboev.xyz/other/wiki-workflow

This is so cool!

I, too, have a repo consisting of all my notes in .md format, and I've been wondering how to make it more searchable/accessible (than having it all kept in my editor).

Publishing it might be the answer.

One thing that’s missing from your question is: what’s the goal?

Is it to develop a better understanding of the subject matter? To score better on tests?

Having a clear goal can help unlock the right process. Otherwise you risk having a solution in search of a problem. It’s a meta skill that’s worth a lot.

This is a very good comment. Thank you for asking, I reflected more than I had on it. I agree with you fully. I'm going to get in context on the thread now, but, basically, I want to get the most of this semester's classes, and share useful notes with my colleagues

A lot of comments are focusing on note taking processes, but I would step back and ask this:

how will you know if your note taking strategy is working?

One thing that has helped me is keeping a high-level study journal. In essence, I have a small calendar that I draw in a notebook each month. Every morning, I write down ~3 key things I did / studied the previous day. Then, I reflect back on the past couple weeks.

If you're in school, you don't want to wait until a final test to realize you've got a lot to study. And in class, you're not in a good position to think about the notes you'd want a week from now. By journaling and reflecting, you can explore note-taking from a review oriented mindset, "what kind of notes do I wish I had taken yesterday / last week?"

I have been following a hybrid quadrant method for my meeting notes recently and have really enjoyed the process. The quadrant method has gained some popularity as the method that Bill Gates used to use for his meetings. Your paper is split into four areas, notes, questions, to-dos, assignments. This visual categorization has allowed me to cut down on time looking for information from a meeting and has streamlined my thought process. In addition to this quadrant, I have a topic of the meeting, talking points if it is a meeting I am running and then a next steps section that acts as a one line summary of the topic for the next meeting if it is a recurring one

What's the difference between todo and assignment?

To-do's for other attendees of the meeting. This is for awareness of actions others are taking after the meeting so I have a full understanding of who is doing what.

Not OP but I assume one gives assignments and receives to-dos.

I believe it means the work needs delegation.

Yes you are correct. To-do's for other attendees of the meeting.

I have found the bullet journal format [1] to be super useful. I used to take sort of haphazard notes for meetings, etc, and it was just a pain to track information and tasks. Switching to a formal system was very helpful. I use it for work, though I imagine it would work for classes as well.

edit: Note that if you do searches on bullet journal, you'll see quite a lot of people using it as a system for art and scrapbooking as well. That's not necessary at all, and I just use the core logging system.

[1] https://bulletjournal.com/pages/learn

This is one of the best article about this topic [1]. Here is the best advice I took seriously:

"Organize your notes by context, not by topic"

[1] https://fortelabs.co/blog/how-to-take-smart-notes/

No system for you just an anecdote for what it's worth. I've never been a note taker and typically taking notes distracts me from extracting the essence of the conversation. In my professional life, I will write down any action items that are assigned to me but will typically instantly go do them and thus rarely have to reference them.

In an academic setting where you're being tested on both the book and what was said in class that may have been "extratextual", the don't-take-notes-so-i-can-listen didn't work as well because I couldn't remember every nuance that could've been tested. In this setting, I found what worked for me was to write down literally everything the professor said in shorthand but comprehensible sentences. This helped my recall immensely and then my studying involved reading the notes i had written (takes about 15-30 minutes total) and seeing if they answered the review questions at the end of chapters.

This worked for most classes except for Discrete Structures and Automata which was such a novel and abstract concept for me at the time that I had to intently listen and scramble to draw the automata and write notes about my thought processes and "aha!" moments that happened on the fly. This is usually great for me still today when I want to remember the revelations that occur in my head as I'm pondering a concept or solution in real-time with a meeting.

From the Havard PDF on NoteTaking [1]:

● Avoid transcribing notes (writing every word the instructor says) in favor of writing condensed notes in your own words.

● Review your notes on the same day you created them and then on a regular basis, rather of cramming your review into one long study session prior to an exam.

● Test yourself on the content of your notes either by using flashcards or using methodology from Cornell Notes[2]. Testing yourself informs you what you do not yet know from your notes and successful recall of tested information improves your ability to recall that information later (you will be less likely to forget it).

● Carefully consider whether to take notes on pen and paper or with a laptop. There are costs and benefits to either option. For example, note-taking on a laptop may allow you to include more content in your notes, but at the risk of being distracted by unrelated tasks.

