Note-taking (sometimes written as notetaking or note taking) is the practice of recording information from different sources and platforms. By taking notes, the writer records the essence of the information, freeing their mind from having to recall everything. Notes are commonly drawn from a transient source, such as an oral discussion at a meeting, or a lecture (notes of a meeting are usually called minutes), in which case the notes may be the only record of the event.
Note-taking has been an important part of human history and scientific development. The Ancient Greeks developed hypomnema, personal records on important subjects. In the Renaissance and early modern period, students learned to take notes in schools, academies and universities, often producing beautiful volumes that served as reference works after they finished their studies. In pre-digital times, people used many kinds of notebooks, including commonplace books, accounting waste books, and marginalia. Philosopher John Locke developed and published a popular indexing system which served as a model for commonplace books and inspired at least ten different published editions of commonplace book templates in Europe and the Americas as well as Bell’s Common-Place Book, Form'd Generally upon the Principles Recommended and Practised by Mr Locke (London, 1770).
Note-taking is a central aspect of a complex human behavior related to information management involving a range of underlying mental processes and their interactions with other cognitive functions. The person taking notes must acquire and filter the incoming sources, organize and restructure existing knowledge structures, comprehend and write down their explanation of the information, and ultimately store and integrate the freshly processed material. The result is a knowledge representation, and a memory storage. Studies comparing the performance of students who took handwritten notes to students who typed their notes found that students who took handwritten notes performed better on examinations, hypothetically due to the deeper processing of learned material through selective rephrasing instead of word-for-word transcription which is common when typing notes.
Reasons for note-taking
Note-taking is an important skill for students, especially at the college level. In some contexts, such as college lectures, the main purpose of taking notes may be to implant the material in the mind, the written notes themselves being of secondary importance.
Many different formats are used to structure information and make it easier to find and to understand later. The format of the initial record may often be informal and/or unstructured. One common format for such notes is shorthand, which can allow large amounts of information to be put on paper very quickly. Historically, note-taking was an analog process, written in notebooks, or other paper methods like Post-It notes. In the digital age, use of computers, tablet PCs and personal digital assistants (PDAs) is common.
The note taker usually has to work fast, and different note-taking styles and techniques try to make the best use of time. The average rate of speech is 2–3 words per second (which is 120-180 words per minute), but the average handwriting speed as only 0.2–0.3 words per second (which is 12-18 words per minute).
Regardless of the medium, note-taking can be broadly divided into linear and nonlinear methods, which can be combined.
Regardless of the system used, it can be best to focus on writing down the most important information first.
Linear note-taking is the process of writing down information in the order in which you receive it. Linear notes are typically chronological outlines of a lecture or a text. Linear note taking is quite a common means of taking notes, however, the potential to just transcribe everything that is being said or on the presentation slide is quite high.
Outlining  is one of the most common note-taking systems. Notes and thoughts are organized in a structured, logical manner, reducing the time needed to edit and review, allowing a lot of information to be digested in a short period of time. Outlining is less effective for classes that involve many formulas and graphs, like mathematics or chemistry. In these situations, a system such as Cornell Notes may be superior.
Outlines generally proceed down a page, using headings and bullets to structure information. A common system consists of headings that use Roman numerals, letters of the alphabet, and Arabic numerals at different levels. A typical structure would be:
- I. First main topic
- A. Subtopic
- point 1
- point 2
- point 3
- B. Subtopic
- point 1
- point 2
- point 3
- A. Subtopic
- II. Second main topic
- A. Subtopic
- point 1
- point 2
- point 3
- B. Subtopic
- point 1
- point 2
- point 3
- A. Subtopic
However, this sort of structure has limitations in non-digital form since it is difficult to go back and insert more information. Adaptive systems are used for paper-and-pen insertions, such as using the reverse side of the preceding page in a spiral notebook to make insertions. Or one can simply leave large spaces in between items, to enable more material to be inserted. (For information about application software that supports outlining, see Category: Outliners.)
Computerized note-taking, whether with a word processor, outliner software, or a digital notebook program such as OneNote, Evernote, or TiddlyWiki, allows note-takers to revise easily and add more entries or rows to the outline.
