How to take notes you will remember?

There is a difference between taking notes and reading for enjoyment.


Be able to re-read your notes and receive pleasant surprises.

A new study finds that if you want to better absorb concepts over the long-term, it’s better to take notes by hand.

Two psychologists were inspired to carry out the research after noticing a problem with recalling notes taken on a laptop. Laptop versus hand-written notes, the difference reveals issues about our memory. They found that switching back to a pen and paper from a laptop had been beneficial.

The co-author, Daniel Oppenheimer, had a similar experience, “Danny said that he’d had a related experience in a faculty meeting: He was taking notes on his computer, and looked up and realised that he had no idea what the person was actually talking about”.

They set out to test this hunch scientifically by having 65 college students watch TED talks and then have them answer questions about what they’d learnt.

The questions, which were asked 30 minutes after watching the video, fell into two categories:

  • Factual-recall: for example, “Approximately how many years ago did the Indus civilisation exist”?
  • Conceptual-application: for example, “How do Japan and Sweden differ in their approaches to equality within their societies”?

What they found was little difference in the factual recall,  people could remember about the same proportion of facts in both groups.


“We do not remember days, we remember moments. The richness of life lies in memories we have forgotten”.  Cesare Pavese


The big difference came in what people had understood conceptually.

Here it turned out that the paper-and-pen note-takers had retained a significantly larger proportion of conceptual information.

The reason for this difference comes down to the mental processes involved in laptop versus hand-written notes. It is likely that laptop note-takers tend to just transcribe what they are hearing verbatim, whereas hand-written note-takers engage more with the information.

It may be that longhand note takers engage in more processing than laptop note takers, thus selecting more important information to include in their notes, which enables them to study this content more efficiently.

This was borne out by the study’s results, which found that students whose notes had the least overlap with what was said in the videos, performed better in the test. In other words: just transcribing stuff verbatim isn’t doing you much good.

They conclude with a warning: “Our new findings suggest that even when laptops are used as intended — and not for buying things on Amazon during class — they may still be harming academic performance.”

Should you want to keep taking notes on your laptop, the best advice is to try and distill what the speaker is saying, rather than writing down phrases or sentences verbatim. That’s because the mental act of processing information better embeds it into your memory.

Source: Adapted from an article by Pam Mueller, a psychologist at Princeton University.


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Personal Experience:

I find it doesn’t matter if I use my phone, computer, journal, notebook or 3×5 index cards, as long as I am taking notes I capture ideas and opportunities.

I certainly become frustrated as I get older, my memory fades, when I know I have forgotten a great idea and no matter what I do I can’t recall it when I want it.

I find my Journal is the best place to capture ideas as I can do diagrams and drawings at the same time to help illustrate the ideas. I have also found ‘Memory Pegs’ useful if I can’t take notes.


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