● Avoid the misperception that you know lecture content better than you actually do, which can lead to poor study habits. While course topics may appear easy to understand in class, they may be rather difficult as you are reviewing them several weeks later while preparing for the exam. Be aware that you will forget some of what you have learned and adopt better study habits to address the gaps in your knowledge.



I like to do hand writing and drawing doodles for everything I want out of my head for the moment. I use small notepads for this purpose, so that the space is limited to store just the information that is important. If I work on a different topic or fraction of a larger one, I start a new page. The doodles help me to visualize a topic or a structured problem.

Later on I write down everything in Emvi [1] and add more detail, so that I know what I was thinking. The articles can be linked to each other to build deeper knowledge from small fractions of information ("structured by content"). I wrote about this concept on our blog [2]. We also have a few students that use this system in Emvi with great success.

I hopes this helps you to take better notes. Just try a few different methods until you find one that suits you.

[1] https://emvi.com/

[2] https://emvi.com/blog/luhmanns-zettelkasten-a-productivity-t...

I'd like to add that I take pictures of the doodles I've drawn and upload them to the articles.

I think the magic to good note taking is to develop a discipline to write and having a system that supports organized note taking. I have found small little things can derail building a good discipline. For example, for years, I had been using vimwiki for my note taking, which is overall excellent, if you love vim, however is not readily available when you are away from your computer. For me this led to two sets of notes - one in vimwiki and another in Apple Notes app. As a result, I found myself disorganized and confused at times.

More recently I decided to drop vimwiki alltogether, a hard decision given that vim is my natural habitat for writing. I instead decided to fully adopt Apple Notes app as my only note taking app. I am finding that I am pretty happy with it. It provides a decent structure to organize notes and it's available on all devices that I care about.

I also found that having a "Scratchpad" note, eases my cognitive load, when I want to quickly brainstorm something, without having to worry about which folder/category/project the note should land in.

I’d recommend two phases when writing notes:

1) dump everything into your notes that might be useful

2) organize and highlight the most important stuff


I’m one of the creators of https://bytebase.io and that’s where I take notes. We’ve designed Bytebase to decouple the capture and organize phases.

- In my first pass when taking notes, I write down anything that might be helpful later.

- Each note is captured as a “byte” - a short chunk of information.

- I then go back and re-organize by adding tags to categorize certain bytes and using drag and drop to move things around.

After reading most replies and checking out links I have now way more insight on this.

Thank you all.

I agree with everyone who said that a good system is just the act of writing down by hand, and how it helps you comprehend, verbalize, and interiorize. I have done this up until now, and it works for me, and as most said I also never had to/could re-read these kind of notes.

That being said, I want to mention My objective - something I left out of the original question, and as @gdubs reminded me, is quite important.

Although taking the kind of notes i mentioned above worked, this semester I want to attempt writing notes that if shared could theoretically help colleagues of mine out. I want to develop a note taking system that I could maintain for a semester, very honestly, because I want to experiment a radically different approach from what I've been doing until now, mostly for the sake of experimentation.

What most resonated with me from what I read, what I've concluded meanwhile, and i'm going to attempt the next months is - Reviewing my notes everyday, and possibly writing a "conclusion/summary" - Using pen and paper during classes, and transcribing to the computer after college - Create my own system - (I really enjoyed reading about Niklas Luhmann's System) - Sticking to this system for some time

And then i'll probably publish the workflow I ended up developing, along with the ideas i currently have on this turned into an actual project.

Thanks again. ~romes

When taking notes in class, nothing beats pen & paper. That being said, digitalizing your notes forces you to think hard about which ones are really worth the effort. And the work will pay off in the long run. Since you have mentioned Niklas Luhmann's System , you may want to take a look at: https://twinkle.app/intro.html

My experience on notes:

* You have to try things and discover what is actually effective. Systems used by other people won't always work for you.

* People that look good at note-taking are often very deficient. I have worked with many people and noticed that many have elaborate note-taking systems. I often wonder why many of these people are so ineffective. If their ability to take notes had been removed from them, perhaps they'd have developed other skills/abilities which would have helped them.

* How I take notes depends on the context. I don't have a single way. Sometimes it's a list of things, but at other times I'm writing words and drawing connections between them.

* Writing notes and then rewriting them in a condensed format, perhaps with detail from later research helps me learn the material. Writing on paper and "typing them up" seems to be the best approach.