Sentence note-taking is simply writing down each topic as a short, simple sentence. This method works well for fast-paced lesson where a lot of information is being covered. The note-taker records every new thought, fact, or topic on a separate line. All information is recorded but is not organized into major and minor topics. Notes can be numbered or set off with bullets showing where a new thought begins.
Approaches to non-linear note-taking include clustering, concept mapping, Cornell Notes, idea mapping, instant replays, Ishikawa diagrams, knowledge maps, learning maps, mind mapping, model maps, the pyramid principle, semantic networks, and SmartWisdom.
This method of note taking is useful for subject matter that can be broken into categories, such as similarities, differences, date, event, impact, etc. Charting works best if students are able to identify categories and draw a table prior to the lecture. This method is also useful as an editing tool. Students may review and rewrite notes using the charting method. The method may work well for students who like to organize information neatly and who learn by recognizing patterns.
Mapping uses spatial organization and diagrams to assemble information. Ideas are written in a tree structure, with lines connecting them together. Mind maps are commonly drawn from a central point, purpose, or goal in the center of the page and then branch outward to identify all the ideas connected to that goal. Colors, small graphics, and symbols are often used to help to visualize the information more easily. This note-taking method is a core practice of many accelerated learning techniques. It is also used for planning and writing essays.
The Cornell Notes method of note-taking was developed by Dr. Walter Pauk of Cornell University and promoted in his bestselling 1974 book How to Study in College. It is commonly used at universities today. The Cornell method consists of dividing a single page into three sections: a right-hand column for notes, a left-hand column for cues, and a strip at the bottom for a summary. Cues are key words or questions that help evoke key aspects of the topic. Cornell notes may be more effective for understanding concepts or producing readable notes, but studies have found that they had no significant effect on student performance.
SQ3R ("Survey, Question, Read, Recite, Review") is a method of taking notes from written material, though it might be better classified as a method of reading and gaining understanding. The reader skims the written material to produce a list of headings (Survey), which are then converted into questions (Question). The reader then considers the questions while reading to provide motivation for what is being covered (Read). The reader writes notes in sections headed by the questions (Recite), then writes a summary from memory and reviews the notes (Review).
Research shows that students who use the SQ3R strategy retain more information and achieve higher test scores.
Sometimes lecturers may provide handouts of guided notes, which provide a "map" of the lecture content with key points or ideas missing. Students then fill in missing items as the lecture progresses. Guided notes may assist students in following lectures and identifying the most important ideas from a lecture. This format provides students with a framework, yet requires active listening (as opposed to providing copies of presentation slides in their entirety), and promotes active engagement during lecture or independent reading. The student ends up with full and accurate notes for use as a study guide.
Research suggests that guided notes improve student recording of critical points in lecture, as well as quiz scores on related content. In addition, an investigation carried out on students with learning problems showed that the use of the guided notes is an effective strategy to improve the performance of these students.
Electronic note-taking methods
The growing ubiquity of laptops in universities and colleges has led to a rise in electronic note-taking. Many students write their notes in word processors or prepare digital hand-written notes using a graphics tablet or tablet computer and styli or digital pens, with the aid of note-taking software. Online applications are receiving growing attention from students who can forward notes using email, or otherwise make use of collaborative features in these applications and can also download the texts as a file on a local computer. It has also become common for lecturers to deliver lectures using these and similar technologies, including electronic whiteboards, especially at institutes of technology.
Electronic note-taking may be less effective than traditional methods of note-taking. A study done by Pam A. Mueller of Princeton University and Daniel M. Oppenheimer of the University of California, Los Angeles showed that students who take notes digitally retain less information than students who take notes on paper, and the digital note-takers have more difficulty remembering what they've written. Electronic note-taking has created computer-aided distractions in class as multitasking on laptops is very easy to accomplish. However, this research only applies to typing notes on laptops, not writing on tablets.
Professional note-takers provide access to information for people who cannot take their own notes, such as some deaf and hearing impaired people. They most frequently work in colleges and universities, but are also used in workplace meetings, appointments, conferences, and training sessions.
- Commonplace books
- Comparison of note-taking software
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- Forgetting curve
- Handwriting recognition
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