In every classroom, there’s a student furiously taking notes. Maybe that student is even you.
When using skillhacking to learn more, it is important to understand when and how to take notes. Some research has shown that good note taking can increase the amount of information remembered by up to 7x! But what is good note taking?
Two Types of Notes
There are two different goals you might have with note taking:
1) Remembering: using note taking as a strategy to remember more.
The actual process of writing something down can improve recall, if done correctly, for reasons I’ll get into below. With this type of note taking, the value comes from the process itself. The notes are still valuable for reviewing later, but they frequently are in a shorthand format and are more useful as “cues” than as full reference material. Notes of this sort may not make sense to anybody but the note taker.
Remembering tends to be the primary goal of students taking notes.
2) Offloading: using notes as an “external brain” that can be searched later.
In the old days, we used index cards and color-coded binders. Today, notes can be made highly indexable/searchable through digital technologies. Whatever the tool, though, the goal of this kind of note taking is to be able to find information again later. Notes of this sort are more about the final product (the collection of notes) than about the process of taking notes.
Offloading tends to be the primary goal of researchers taking notes.
Penultimate vs. Evernote
On the surface, Penultimate and Evernote are both note taking applications. But the fact that Evernote bought Penultimate tells us something interesting: that the two are intended to be used for different scenarios.
These two different apps illustrate the differences between the two types of note taking.
When you look at the Penultimate app, you’ll notice the highly “notebook” inspired interface (like a real-world notebook), while Evernote looks more like a search engine (like Google). This tells a lot about how each of them are intended to be used: in Penultimate you literally draw on the screen, while Evernote is focused more around “clipping” or otherwise transcribing digital media.
This means that Penultimate requires manual input and cannot be easily searched (it’s hard for a computer to search through your handwriting) and Evernote is the opposite.
The significance lies in the process of transcribing. The 7x recall benefit mentioned above only exists when you actually participate in the process of note taking. Just clicking “clip this website” in Evernote is not enough to improve your ability to remember that website (though it will be very easy to find it again later if you can remember a keyword or two, and also preserves the information in a perfectly accurate way, and is thus good for research).
So how does this process of transcribing work, if your goal is to remember more?
Remembering More with Notes
When you teach someone else, you are forced to clearly articulate an idea in a way that they can understand. This requires that you understand the information well enough to not just repeat the facts, but to re-form them in your own voice while preserving their meaning. This is why teaching someone else is such a good aid to learning something new.
Note taking can serve much the same purpose. If you just write down what a lecturer says verbatim, research has shown that you’ll likely forget the meaning later on… you won’t recall anything more, and your notes may even seem nonsensical later. Even worse, when you’re transcribing verbatim (writing every single word) you’re spending so much time trying to capture the words that you don’t have any brain power left to actually understand the material.
This sort of verbatim transcription is not only not helpful, but it’s actually detrimental to remembering information. The attempt to write down every word uses so much brain power as to block the ability to remember the meaning of the words.
The better approach is to use shorthand or abbreviated information. It doesn’t really matter if you have a real “shorthand system” or not. The real point is that you should be writing down only enough information as to capture the main points and key information. You shouldn’t be striving to capture every nuance of the subject, but to create “prompts” for later recall.
When you try to synthesize the information into some shorter format, the actual process of processing the information and reforming it into something information is what allows you to remember it later.
How Do You Know You’re Doing It Right?
If your goal is recall, then there’s one excellent way to prove to yourself you’re taking good notes:
Pull out your notes weeks or months after first recording them. If they look like an incomprehensible mess to someone not familiar with your system, but you remember what they’re referring to, then you’re doing it right.
This doesn’t mean that your notes are bad if someone else understands them. Rather, it’s a guideline attempting to illustrate the fact that the process of taking notes with the goal of improving recall frequently results in notes that look very different than the literal contents of whatever you were learning.
Another good test:
If you and I attend the same lecture, our notes should look very different
Again, this is a test that we’re applying our own process to the notes.
I hope this helps with your note taking! Don’t forget to check out the rest of the site for more information about better studying.