* I very rarely return to notes later. Actions should not be buried in the notes. They should go immediately from notes to email, a ticket in the bug tracker, etc.

I think you may have some other issues with discerning what is important. You need to know this before you can only note the important things. The two methods I had in the UK which were universally available (read: most minimal, but a starting point if you don't have anything else) were comparing the lectures to: the syllabus and past exam papers. As you go along, ask how the information connects with what they state they are going to teach and what they test on. This did not help with everything you could get out of the courses, but it tended to give me a start.

Just handwriting by itself will force you to rephrase the topic at hand because you will be to slow to write everything down verbatim. This will improve your memory and understanding of the matter at hand.

Andrew Ng touched on this topic in his recent interview on the Articifial Intelligence Podcast https://lexfridman.com/andrew-ng/ (starting at around 53:00)

Embrace the chaos of the blank text file. It's the most beautiful empty slate you could ask for, because you can so easily capture your ideas with a few keystrokes.

Don't overcomplicate it. The most important thing is the speed at which you can get your idea down in time, because ideas are often easier to grasp quickly than slowly, they kind of fade away exponentially with time, especially the more you try to articulate it.

I didn't learn how to take good notes until I was well into my college career, and my grades suffered for it. I wish I had figured it out much earlier.

- Take notes by hand, no matter the subject. Honestly, keep the laptop/phone/tablet away if possible. The temptation to use it for things other than notes is far too high. It's better to feel bored in class taking handwritten notes than to waste that time on an electronic device. I look back and cringe at all of the hours (and money!) I wasted being "present" in class but not really paying attention.

- Keep up with the lecture. Don't get bogged down in the details. If you want clarification on something, make a mark in the margin of the page to review it later.

- Use symbols to help your speed and clarity. You'll develop your own system over time.

- Actually re-read your notes. If you want typed notes, now is the time you can take your handwriting and type it up. Expand on things that you originally did not understand or did not document thoroughly.

- You should spend about as much time reviewing notes as you did originally taking them. More if there is stuff you don't understand.

My technique is to write down anything I think is important in an unstructured way. Trying to structure notes during a lecture just leads to me not engaging with the subject, and I don't believe I learn as much. Afterwords, I take the unstructured notes and refactor them into something that makes more sense and has a structure. This helps me learn and make new connections between pieces of information.

For me it comes down to writing down a quick impression of what it is I'm learning. For this I use Notepad++. Then I go back the same day and rewrite my notes while the topic is fresh in mind. The rewritten notes go into Zim Wiki for long term storage. This method has worked well for me for several years now.

The tools don't matter though, but the method does. Modify it as needed to suit your own style and needs :)

1. Don't use a computer. The brain is better at recall if your hand is physically writing the letters.

2. Speed is important, so don't write every word, don't write every letter of every word.

2a. The preceding point could be written: "Spd impt, dont write all wrds or all lttrs"

3. Write legibly

4. Actually re-read your notes, don't just leave them and not return

5. When you re-read, notice where you can take better notes and how.

The _main_ goal is to never have to look into that crappy pdf again, which eats way too much time and so is in effect very bad for repetition. Here follows my method. I don't learn much at all this way before tests.

If you do understand enough and the topic is knowledege-based (not example based like code or math) you can write down the structure alone and do lookups into the organizers' pdf if you forgot a point.

This is like a map where the key points are put down in collections.

Key points can have explanations/clarifications too:

Java Agent. Interpreter-feature.


Dynamic. Modifcation & addition.

Example for java code analysis: https://pastebin.com/HZRReG1W

Note: It fails where examples/code/math is needed. I'll probably write my own app one day, but what I imagine is the best way includes versioning, learnability, sharing etc which makes the endeavor quite complicated due to sheer the amount of moving parts. The ability to learn anything is too good a dream though so I cant give it up ever haha!

My strategy is to use two passes.

First, dump the raw content in quickest way possible. Generally the quickest way is plain text, if I have a good keyboard around. I also like eraser boards so I have some small ones by my desk [1]. Wipebooks are nice for portability [2].

The part where I put more care is the second pass, where I go trough the notes and try to structure them in a more useful way for reviewing and learning. The guidelines for formulating knowledge from the SuperMemo author are super useful here: "Effective learning: Twenty rules of formulating knowledge" [3].

1: https://www.amazon.com/Board-Dudes-Metalix-Magnetic-CXY22/dp...

