Writing Your Own Success – How the Art of Taking Notes Can Improve Understanding, Retention and Recall of Key Information

Taking hand written notes

Writing Your Own Success – How the Art of Taking Notes Can Improve Understanding, Retention and Recall of Key Information

Whether you are in a business meeting, a student lecture theatre, or you are in a school classroom the ability to take in, understand, and recall information is a key skill. Consensus amongst educators is that taking notes improves the recollection and retention of facts and concepts by somewhere between 20% and 30%.

Here’s the deal:

You want to be more effective as a member of a team, an employee, a student or even as a boss or a teacher? The answer is simple – take notes!

Taking notes adds an active participatory element – you are not just sitting there passively listening.

When you take notes you ‘have’ to listen properly and process what is being said so you can write down the salient parts. This makes for more effective cognitive processing – in short, you are making your brain take an active part in the meeting or the lecture by adding a manual element to the listening process. You can’t accidently ‘tune out’ or let your attention wander.

This is called ‘generative’ note taking where you are having to process and summarise information as you listen. As you read this, you might be thinking that it sounds kind of similar to kinaesthetic learning (which is skills based learning – having a preference for ‘learning by doing’) and, depending on your preferred style of note taking (mind mapping or whatever) it can be heavily related to it, but it’s not quite the same thing.

That’s not all:

From classroom to boardroom it sometimes feels like handwriting might be in danger of becoming a lost art; the proliferation of laptops, tablets and smartphones means that it’s far more usual to see someone tapping away on a keyboard than it is to see them scribbling furiously with pen and paper.

But there’s a catch

Pam Mueller and Daniel Oppenheimer of Princeton University and UCLA Los Angeles discovered that students who write out their notes by hand actually learn more than those to type their notes on laptops.

That’s right – handwriting produced better results than typing!

Over the course of several experiments, Mueller and Oppenheimer tested students’ memories for factual detail, conceptual comprehension, and ability to synthesise new conclusions after half of them took notes ‘the old-fashioned way’ and the other half took notes digitally.

Whilst it’s true that the students who used laptops churned out more content (more words) than the handwriters, this seemed to be a case of quantity over quality; the students who used pen and paper wrote less, but they ended up with a stronger conceptual understanding across the board.

Mueller and Oppenheimer concluded that, because generally speaking people type faster than they can write, the tendency on a laptop was to take notes ‘verbatim’. This is non-generative note taking, which means it is missing the active element of cognitive processing (where you summarise the information as you are listening to it so you only have to write down the salient points).

Not only that, but also how many times have you sat round a meeting table and seen the backs of a bunch of laptop screens? How many times, as a lecturer or teacher, do you find yourself greeted by a similar sight? And then there is the sound of dozens of keyboards being tapped simultaneously.

Using digital media to take notes might be the current trend, but it can be potentially disruptive and off-putting.

So old-fashioned pen and paper are always best?

Not for everything, no. We should not suddenly throw out our laptops and start investing in parchment and quill.

Typing notes on a screen does have some benefits. For example, electronic documents can lend themselves to better organisation which is useful when it comes time to revisit electronic notes later. On a laptop, notetakers can delete, reorder, and build on ideas with a simple click or keystroke.

What is really clear is the importance of note-taking overall. A couple of decades ago, cognitive psychologist Robert Bjork called this phenomenon ‘desirable difficulty’ which referred to the concept that information retention is increased if there is a reasonable level of active participation or ‘difficulty’ on behalf of the recipient.

So, with that in mind, it’s also important to think about the best way to structure your notes, not simply whether you’re typing or writing.

But I just write it down, right?

Well, you can be a bit more systematic than that. There are basically two styles of note-taking – linear and non-linear.

Linear note-taking is writing in a format similar to a normal written text. Non-linear styles use graphical elements and might organise content in an unconventional fashion, although still systematic. Non-linear notes might be difficult for others to understand but work very well for the individual. Piolat et al. (2005) argue that non-linear styles of note-taking are more effective than linear styles because non-linear styles facilitate the process of making connections between idea units, which enhances learning through deeper processing and strengthens long-term retention of content.

Here are four examples of structured methods of taking notes:

The Cornell Method

  • The Cornell Method – create a margin of around 60mm-70mm on the left-hand side of the page. Take notes in the wider part of the page (the right-hand side) and then afterwards go through and put a ‘cue’ (a keyword) in the left-hand margin for each significant piece of information. The ‘cue’ keyword helps to act as a trigger for your memory.

The Outlining Method

  • The Outlining Method – start with general information justified to the left-hand side of the page. Each more specific fact is indented below it, like a bullet-pointed list. Relationships between different pieces of information are maintained through indenting.

The Mapping Method

  • The Mapping Method – this is based around relating all the facts and ideas to one another in a graphic representation of the information. It maximises your active participation, because you are actively synthesising the information into a new format as you listen to it.

The Charting Method

  • The Charting Method – this works well if you are handling distinct logical data sets (like dates and times). It is effectively just drawing a table and filling in the information in a tabular format.


Summing up…

Michael C. Friedman of the Harvard Initiative for Learning and Teaching wrote a paper entitled ‘Notes on Note-Taking: Review of Research and Insights for Students and Instructors’. In it he gives a handy synopsis of tips for when you’re taking notes. Basically, he suggests:

  1. Avoid transcribing notes (writing every word). Write condensed notes in your own words.
  2. Think about what style of note-taking works for you, and for the information you are taking notes on (linear vs. non-linear).
  3. Review your notes on the same day you created them.
  4. Test yourself on the content of your notes. Testing yourself informs you what you do not yet know from your notes.
  5. Carefully consider whether to take notes on pen and paper or with a laptop.
  6. Avoid the misperception that you know content better than you do.

Thanks for reading, and if you think that this information will be of use to someone else you know, please don’t hesitate to click on the link below to share it. Check out our range of note pads, books and journals for all of your note-taking needs!

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