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How to take notes for learning

Taking notes can drastically improve your chances of remembering what you learn. It can help you understand what you’ve learned too.

Researchers found that if important information was contained in notes, it had a 34% chance of being remembered.

Information not found in notes had only a 5% chance of being remembered. 

(Howe, 1970, in Longman and Atkinson,1999). 

So, next time you attend a training course and they give you a handout or a copy of the slides – don’t just sit back and listen – take notes! Write in the margins of the slides what they actually mean, or even better sketch diagrams and graphics to help you understand. It’s the act of taking the notes that helps you learn – not necessarily the notes themselves.

Is paper and pen best?

A quick glance around any training or meeting room lets you see just how many varieties of note takers there are.  Many people print out the agenda and accompanying notes and write notes in the margins or annotate the typed notes.  Some bring their own notebook and like to take notes in there.  Someone will have a laptop or tablet and will be typing their notes using a keyboard.  Personally, I like taking notes with my iPad and Apple Pencil, just like you would with paper and pen, but onto my iPad.  

I’ve been using a ‘digital notebook’ for a while now and absolutely love it.  Despite being a huge stationery fan and having a drawer full of blank but beautiful notebooks, I much prefer keeping everything in one place.  My iPad has all my notes, my diary, all the files I have saved and all the books, magazines and newspapers that I could ever read.  It means that when I learn something, I only need my iPad and can easily flick between previous notes or books. 

At the moment, most research points to handwritten notes being better than typed, however I suspect there will be more research on typed notes coming soon as more and more people prefer to type than write.  

How long should notes be

Many of us would have learned to take really brief notes - focusing on the key points only.  However, it makes more sense to say that the more notes you take, the more you'll remember.  

"The quantity of notes is directly related to how much information students retain"

(Nye, Crooks, Powley, & Tripp, 1984).

We know that note taking is not about transcribing what the trainer says or copying text from a book - there's little point in that.  It's about interpreting that into your own words or images to help you remember and understand.  Sometimes, it's useful to write down a direct quote.  Mostly, it's better to write it in your own words, with notes of your own examples, ideas or questions so that when you review your notes, you already have prompts to help you think about what you learned even more.  

Other tips

Always leave a margin on either side of your notes so that you can easily add to them.  

I like to use abbreviations and symbols in my notes - they make perfect sense to me!  I use checkboxes for 'to do' items, arrows to indicate something I've to follow up or read more on, and more traditional abbreviations such as > or @ .  

I try to use headings and bullet points too - it helps me to organise my thoughts by following the structure of the presentation or book.  

What to do with your notes

How often do you go on a course, then immediately stick the handouts / your notes in a drawer, never to be seen again? Honestly?

Make a note in your calendar for say a month after the training and dig out your notes. Read them. Scribble on them. Correct and add to them. There may well be things on your notes that no longer make sense – write your questions down and look up the answers.

There are lots of different note-taking methods and there is so much advice available on how to take notes, but it mostly comes down to what works for you best. Try a few different methods until you find one that works.

Check out the Learning Journal if you'd prefer a framework to help you.


Longman, D. and Atkinson, R. College Learning and Study Skills. 1999. Wadsworth/Thomson Learning

Nye, P.A., Crooks, T.J., Powley, M., & Tripp, G. (1984). Student note-taking related to university examination performance. Higher Education, 13(1), 85-97.



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