2: https://wipebook.com/

3: http://super-memory.com/articles/20rules.htm

I typed my notes in an app like OneNote (this is a while back, I forget what it was called). During class, I'd type an outline of the concepts and examples given in class and then organize them away later, with each tab being a different concept. If I didn't understand something after the fact, it was still in my outline, and that was a sign that I'd have to ask the professor about this concept later.

A lot of people will tell you to write everything down and do something with it later. If you didn't understand the concept in the first place, that's not going to help! This is why writing notes didn't work for me. I write slow, but I type fast.

Being present, physically and mentally, in class was important for me! I couldn't do this if I was falling behind writing things down. Also, ask questions if you don't get a concept. Writing what the professor says verbatim is not a note. Writing the underlying concept down is.

If you're in a class/lecture, you should write the notes, not type them. It slows you down such that you're really forced to interact with the content. If you touch type, you're really not ingesting the content as much as if you were writing because it goes in and out so fast.

Anything that you do after taking notes by hand is additive. I personally suggest trying to convert your notes into summaries of key topics or step by step problem solving strategies. It just depends on the type of content. If your exams are more "trivia" based, you need to know intimate details and verbatim notes are better and synthesis will help less. If your exams are more problem solving, then you'll need synthesis more.

If you take anything away from this thread though: hand write notes. I bought an iPad Pro just because of the Pencil and it saved me in my last year of uni because I could hand write without dealing with paper.

Get yourself a 4-color pen, or 4 separate pens, some highlighters, and in your own time (not in class), read the material from several sources - Wikipedia, text book, your professor's notes, understand the topic, then write your notes in your own words, using diagrams whenever possible.

Never copy things verbatim especially if you don't fully understand them. Understand the topic first, then write your notes.

If its taking you a long time to understand the topic, or it requires some back-tracking or further reading, do that, then return to the topic.

Taking down notes in lectures is often a waste of time because often the lecturer is just reading from his/her notes, which you have access to, however it depends on the Lecturer.

Final piece of advice is not to take them down in a text file. Use a pen and paper. I find hand-writing the notes is less distracting and forces me to think about them. However this may not be true for everyone.

I was one of top math students in primary school. In secondary school I barely kept up with writing down stuff from blackboard, even less so at university. I just got by.

Now I learn at home using textbooks, solving exercises, programming and using online materials. I'm much happier now because I can spend as much time as I want until I feel I understand it.

My answer: don't take much notes. Write down only the main topics and unusual conclusions. There's not enough time at classroom so I need to learn at home anyway. If I were to go to university again, I would write down only a rough roadmap. Keep the best textbooks, exercise books and learning materials. They are like systematic notes, but better. For math it's good to have a topic covered by more than 1 textbook, because rarely an author has the same thinking pattern as you and it helps to have an alternate point of view.

I would highly recommend that you check out "The Cornell Note Taking System":


I wonder, did anybody try reMarkable for taking notes? Is the user experience good enough for note taking any and all meeting notes and is there some sort of built in OCR for improved note searching? Is battery life good enough in practice to use it over several days?

I started using the Cornell Note-taking System:


Notes become: - Questions - Notes - Summary

Buy an iPad Pro with the Apple pencil. Digitizing your handwriting is game changing. Email me if you want me to send you my Notability and Goodnotes template with some examples from the last 4 years of note taking.

I bought a Surface Pro 3 when it came out in 2014 (subsequently upgraded to newer versions several times), and I can honestly say that there is no other piece of technology I've ever encountered (including smartphones) that has more positively affected my work. OneNote with the pen is life-changing. I will never go back to an old caveman laptop - pen & touch are required now.

Not the OP, but still would be interested in the examples and the Notability templates. However, I couldn't find your mail on you profile. Did I somehow miss it?

You will need to develop your own system. However, many miss the basics of taking notes.

Noting isn't ONLY about copying info from the class. You should note everything that comes to your mind.

For example:

* You have a question. Note it, so you will figure out the answer later.

* You have an idea or infer something from what the teacher says. Note it.

* You have a task. Maybe you should go check this book at the library. Note it.

Now the most important part of note taking is actually reviewing your notes. This helps you retain what you learned and follow up with questions and action items.

Lots of good note-taking recommendations here. I'll add on that for the next step--memorization--spaced repetition systems like Anki are very useful. Go back through your notes, create flashcards, and then review daily whichever ones your SRS system tells you its time to review. I've found it immensely useful for committing things to memory. Saves both time and cognitive overhead when you don't have to stop work to look things up nearly as much.

