Note-taking guidelines for reading material

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The main contributing factor in how note-taking improves learning is the encoding effect – notes help the learner improve information encoding which is translating the information from your senses to human memory. The first step of memory formation is encoding and our learning’s strength and reliability depend on how well and accurately the material is encoded.

Encoding while reading occurs at 4 levels:

  1. Auditory: Spoken and reading information for new content.
  2. Semantic: The meaning of information, recognizing the terms you already know and don’t know.
  3. Visuo-spatial: Understanding processes and arrangement of information (classifications, flow charts, cycles, equations, geometry, visual examples of objects, anatomy, etc.).
  4. Elaborative/associative: Connecting encoded information to concepts you already know and adding details to new learning.

Note-taking while reading allows all 4 levels of memory encoding, so it tends to improve learning.

For high school graduates, note-taking improves reading comprehension based on how well the material is summarized. When students took notes spontaneously with no preparation, the quality and compactness of notes helped exam performance, particularly when they had the chance to review their notes while writing essays. This indicates that reviewing your notes while doing your study task helps a lot. Another insight from the study is that summarizing content helped learning more than copying it word-for-word. So essentially, note-taking helped when students summarized and successfully encoded the information.

Students also recall information better when they take notes than when they don’t. Students tend to remember more key concepts and also find relationships between concepts (which is very useful for quality learning) when they take notes. Notes offer a global birds-eye view perspective on the material and also highlight details (which I discuss later in this article).

Advantages of taking notes

  1. Better memory for important details.
  2. Better understanding of central concepts.
  3. Better reading comprehension.
  4. Reduce mind-wandering during lectures.
  5. A distilled, compactified way to revise your material
  6. Re-organize information in meaningful ways (formating, restructuring, highlights, etc.)

Cons of taking notes

  1. Too much attention is paid to taking notes without processing the reading material.
  2. Wasting time by copying material without comprehending just to take notes for the sake of note-taking.
  3. Easy distraction from the learning material because of formatting notes according to a specialized system.
  4. Note-taking increases the mental burden on students while reading because they have to manage both notes and reading material. If doing both takes too much effort, it imposes a very high “cognitive load,” which can hamper learning through exhaustion or unnecessary effort.

5Rs method

One of the popular note-taking methods is called the 5 Rs Cornell note-taking method: Record, Reduce, Reflect, Recite, & Review.

  • Record: Jot down the key concepts, terms, diagrams
  • Reduce: Compactify the core learning material
  • Reflect: Use the notes and reading material to think about what you’ve learned and connect it to other material, your experiences, and other examples
  • Recite: Rehearse your notes out loud with your voice, slowly to process them deeply.
  • Review: Return to your notes and review them periodically to improve memory and comprehension

Where should you note down your material?

You can take notes in a notepad/notebook or on your phone or laptop using Google docs, Grammarly, Trello, Slack, or Microsoft word.

One of our best memory systems is memory for locations. So having notes in many different locations is quite helpful. Different locations create a map and an easy way for you to track down what you know. You are more likely to remember where to find the information you are looking for than what it is.

Add media to your notes: Audio recordings, screenshots, photos, pintrestpins, Instagram saves, reddit saves, etc. Or go traditional with a highlighter, a note-book, and 2 colored pens for neatness.

Generally, a mix of screenshots, physical notes on paper, independent charts or diagram posters, and digital notes in the form of word documents or blogs is a great way to dynamically keep your notes interesting, organized, and easy to access.

Generally, richness and variety in your notes can have a multimedia effect that leads to deeper encoding that helps you connect new information to previously leaned information.

When should you take notes?

  1. Your notes are an “interpretation” and “reference” for future learning.
  2. Take notes when your reading material is too detailed and has many related concepts spread across, so you can organize them in ways you find comfortable.
  3. Take notes when you want to improve comprehension and memory. Comprehension improves when you reproduce your material in your own words and highlight key concepts. Memory improves when you process that information deeply by putting in the effort.

When should you not take notes?

  1. When your memory is enough to understand the content.
  2. When you have been taking notes and still not remembering or comprehending the material. That’s when you need to change your learning approach and think more deeply about the material with examples and from different sources which may be more palatable. Youtube and Instagram channels often help here.
  3. When you are simply getting familiar with new content (take notes while re-reading).

Note-taking reduces mind-wandering

Researchers say mind-wandering affects the relationship between learning and memory while taking notes. Note-taking reduces mind-wandering, which increases attention to the information and therefore improves memory. Writing down notes minimizes the number of random distracting thoughts that pop into the mind because the brain is fully engaged in taking notes and listening. Other research clearly shows that mind-wandering increases when attention toward a specific goal decreases – that is why the mind wanders when we do mindless habitual or routine activities or are bored. This also means that someone who has a high capacity to concentrate and pay attention doesn’t need to take notes because they will have lesser mind-wandering. All of their brain’s attention might translate into improved memory just by listening carefully.

Note-taking Effort improves learning

Even while taking notes, the effort put into the notes may improve how much attention is paid to the information. Convenient notes which are extremely easy to access may actually worsen memory for 2 reasons:

  1. We remember where information is more than what it is in the digital world (the google effect). If we know that the information is recorded in an app or a photo, we are likely to remember only how to access that information and not the content.
  2. Information that is processed very shallowly leads to weak learning. Elaborative rehearsal or deep encoding is a well-documented phenomenon where deeper or elaborate/effortful processing leads to better memory. Shallow encoding is usually quickly forgotten.

