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Successful Note Taking Methods

The age-old habit of taking notes turns out to boost learning in big ways. Several decades of research indicate students who take notes and review them perform better on exams, improve their long-term learning and also learn concepts on a deeper level. Find out what science says on the most effective note-taking methods.

Write Longhand

Despite the speediness of clicking away at the keyboard, research shows those who use pen and paper better retain information, making old school an excellent note-taking method. A 2014 joint study by Princeton and UCLA reveals students taking notes on a laptop perform worse at conceptual questions than those writing longhand, suggesting they are not synthesizing ideas as well. The findings show longhand note-takers also remember more in both the short-term and long-term. Though typers take more notes, they tend to transcribe rather than summarize, which scientists believe short changes digestion, a key element of deep learning.


Rewriting your notes after taking them seems to provide a second opportunity for learning. A 1995 study by Kiewra, Benton, Kim, Risch and Christensen reveals students who highlight their notes learn better than those who reread them, and those who rewrite their notes learn best of all. The reason may have something to do with how the brain synthesizes information while you write and may explain the power of note taking to amplify learning.

For students who tend to transcribe in class instead of summarize, rewriting notes provides a second chance for deep learning. If you struggle to keep up with fast talkers, you can also try adaptingĀ one of theĀ formal note-taking methods such as the Cornell Method or the outlining method, which uses indentations for increasing levels of detail. These sorts of structured notes help you focus on core concepts and briefly summarize supporting evidence so you do not fall behind.

Nonetheless, some students feel recording the teacher’s preferred phrasing is crucial. In these instances, creating an audio recording may help free the student to summarize instead of transcribe, knowing he can go back later for exact wording. For important lectures and exam reviews, consider using an online transcription service to quickly get a transcript, which you can then incorporate into your notes.

Review Notes

Reviewing your notes before a test is just as important as writing them. A 1991 study in the Journal of Educational Psychology found students who review notes before an exam score higher than students who do not, even when they use a peer’s notes instead of their own. The review effect is so strong that students who did not attend the lecture but reviewed the notes tested better than students who failed to study at all. Remember to leave adequate time for complex subject material as experts suggest students frequently underestimate the difficulty level of class material, particularly if the lectures are effective at breaking down tough ideas in class.

By understanding why note taking works, you can harness the process to improve learning and memory. Rather than write down every word in class, focus on the core concepts using a formal note-taking method, and then rewrite and review for maximum retention. For more tips, check out Transcribe on Twitter @TranscribeCom.