The Art and Science of Great Note Taking

The word, hypomnema, was invented by the Ancient Greeks. It has many translations - a reminder, a note, a public record, a commentary, and similar variations. It’s no surprise that the origin of note taking goes back so far. 

Notes are an integral part of modern society. From Post-its to Evernote, every generation of humans aims to revolutionize the note taking experience.

However many people still overlook how great note can help us work. Don’t go through the motions when it comes to note taking, use this guide to make your notes a formidable tool.   

The Science of Note Taking 

Sometimes the hardest aspect of writing is knowing where to start. There’s a mix of culprits for this, but one way to address it is both practical and scientific - note taking. And if possible, handwritten notes. Not only do notes provide a reference point to get you started, they help you remember and retain information for longer. 

The support for this dates back more than 20 years ago, when UCLA researchers presented the idea of “desirable difficulty.” This showed how students improved their long-term retention when their  learning process was designed to be more challenging. Spacing out lessons, or making them less organized and harder to read actually improved learning. This principle applies when you write by hand. You’re forced to spell out difficult ideas and convert complex concepts into bite-sized notes. 

Three more studies in the past decade confirm the power of hand-scribed hypomnemas.

  •  A study published in Psychological Science showed handwritten notes allowed participants to perform better than their laptop counterparts. 

  • Research published in the Journal of Educational Psychology had a more compelling conclusion. They found that handwritten notes had no advantage for memory retention...temporarily. After the first 24 hours, participants who took the handwritten notes were able to recall the original material better and performed better on tests. 

  • Trends in Neuroscience and Education published a study that showed how children who had yet to learn to read and write, had increased brain activity in key areas when they wrote letters by hand. Researchers are now trying to confirm if this same effect can help prevent diseases like Alzheimer's and Dementia. 

Even if your notes result in a garbled mess, there’s still a strong chance you’ll retain the information longer, and get added cognitive benefits. 

The Art of Note Taking

There’s no right or wrong way to take notes - lists, mind maps, grids, etc. Use whatever method you’re comfortable with. However there are certain methods for optimizing effectiveness.

Choose your template - Create a structure for notes. Popular methods include the Cornell method which separates the page with a vertical line so one-fourth is to the left and three-fourths is to the right. The left is used to note the main topics while the right is used for sentences on each topic. Mind-mapping, which begins with a center topic and bridges other topics with lines can be effective for visual learners.  

Recap and complete - After a note taking session, don’t put everything away just yet. Force yourself to complete your notes by running through them to fill in the details and add context while the information is fresh. 

Review your notes - We’ve learned how taking notes helps with information retention but that doesn’t mean you should never look at them again. There’s an immediate loss in value if you never review notes. It’s an opportunity to improve your skill in terms of legibility and how comprehensive notes should be. 

Adjust the medium - Even though handwritten notes might be better for memory retention, that doesn’t mean you should always notate by hand. If you have to spend more than ~25 minutes transcribing notes, typing is the better choice. But handwritten notes make sense so you don’t spend an entire meeting typing notes without contributing

Follow UX Principles - An objective piece of advice for good note taking is to follow the advice of UX writers. UX writing is copy for interfaces, it must be clear and easy to understand. Apply these principles to note taking. 

Be Clear: Use phrases, words and concepts that you understand and won’t have to look up later

Stay Concise: This comes natural when writing by hand, but typed notes can become straight transcriptions which isn’t always helpful.

Make it Useful: Underline or circle to emphasize importance

Stay On Brand: Avoid doodling (unless it’s related to the subject).

Remain Consistent: Pick your layout and use the same format each time.

Use note taking as a tool to improve your memory retention and effectiveness at work. This simple but powerful method of learning has been around for thousands of years and will continue for many more.