What to write: Concrete details or general themes/concepts?

First things first, noting down exact content hampers learning and noting down summaries and key terms improves learning. Now, the details:

Notes are a way to capture details and broad themes/concepts. Details are associated with concrete/narrow learning, and themes/concepts are related to abstract/global learning.

The brain uses 2 modes of thinking: Narrow and broad/global processing, also called concrete and abstract processing. Narrow processing looks at concrete details like facts, properties, etc., and global processing looks at abstract or broad details like concepts, relations, etc.

In a web of information currently being processed by the brain, details are easily brought into awareness by other details. And global themes are easily brought into awareness by other global themes. Narrow processing is like traveling through internal roads in a city – they connect better to nearby regions. Abstract processing is like traveling via the freeway which connects farther regions better.

This principle of cognitive processing is called the “construal level theory.” It states that paying attention to details (low construal) starts narrow, detail-oriented processing for other related tasks. And paying attention to the essence (high construal) of a topic starts a global, context-oriented way of thinking.

High construal-level thinking is big-picture, global, abstract, or contextual thinking. Low construal level thinking is detail-oriented, narrow, concrete/factual, and targeted thinking.

The type of notes you take is a way to manipulate both narrow and global thinking – called low construal and high construal levels of processing.

Focusing on the keywords and technical terms becomes a low construal level that processes related details in a concrete way. Focusing on the general concepts becomes a high construal level that processes the broader themes in an abstract way. Both construal levels are important for holistic learning. So you can defend your shabby notes; clean notes are not necessarily superior for learning, maybe just for re-reading.

  • Low construal notes are – clean, thorough words, cover all ideas and nuances. The focus is on precision. Lists of properties, compare/contrast, names, definitions, etc., will be low construal notes. 
  • High construal notes are – scribbled, diagram-oriented, capture the central themes and relationships. Connections between ideas, indexes, maps, mindmaps, questions to the self, prompts and reflections about the study material, etc., are high construal notes.

Low construal notes (focusing on nuances) should promote memory for details and deductive thinking. High construal notes (focusing on the big picture) should promote memory for large relationships among ideas and abstract/creative thinking.

How to write: Handwritten or laptop and phone notes?

A study published in January 2022 in Contemporary educational psychology says digital notes and handwritten notes are equally effective. The main problem occurs when a student is heavily distracted. By design, note-taking reduces the possibility of distractions because the brain is fully engaged in studying and any surplus attention can be used for improving notes.

A high word count improves learning (probably indirectly through more keywords, more attention, and deeper processing) and verbatim notes worsen learning (probably indirectly through shallow processing and mental copy-pasting). Chances are handwritten notes and digital notes are likely to have similar effects on learning and may differ based on convenience, logistics, ability to type or write fast enough, and how & what notes are created. 

Pros & cons of digital vs. handwritten notes

Typing notes has limitations based on a keyboard. However, a stylus and an iPad can overcome those limitations. Handwritten notes grant flexibility that laptops typically don’t. When it comes to handwritten or digital notes, your mileage may vary. Laptops offer the opportunity to multitask, which can be detrimental. But with enough commitment to pay attention, multitasking shouldn’t be a problem.

Does note-taking style matter?

All styles of notes are helpful because they follow the “production effect.” The effect describes how memory for information produced by our active senses (auditory – voice, touch – writing) is remembered better than information passively absorbed through our ears and eyes. Researchers also call this “generative learning” -information that is generated through your body and mind is learned better, especially when it is connected to already learned information. 

Mindmaps or knowledge maps are useful ways to take notes. They help conceptual understanding. Research shows that these maps, called graphic organizers, are helpful assets while learning. If there aren’t any notes provided with the lecture, making them would help the learning process.

Facts vs. Interpretations

Notes can be factual or interpreted, and both have their uses. Interpretation involves more processing and may benefit conceptual understanding. Writing down factual information may also improve memory, even if it is without understanding, just through repetition and rewriting that information. It also allows fact verification when in doubt.

When you are learning facts, I recommend using some specific techniques like spaced repetition and retrieval practice to remember them. But you can use those techniques as a note-taking method by re-writing the facts you’ve learned with increasing gaps in time. You’ll learn more about memorizing facts here.

Note-taking templates

A systematic note-taking style is not necessary and can be customized based on what your material is. Hundreds of templates are available, but unstructured or self-structured notes are the most common, and theoretically just as good as rigid methods. The main reason is self-regulated learning using modern-day learning material which has audio, visuals, graphical information, etc., needs customization.

But to get started with some structure in your notes, start with:

  1. A single page can have a small square that lists keywords.
  2. The bottom section can list confusing concepts.
  3. Another section can be dedicated to examples or relationships among concepts.
  4. A single page can be dedicated to diagrams.
  5. Information already in your notes can be reorganized with examples or related ideas in the form of a table or a diagram.
  6. List down definitions and facts in a context.
  7. Prepare questions you want to answer and explore content in the next few pages.

Related: How to optimize learning from video material

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