You may want to mix different note formats as needed. For example, you can use Google keep for simple notes and Evernote for notes that need to be organized. It is also a good idea to use a tree-based note-taking tool to organize your refined knowledge. This is because the structure of knowledge follows the structure of the tree. I use this(Actually, I made it): https://learnobit.com

First time stumbling upon learnobit. Congrats for building something cool looking :-)

"like Anki & WorkFlowy in one"

Great idea. The thing that drove me away from WorkFlowy though is the lack of constraints. I think it provides too much freedom, I want something that forces me to provide a certain structure to the material.

I can tell you put a lot of care to lovingly craft the UI, looks pretty nice! But for a product that provides structured note taking, the data model and serialization format should be equally important. I'd like to be able to export my content, query it in interesting ways (ex: datalog!), maybe use the content to build an app, print slides, put a book together, tweet snippets, or build a different UI altogether around my notes, etc, etc.

Are you perhaps a visual thinker, that you don't have a systematic way of writing might imply that you are. If so try visual note taking https://www.verbaltovisual.com/an-introduction-to-visual-not...

the important thing is to develop your note taking to match how you think. If you are organized the smart notes method is pretty good.

A lot depends on the instructor. The good ones go slow enough that you can both follow along and take notes. What worked best for me is to pay attention when professor is explaining and quickly write down in my words the explained concept- like moving it from my RAM to SSD. This way I build about 80% understanding of the concept. Further redoing the notes by referencing material/problem solving took me closer to full understanding.

I first just jot them down on the Mac's Notes app. This bit isn't that important. You just write whatever you are taking notes of, no particular structure. The next bit is important though.

Within __30 minutes__ since the end of the lecture, I go over the notes and organize them. Note the 30 minute limit! If you try to organize the notes the next day, you won't be able to remember the lecture and not be able to fill in the missing details.

Isn't organizing the notes the hard part whether or not you do it within 30 minutes?

Yes but if you try to do it after you initially jot down the rough notes, you are more likely to recognize patterns & structures in the notes. Well, this is me personally :D

Use the hierarchical system

I. Roman literals for big topics

  1. Arabic for lesser subjects

    A. For extra clarification 
      - for notes
You can expand it further, but these are usually enough. Got this one in university back when nobody had a computer with them. It really helps structure the material and get back to it later. Seems a bit too intuitive now with all the auto-formatting but still really helpful.

OT but I have a personal vendetta against roman numerals. Any time they are mixed up in nomenclature they give me pause.

I've had so many battles with roman numerals making other numbering systems confusing/redundant that the only place I ever want them are on fancy watches.

Even for that they are beaten by 24hr digital, but thats not quite as stylish.

A surprisingly powerful technique is to formulate questions that can be answered by what you want to learn. By forcing yourself to recall, you strengthen your memory.

Here's a (former?) medical student explaining the Active Recall in more detail: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=fDbxPVn02VU

Try roam research! It lets you tag things by association, reference previous notes, search, and make inline code blocks/format formulas

At least for the information you can see (notes on the board from the professor, friends notes if they let you take a look for reference, etc.), Birch might help, so you can document and go back and study how others take their notes. https://www.reclipse.io/birchapp/

I used to hand write all my notes and then never even look at them. The act of writing them was what was helpful.

I like to take my notes hierarchically where possible. A lot of things you take notes on, especially in class are concepts that depend on each other.

The point being that when you read the notes back to yourself later you'll know that concept Y has a relationship with concept X. Or further Concept Z depends on Y depends on X

So the note structure is something like this

- X

-- Y

--- Z

my system, based on letter ratio paper.

Flip the paper to landscape. Draw a line down the middle and at 1/8th and 7/8ths. Its easy to imagine where the 8ths are because you can easily picture a 1/4th border and half that.

Lift from the binding is a non issue since you only contend with it at the top of the page.

Now you have 4 regions. the middle two regions are for capturing notes directly. You have two 3/8 sections so you can take a set of easy to read notes. You can easily flip to the next 3/8 if a new major topic starts.

The left and right 1/8 are for adding details you thought about or want to supplement to an existing topic without running off the page.

I recommend graph paper for this since it aids in keeping writing and divisions aligned.

Try to keep you notes organized since you are preparing a document to be reread later.

