By: Scott Young
Note-taking is an incredibly powerful tool for learning.
Notes extend your memories. I’ve explained before how writing can be seen as an external enhancement of your brain, allowing you to think more complicated thoughts and solve harder problems. Notes you keep, therefore, act to expand your memory.
Notes enhance your focus. The act of taking notes ensures your mind isn’t wandering. Even better, notes can facilitate deeper processing of the material, which has been shown to improve memory than when you pay attention only to the superficial details.
Unfortunately, note-taking is often easier and more natural when you’re listening to something, than when you’re reading.
Why Taking Notes While Reading is Harder
Taking notes while listening is generally easier because, while listening, your hands and eyes are free to jot down notes. On the other hand, switching away to take notes while reading inevitably interrupts the reading flow.
This interruption leads to a trade-off. Too few notes and you give up the powerful cognitive enhancements that note-taking provides. Too many notes and your reading speed slows to a crawl.
What should you do?
I’d like to explain my thinking process of taking notes while reading. Follow these steps and you can find the right way to take notes for your situation.
Step One: Why am I Reading?
The starting point of any note-taking technique has to be the purpose of whatever you’re trying to read. Why are you reading it in the first place? Why are you trying to take notes? What are you hoping to achieve?
These questions matter greatly, because different purposes are better served by different methods.
Consider two different situations. In one, you’re studying from a textbook. You want to take notes because the textbook is too long to easily review, and you want to prepare for an upcoming test based on the material it contains.
In the second situation, you’re a journalist, doing research to write a piece. You’ll go back to your sources when you write the final article, so your goal with taking notes is to make this job easier on yourself later.
In my experience, these two situations suggest different note-taking techniques, which I’ll go into shortly.
Before that, start by asking yourself why you are reading what you’re reading. In particular, ask yourself:
- What am I trying to remember? (Alternatively: What do I think I’m going to forget?)
- How am I going to use this information? (e.g. on a test, cited in an essay, as background for deeper thinking, etc.)
- What do I plan to do with the notes later? Will you be studying off of them extensively? Keeping them in your records, just in case, but otherwise not looking at them again? Or maybe you’re just taking notes to stay focused, and it’s highly unlikely you’ll look through them after?
Think about your answers to these questions as we go through the next steps.
Step Two: Facilitating Focus
The first purpose of notes should be to enhance your concentration on what you read. This is especially true when taking notes from written material, because, in most cases, you’ll be able to go back and read the original source in case your notes were incomplete.
You want your notes to do the following:
- Make it easier for you to concentrate on reading. A small amount of note-taking can prevent your mind from wandering.
- Focus your mind on the right level of information. Are you trying to meticulously store details from a text? Or are you trying to get the gist of the argument put forth by the author? How you take notes also reinforces what you pay attention to.
- Create a document that you can reference later to review, study or find information. Notes can also serve as a cheat-sheet for finding things you later forgot.
A few strategies I do to take notes while reading that helps with this are:
- Jot notes in the margin. These aren’t particularly searchable (if the book is text, not Kindle), but they allow me to reiterate the main idea, so I can convince myself I understood it.
- Keep a small notepad on the side, take breaks each section to jot down the main ideas. This, again, helps force me to focus on what are the higher-level ideas.
- Creating flashcards. In the rarer situations where memorization of details is important, then a simple strategy can be to just create flashcards while you take notes. If I’m learning a language, anatomy or am given long lists of details I need to master, this can be better than trying to write them down and transfer them to flashcards later.
The important thing to keep in mind is that text, unlike live lectures, is usually searchable later. So your notes, to be effective, should strive to enhance your focus first, and only secondarily, be a document that is pretty and easy to review.
Step Three: Review or Recall?
If you expect to have to study the same material multiple times to fully master it (say it’s for an exam) then, you can save time by integrating your note-taking and retrieval practice efforts.
Retrieval practice is a well-supported practice that greatly enhances your memory compared to simple review. This technique is simply to try to recall as much as you can from the text, either by having prompted questions and answers, or just writing as much as you can on a blank page.
Retrieval works far better than review, where you look at the notes you wrote down multiple times. This is because review merely aids recognition, which isn’t very useful for most practical applications. Retrieval, in contrast, practices your ability to summon up memories when you need them—exactly the ability you need for tests and real-life situations.
Therefore, if you expect to study the material multiple times, it may be in your benefit to use the Question Book Method. This method simply encourages you to take your notes as questions, rather than as statements. Then, when you review your notes, you can answer those questions instead of just reading the information—aiding retrieval and making your studying time more efficient.
Side note: One trap students can fall into when using this method is copying down a bunch of irrelevant details as questions, and missing the big picture. A good way to avoid this is to limit yourself to one or two questions per section, thus forcing you to restate the main idea. If you really do have to memorize the details, flashcards with spaced repetition, is a better tool.
Step Four: Creating Clues for Future Searches
Sometimes the goal of notes isn’t to facilitate your memory, inside your brain, at all. Rather, the goal is to create an easily-searchable document that can help you find things you thought were important later.
I use this with writing all the time. I take notes, not so much to help me pay attention or memorize the facts, but to serve as anchors to find later if I’m looking for a quote, factoid or reference.
Digital note-taking systems like Evernote, make this easiest. Although, even the simple note-taking features on Kindle can work quite well. If I know I’m reading a biography and I need examples of the person doing something specific, I might highlight and tag any of those examples with a keyword so a simple search will bring up all the relevant passages.
Similarly, if you’re reading something you plan to use for a specific purpose, you can even put little sticky tags on the book to mark passages that refer to that. Say you’re reading a book on marketing, but you’re mostly interested in pulling ideas to try for your own business. You could put these tags on the book so you can easily flip through later if you need inspiration.
Final Question: Paper or Digital?
A question many students ask me is whether they should take paper or digital notes.
For classes where my goal is to study, I tend to prefer paper. There are studies supporting the use of paper versus computer note-taking, although the reasoning behind this might be that it’s harder to copy notes verbatim on paper, so you’re forced to think about the information while taking notes. Provided you aren’t taking verbatim notes, then, whichever option is the most convenient for you.
For texts where my goals is to reference later, I tend to prefer digital. Searching digital documents is much, much easier than printed ones.
The truth is, however, if you follow the above steps, you can find the right answer for your situation based on what makes you feel the most comfortable.
Quick Summary of How to Take Notes While Reading
Here’s a quick summary of what to do in order to take notes while reading:
- Figure out your purpose.
- Choose a technique that maximizes your focus on what is most relevant for your purpose. There’s many different ones (jotting in the margin, separate notes on paper, Question Book Method) for different purposes.
- Decide whether to optimize for review or retrieval practice. For docs you don’t plan to extensively study, review is the obvious choice. For texts you need to master perfectly, the Question Book Method (for big idea) or flashcards (for details) saves time.
- If you do need to go back into the text again and again, create clues in your notes that can help you find what you’re looking for faster.
Above all, however, pick a method that you feel most comfortable with. The variety of different ways to take notes exist because there are many different reasons you want to read something and remember it. Experiment with them until you find the way that works best for you!