Personal Growth

This Is the Best Way to Take Notes, According to Science

In school, we invariably spend a lot of time taking notes, yet chances are good most of us never think much about our technique. You put pen to paper or whip out the laptop. What else is there to it? Quite a lot, answers science. By using a few research-backed tips to optimize your note-taking, you can learn much faster and more easily with close to zero additional effort.

Technology Is Not Your Friend

The first thing you should do if you want to improve your note-taking is to leave your laptop at home. It may be the 21st century, but the research is definitive: You'll learn more if you ditch your tech and opt for old-school pen and paper instead.

When scientists tasked volunteers with taking notes on TED Talks using either a laptop or pen and paper for one study, they discovered that those who wrote out their notes longhand had a deeper and more comprehensive understanding of the material when tested later.

Why? Well, when you write you physically can't get every word down. That's a good thing because it forces you to determine which information is the most important. "The students who were taking longhand notes in our studies were forced to be more selective — because you can't write as fast as you can type. And that extra processing of the material that they were doing benefited them," Princeton's Pam Mueller, a co-author of the above study, explained.

That leads us to the second research-validated note-taking tip: Don't just transcribe what you hear verbatim. Instead, boil down the material and organize it as you go for clarity.

A write-up of another review of research on note-taking from the British Psychological Society's Research Digest blog agrees: "It's better to use your notes to organise the information you're learning about, rather than to simply record what you hear verbatim," it instructs.

OK, so now you have organized notes written out on actual paper. What do you do with them in order to extract the most learning for your effort? Science is clear here too. Forget about endless re-reading and instead use your notes to test yourself periodically.

"I was shocked that some strategies that students use a lot — such as rereading and highlighting — seem to provide minimal benefits to their learning and performance. By just replacing rereading with delayed retrieval practice [aka testing your memory for the material after some time has passed], students would benefit," said John Dunlosky, who led a review of the scientific evidence on various learning strategies.

Related Video: 6 Productivity Hacks to Help You Get Things Done

Your Note-Taking Could Use Some Work

Dunlosky's comments underline the importance of periodically testing yourself with your notes, but they also highlight another important truth about note-taking: Most students do it in less-than-ideal ways, which means most students are wasting a great opportunity to learn more quickly.

The same BPS article notes that only 50 percent of students test themselves (90 percent reread), 40 percent don't organize their notes at all, and half of students take notes on a laptop. That means that by making these simple research-backed tweaks to how they take notes, half of students could instantly make themselves functionally smarter. Gaining a few IQ points couldn't be easier.

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For more science-backed academic tips, check out Cal Newport's "How to Become a Straight-A Student: The Unconventional Strategies Real College Students Use to Score High While Studying Less." We handpick reading recommendations we think you may like. If you choose to make a purchase, Curiosity will get a share of the sale.

Written by Jessica Stillman April 19, 2019

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