I switched from note-taking to taskmaking. I have been using Todoist for about 6 months now with a huge boost to my productivity. It allows me a place to both keep light notes and force myself to confront tasks that I have been putting off. It also integrated with my google calendar.

Some tips for taking notes during meetings: https://medium.com/@john.obrien/how-i-take-notes-during-a-me...


A traditional fan favorite.

IME: note taking involves hands and a pen. Touch typing is transcription.

I personally use mind maps but you'll have to explore what works for you.

I always try to translate into my own words what the person said when they take a break. This way I make sure I understand and also have questions if I misunderstood something.

haven't seen anyone recommend this yet so I will toss in a link to PARA: https://fortelabs.co/blog/para/

You want a system simple enough to remember, as well as all these other properties (quoting Tiago here):

- universal, encompassing any conceivable kind of information from any source

- flexible, able to work with any project or activity you take on, now and in the future

- simple, not requiring any time-consuming maintenance, cataloguing, tagging, or reorganizing beyond a bare minimum

- actionable, integrating seamlessly with task management and project management methods

- cross-platform, able to be used with any application, now existing or yet to be developed

- outcome-oriented, structuring information in a way that supports the delivery of valuable work

- modular, allowing different levels of detail to be hidden or revealed, depending on the needs of the current task

- opportunistic, in the good sense, taking advantage of work already being performed, instead of requiring dedicated overhead time

So PARA breaks down to Projects — Areas — Resources — Archives:

- A Project is “a series of tasks linked to a goal, with a deadline.” Examples include: Complete app mockup; Develop project plan; Execute business development campaign; Write blog post; Finalize product specifications; Attend conference

- An Area of responsibility is “a sphere of activity with a standard to be maintained over time.” Examples include: Health; Finances, Professional Development; Travel; Hobbies; Friends; Apartment; Car; Productivity; Direct reports; Product Development; Writing

- A Resource is “a topic or theme of ongoing interest.” Examples include: habit formation; project management; transhumanism; coffee; music; gardening; online marketing; SEO; interior design; architecture; note-taking

- Archives include “inactive items from the other three categories.” Examples include: projects that have been completed or become inactive; areas that you are no longer committed to maintaining; resources that you are no longer interested in

Graph or dot paper keeps my notes organized, it makes it easy to connect ideas for me.

Use a pen and pencil. Record the lecture and listen to it a second time.

What's most important here is retention. Otherwise you're spending a ton of money for nothing. Appeal to as many modes of learning as possible and give yourself multiple tiers of notes.

When in a lecture, see if you can record it and revisit it to create more notes. Look for visual cues and if there's something you can touch or do, feel it or try out whatever you're learning, whether in class or on your own time. Keep asking yourself questions about what's being discussed to stay engaged.

In class, do an outline so you can record everything as quickly as possible. If you can do written, it's better because it activates your spatial memory and forces you to put things in your own words. Only take notes about what matters. Dates, names, formulas, historical significance, pros and cons, theories, arguments, pictures, and questions you have.

Once you have an outline, come back to it and create a mind map so you have an overall picture of what you learned that day. Extra credit if you cultivate a separate mind map of the entire course over the semester.

For study, you could use the Cornell system to make it easy to quiz yourself and use Anki for rote memorization on the go. Review any time you're waiting like for class, an elevator, in line, etc.

If you're studying with a textbook, highlight, write your thoughts in the margin or on post-its in the book, and use color coded tabs in the best way YOU see fit. Group by theme or topic, or whatever suits you.

If you've pretty much rehashed notes in as many ways as possible, you'll retain a whole ton of it already just by activating all kinds of memory, not just one. You won't have to study as much later if you put more time up front right when you were exposed to it. The longer you wait, the more it fades.

But next comes review and this is the MOST important step when it comes to note-taking and retention. If you want to remember something long-term, look at your notes daily for a month. You don't need to quiz yourself or check that you've got it committed to memory. Just read through your notes once per day and be done with it. You can quiz yourself a little later into it by covering the notes and recalling as many facts as you can before looking at them. Also you can practice whatever it is you learned or listen to the lecture again any time you'd listen to music. To make it even more effective, choose different places to review your notes so your brain doesn't only recall information in your primary study location. Don't be hard on yourself here, patience is a virtue.

Once you've reviewed your notes daily for a month, you only have to review them once a month to retain it for years and years to come. Choose one day a month to read through all the notes you've accumulated up to this point over all your classes and go have fun with all the free time you have now.

Hope that helps!

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