We don’t stop taking notes after we graduate: it’s something many of us do in some capacity throughout our adult lives, too. It may not even be something you really think about—you just do it. But you could probably also do it better, and that’s where we come in. It may be time to get back to the basics and reboot your notes. Here are a few of the best practices.
Take solid notes by keeping them simple
Organization is key with notes, and the more organized you are the better the chances you’ll actually remember that information. The basic idea of notes is to keep them short, but have enough triggers in the keywords to jumpstart your memory when you look at them again:
- Stick to keywords and very short sentences.
- Write out your notes in your own words (not verbatim from a teacher or colleague). One exception to this is when you hear a good turn of phrase that helps you remember the the note, or if you’re writing out a direct quote.
- Adjust the note-taking style to fit both your needs and the speakers.
Really, you only want to write down what matters. Notes are tricky because you want to keep things simple, and get down only the amount of information needed to help you recall it later. If you’re not already using one, a text expander can also make the process of typing out notes a lot quicker by letting you instantly type our forms, bibliography info and more.
You can also create a system of symbols to organize information quickly. This includes using something like an asterisk to denote an important task or a question mark to denote an item you want to research later. The idea is to make your notes easy to scan through to find the parts you need to pay more attention to.
Once you actually take the notes, you need a system to find what you’re looking for. Tim Ferriss recommends coming up with an indexing system so you can quickly find what you’re looking for. This could mean hand-numbering pages, and writing out an index at the beginning of a notebook to quickly find notes.
He talks about doing this with paper, but digital note taking services like Evernote are great for this as well when you use tags. For simplicity’s sake, we also like Simplenote as a plain text method that also supports tags. Just make sure you always tag your notes with relevant information like the class, meeting, project, or chapter.
Find a note-taking system that works for you
You have a lot of options for different note-taking methods, but none of them are perfect for everyone. Depending on the circumstance and the type of person you are, you’ll have better luck with certain methods. So, it’s best to try a few.
One summary of studies from the WAC Journal points out that structuring notes in a hierarchy (much like an outline) is the most beneficial to students. Since notes in a hierarchy is basically just an outline, you can use pretty much any piece of writing software out there to keep it all organized. This style keeps things organized, but it’s not always useful in the real world where teachers and colleagues jump around on the topics they’re covering.
That’s where non-linear notes, including methods like mind-mapping, the Cornell System, or Smart Wisdom come in useful. Each of these types of notes are useful for certain people. The Cornell System, which uses a grid, is well-loved and easy to use for lectures, and while it’s usually associated with brainstorming, mind mapping is great for taking notes during meetings. It’s time-consuming, but worthwhile to play around with different methods to see what works best for you.
A lot of these non-linear note-taking methods work great both on paper and digitally. You can print out a set of guidelines for something like the Cornell System, or grab a template to use on your computer. For mind-mapping, you have a ton of options for digital notes. There are also plenty of newer note-taking apps that you might want to try.
Don’t waste your time with outdated techniques
It has long been recommended that rereading your notes, highlighting them, underlining them, or even summarizing them can help you retain information. The problem, as shown in a report by Association of Psychological Science, is that most of those methods aren’t worth the time. In fact, as Time reports, they’re mostly ineffective:
Highlighting and underlining led the authors’ list of ineffective learning strategies. Although they are common practices, studies show they offer no benefit beyond simply reading the text. Some research even indicates that highlighting can get in the way of learning; because it draws attention to individual facts, it may hamper the process of making connections and drawing inferences. Nearly as bad is the practice of rereading, a common exercise that is much less effective than some of the better techniques you can use. Lastly, summarizing, or writing down the main points contained in a text, can be helpful for those who are skilled at it, but again, there are far better ways to spend your study time. Highlighting, underlining, rereading and summarizing were all rated by the authors as being of “low utility.”
Better methods include taking breaks and spreading out your studying (known as distributed practice), and taking practice tests (which isn’t really applicable outside of school). If you’re not a student, then you can probably skip the reading aloud and highlighting tricks you picked up in your youth. Just keep your notes organized so you can quickly find them when you need to reference them.
This story was originally published in 2013 and was updated on 11/18/19 to provide more thorough and current information.